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.
Great post, Andrew S.
The thing that is always so surprising about the Church’s intentional ambiguity and the resulting accommodation of vastly different ideas about doctrine is not that it happens (the Anglican church has been doing this for centuries to keep the unity between evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics). It’s that, in my experience, the average Mormon doesn’t actually realize it’s happening.
would you say that the average Anglican is more aware of the tension, and that the Anglican church intends for people to be aware?
To me, it seems like this only works when people aren’t aware, so people don’t talk about it. But now that people are, increasingly, aware of it, I think they are going to press the church to be more explicit.
As far as I know, latitudinarianism was an open and explicit policy. the first time I ever sat down to talk to an Anglican rector, he excitedly told me all about it.
There is really no need to be “Anti” anything except sin maybe. I have a hard time believing that ” @apurposefulwife is anything but a troll.
Apurposefulwife is just an example — I don’t think we should pretend that she’s the only one. University of Utah had racist flyers posted on campus just a week or so ago. And obviously, the church and its affiliates (BYU, etc.,) have had controversies with race over the years (blackface, and so on.)
To me, even if this is a troll, there’s something to be said that even trolling emboldens “true believers”…but also that this just seems like a particularly elaborate troll, if it is.
She’s no troll, Jeff. She is a white Supremacist. She was invited to speak at the Charlotte protest and only backed out at the last minute when it became violent. She’s completely genuine and sincere in her white supremacy views. The church has (so far) done nothing to condemn her very public behavior, and she interprets their deliberately vague statements as being in support of her views.
Jeff, near as I can tell apurposefulwife (Ayla Stewart) is not a troll in spite of her inflammatory statements. She honestly sees “white civilization” as the victim of racism and feels it is at risk for extinction. In her mind, she is defending her heritage and doesn’t see any of her statements as anti-anything (just pro-white). I’ll have a post on this soon, but this is a very real philosophy that has gained traction in the past and could gain traction here in our current political climate. She interprets the church statement as fully supporting her position. I’m hoping to have a post up on this tomorrow.
But double speak and ambiguity are our heritage…
Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
The problem with apurposefulwife’s statement to me is that it is correct to a degree. The church says you can’t hate anybody, and there are people who hate white people. The fact that they are vastly fewer and further between than those who hate black people and other minorities is, at least to me, irrelevant (when looking as to whether her statement is true). The other issue is that we read her statement and assume she means that the church is talking to anti-white people and only them because she doesn’t mention not hating on black people. The fact that she is intentionally leaving it out in my mind is misleading, but the statement in and of itself is true that the church condemns hating on white people because that is racist. I may disagree with her on many things but that does not mean her statement is untrue or a lie.
I think that the big point she’s really highlighting is that the definition of racism (or here, what it means to hate a race) is uncertain. So, apurposefulwife wants to argue that SJWs and Black Lives Matters and antifa are motivated by racial hatred of whites, but that white nationalism is not motivated by racial hatred of minorities. In this way, it kind of reminds me of criticisms of feminism as being man-hating (and therefore putting men’s rights advocacy on the same level as feminism.)
I certainly don’t want to hash out what the definition of racism should be, but I’d imagine that this sort of equation also motivates, for example, arguments about reverse racism, arguments against affirmative action, and so on.
What the Trump presidency is teaching us (and what the Mormon Church and many other institutions have known all along) is that ambiguity is a rather effective way of washing one’s own hands of any moral culpability. If the institution’s rhetoric is vague enough, then the institution has avoided risking losing any of its followers because the language of any given statement doesn’t draw hard lines that could potentially alienate one faction or another of the institution’s. The essays and many press releases from the church, not to mention a lot of stuff coming from the White House, smack of this kind of purposeful ambiguity. I was heartened to see the church’s own press release condemning what happened in Charlottesville, but such statements would have a lot more teeth if the church had been open and truthful all along about its own issues with race, not to mention polygamy. The church has no one but itself to blame when smart young people (about 90% of YSAs at last count) leave. It’s a shame that an institution that claims to represent the highest, best and “truest” religion demonstrates over and over again its moral cowardice.
