Over the past several years, I’ve noticed that the church (and affiliates like the LDS Newsroom) writes its documents with seemingly intentional ambiguity. It creates Rorschach tests — this is genius both because it allows a wide spectrum of possible beliefs and also because no one is the wiser; people reading the particular statements walk away thinking that their interpretation is obviously correct, never suspecting that the guy sitting next to them in the pews may have a completely opposite interpretation. For people wanting a big tent, study well.
I wrote about this years ago with perceptions regarding the Word of Wisdom and caffeine (I now am wondering where the longer Wheat & Tares post has gone). To summarize, back when everything Mormon was being scrutinized due to Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency, there was a minor scuffle over the claim that Mormons can’t drink caffeinated sodas. The Newsroom came out with a segment on “Getting it Right” correcting the documentary on various points, including to note that the Word of Wisdom does not prohibit caffeine.
If you read this page now, you’ll note it doesn’t say that, though. You’ll note that it says that the Word of Wisdom does not mention the use of caffeine, and that the entire paragraph has an asterisk, showing that it was edited after first publication.
Why would the church change such a statement? Apart from maintaining factual accuracy in an article entitled “Getting it Right,” the church has a very important function here — this thought gets about because many Mormons do believe that caffeine is disallowed in the Word of Wisdom, regardless of the fact the word is not mentioned in the WoW (the word “caffeine” was first developed in the early 19th century, so it’s plausible that even if caffeine were banned, that word wouldn’t appear in the WoW.) For the church to say that caffeine is not prohibited in Mormonism would cause a minor stir. Yet, by saying the Word of Wisdom does not mention the use of caffeine, those who believe it is OK can read that into the statement, and those who believe it is not can also read that into the statement.
…this is a simple and inconsequential example, but I think it applies to bigger issues.
Race and the Priesthood
Mormonism has struggled with race theologically, doctrinally, and practically. Even though the blessings of priesthood and the temple were restored to African-Americans in 1978, in the years since, Mormonism has still struggled with history and speculation regarding the ban. The 2013 essay “Race and the Priesthood” published as part of the Church’s Gospel Topics essays seemed like a perfect official way to resolve all the issues.
…and yet, to me, it seems like this essay provides the same nuggets of intentional ambiguity to allow members to believe mostly what they want.
Let’s look at one paragraph from the essay:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
This looks like a slam dunk, right? The theories are disavowed and the church condemns all racism. What room is there for any disagreement?
Read it again and tell me: what is the church’s position on the ban itself?
If you read closely, the church never disavows the priesthood ban itself. The church never calls the ban itself to be racist. There are enough dots to allow people to connect them that way, but there are also enough dots to allow for people to believe the ban was inspired (and therefore presumably not racist).
Through an unfortunately limited Twitter poll, coblogger Kristine A asked a series of questions from conservative, moderate, and liberal members about what they thought about the race and priesthood essay…here’s just a sampling:
The questions I am sharing here relate to what conservatives and moderates think about other LDS members who originally thought the ban was inspired. Kristine also asked what people themselves thought, and what people thought about the leaders’ thoughts.
But what is interesting here is that while there is acknowledged uncertainty about what their fellow church members would think, moderate and liberal LDS folks (at least, in Kristine’s small sampling of followers) are considerably more likely to believe that the essay could change someone’s mind on the ban’s source than are conservative members.
What really interests me about this is not simply the difference of opinions, but that one’s opinion influences how one thinks other members would believe, and also, that many people would likely hold their positions to be absolute. That is, someone who believes the ban’s source is racist likely will not be flexible to the idea that it was inspired, and those who believe the ban to be inspired will likely not be amenable to the idea that it was racist.
If the church wanted to minimize internal strife over differences of opinion on the racial ban, then writing an essay that allows people to come to these different, opposed conclusions and also think their fellow ward members have the same conclusion is very powerful.
Mormonism’s ongoing struggles with race and racism
If someone asked me if I think Mormonism still struggles with race, I’d say, “Of course,” and if they asked me why, I’d say it’s because Mormonism has never really dealt with its racial history and present. Notwithstanding statements from leaders that seem bold and unequivocal on the surface, the church (and, for whatever its worth, lots of people in and out of America) hasn’t really grappled with what racism is, what it looks like, and what it doesn’t.
As a result, Mormons continue to have a diversity of thoughts and opinions on what they see as racist or not.
If you have never listened to the Mormon Matters podcast featuring Dan Wotherspoon and Brian Dalton/Mr. Deity on the question: “Is the Book of Mormon racism?” I’d encourage you to listen just to see how cringeworthy a discussion can be when two people aren’t on the same page of thinking. Regardless of which side one believes in, the fact is that Dan’s anti-racist reading of the Book of Mormon isn’t obvious, and neither is Brian’s racist reading of the Book of Mormon an obvious strawman.
And so, this sort of thinking continues. This weekend, several alt-right and white nationalist groups held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I saw several Facebook posts and tweets from Mormon friends anxiously awaiting a thorough condemnation from the church. And so, the Newsroom delivered, repeating President Hinckley’s statement that:
No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.
This looks like a slam dunk, right? The remarks are disavowed and the church condemns all racism. What room is there for any disagreement?
Much like President Trump’s “many sides” rhetoric, it’s entirely too easy to read these statements, as alt-right folks have, as a condemnation of Black Lives Matters or Antifa. For example, from @apurposefulwife, a known (and twitter-verified) alt-right Mormon (who was scheduled to speak at #UniteTheRight but didn’t due to security concerns):
and her comment on this photo from the rally itself:
I will not opine on whether @apurposefulwife is correctly or incorrectly interpreting scriptures or LDS church statements. I will simply note that apparently, there’s nothing in LDS scripture that makes her interpretations obviously absurd, and also, apparently, her public actions have apparently been of no concern to her leaders. Even more, because of the Rorschach nature of these scriptures and statements, someone you know could hold similar positions without you ever knowing it precisely because your own lens may blind you from alternative interpretations.