I’ve noticed that it’s very easy to get defensive when people say things against a person who belongs to your ‘group’, and I feel it stems from the thought process that the other person is somehow accusing you. You see it all over facebook right now when a lot of white people are saying, ‘It’s not all white people.’ What they’re saying is it’s not me. So we end up defending someone or some idea (almost to an insane degree) without fully believing in it.
But I don’t think the double speak stems from not wanting to take a stand or moral cowardice. In reality both sides have problems and hate. The white supremacists have a lot of hate. Antifa and BLM have hate in them too. The church has members with hate in them. I think the church is trying to come out against hate and only hate. It’s not the church’s job to point fingers and call people out; its job is to help people become better from where they were yesterday.
What is bizarre is that APW started as a self proclaimed SJW.
I think she is an attention hound and just pulling for all it is worth.
Her profile picture says worlds.
This alt-right, racist bigotry in the Church is using LDS teachings from the Book of Mormon and past leaders as cover. It is pernicious and should be vigorously stamped out. It’s embarrassing that people who drink green tea or coffee can’t go to the temple but those spouting racist bigotry get a pass. The weasel phrases highlighted by Andrew need to stop. We need actual leadership.
The culture of fear and Anorexia Obediencia keeps the two people sitting on the pew from having a thoughtful discussion and sharing. No one learns, no one changes because love and charity have no influence. Division and ignorance is the designed goal of every press release from the pulpit of unrighteous dominion. Hamula would excuse regular lapses of integrity in New Zealand by saying in his smooth GA voice, “while perhaps imprecise, are not really inaccurate.”
That’s not an expression of language that can’t be twisted and interpreted to be something that was absolutely not intended. By it’s nature, communication is imprecise, especially if any amount of time has passed. We can’t even get something as simple as “love thy neighbor as thyself” straight.
It’s not going to matter what the Church says, there will still be members saying things like “see, even the Church agrees with me” and “well, this is a special case because of x”. You can’t fight these things effectively institutionally; they have to be rooted out individually.
“As a result, Mormons continue to have a diversity of thoughts and opinions on what they see as racist or not.”
I would be afraid of a monolithic Mormon approach to anything. I like the possibility for diversity of thoughts and opinions. This allows me to disagree with other Mormons on some issues, and for other Mormons to disagree with me on other issues.
ji: How would you feel about Mormons having a diversity of opinions about premarital sex or domestic abuse? While I’m generally in favor of diversity of thought, some opinions are simply immoral and unChristian.
Excellent post. I don’t think the church is trying to be ambiguous so much as declaring principles and giving space for people to work those principles into their psyches. In other words, using a nudge rather than a hammer. I think of it sort of like orthodontia — just like gentle, continuous pressure can move teeth around without breaking them or your jaw, repeated nudges with correct principles can mold people over time without breaking their faith or running them off. Sometimes you gotta wear those braces for a long time.
I’m really looking forward to Mary Ann’s post on our Mormon white supremacist. Was she really invited to participate in that Charlotte rally? Ack. My impression is that those white supremacists showed up to that rally looking for a violent confrontation, and there were plenty of angry people willing to give it to them. I honestly don’t know what they were intending to accomplish, if not violence (preserving a Robert E. Lee statue? yeah, right)
Outstanding analysis, Andrew. I think you’re spot on. It’s hard to hold together a group with varying ideas, particularly when you spend a lot of time talking about how your gospel is the one true way. It makes total sense that this Rorschach approach is a handy way to minimize conflict.
I understand –but think of it — if we are all to have a single monolithic view on whatever is the subject at the moment, who will dictate the terms of the view? A Liahona Mormon or an Iron Rod Mormon? Either way, which particular person in either group? No, it is better to have leaders who teach correct principles and then allow members to govern themselves.
“…is better to have leaders who teach correct principles and then allow members to govern themselves.”
And yet we don’t do this with domestic abuse or premarital sex. Both are considered so heinous that the church puts up boundaries that involve church discipline – a monolithic view. What many are saying is that white supremacy/racial hate is just as damaging/sinful as either of these practices.
Wow ji, I didn’t know you supported diverse racist viewpoints. Just wow.
Please don’t call yourself a Christian, because I’m sure Christ will say “I never knew you.”
I joined the Church in 1971 and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news about the 1978 revelation on the priesthood ban. Like most latter-day saints, I was overjoyed but confused. The ban wasn’t supposed to be lifted until, well…later. But I was so glad it came that I wasn’t asking any questions, especially probing ones.
What I don’t know is how the ban came into effect. But what I do know is that it was reversed by an honest-to-goodness revelation. I don’t think we’ll ever know the details until the Lord comes, or why it didn’t come sooner. Unless it comes to light through research and study.
That it was corrected was wonderful, and that it was so widely accepted within the Church was enormously gratifying. Had there been widespread resistance, it would have been shamefully embarrassing.
John Roberts says: What I don’t know is how the ban came into effect.
Then you haven’t been paying attention. As the estimable Mr. Spriggs points out (GREAT post, Andrew) the Newsroom statement is ambiguous. The history, however, is not. Every lame “not valiant in the pre-existence” excuse you’ve ever heard was invented afterwards to justify a cultural racist artifact that became more unpalatable as time went on.
But what I do know is that it was reversed by an honest-to-goodness revelation.
That is to say, God had to kick some prophetic butt to get the church to do the right thing. Thus is the power of cultural inertia and fear of racist backlash, 108 years after the 15th Amendment and 13 years after the Voting Rights Act.
For whatever it’s worth, I’m really excited that people are discussing about the potential for intentional ambiguity to create a big tent in Mormonism. For me, personally, a religion that has amorphous definitions of racism is not all that appealing to me, but I understand that others’ mileages may vary…
It occurs to me after thinking about this that another good example of the Church using ambiguity to keep diverse members happy is when the women’s covenant in the temple was changed from “obeying” their husbands to “hearkening” to their husbands. Progressives read this as a real change, perhaps a softer form of sexism than the old version. Traditionalists read this as a nothing change that leaves intact the hierarchy of the family, where the husband is still definitely in charge.
I think this is a really great example! And, as younger generations grow up, they can essentially “grow” into the softer versions and model their families around that interpretation, even as more conservative folks maintain the old model.
Skeptical me says “Weasel words.” Optimistic me says what Andrew S’s latest comment says, that it allows the generation gaps to catch up.
“It occurs to me after thinking about this that another good example of the Church using ambiguity to keep diverse members happy is when the women’s covenant in the temple was changed from “obeying” their husbands to “hearkening” to their husbands. Progressives read this as a real change, perhaps a softer form of sexism than the old version. Traditionalists read this as a nothing change that leaves intact the hierarchy of the family, where the husband is still definitely in charge.” Or in another discussion, as one asshat CES teacher told his students, “hearken” means MORE than obey – it means to both listen AND obey. That guy’s a real charmer. I pity anyone willing to marry such a misogynist.
Update: the LDS Newsroom has released a stronger statement condemning white supremacy.
Here was APW’s response.: https://twitter.com/apurposefulwife/status/897533641978523648
“Or in another discussion, as one asshat CES teacher told his students, “hearken” means MORE than obey – it means to both listen AND obey. That guy’s a real charmer. I pity anyone willing to marry such a misogynist.”
I think it’s important to note that this is not a rogue CES instructor. Both the Old Testament and the D&C manuals define hearten as meaning to listen and obey. Young people are trained to believe that hearken is stronger than obey and then sent to the temple. Changing the covenant from obey to hearken creates plausible deniability, it is not softening it for younger generations.
I have been told in a temple recommend interview that some of the local groups that the affiliate question targets is the KKK. Living far from Utah puts the apostate groups at arms length and other groups that are not in harmony with Christian principles come to the fore. I imagine that some groups on the other side might fall into that category. A street agitator for anti-fa probably would not get a recommend around here. The APW tweets quoted above are clearly truthful, but narrowly defined. The follow-up statement from the church helps clarify the present issue. It is unlikely that there are many active BLM agitators in the church. There clearly are some members that are part of the alt-right fringe.
Andrew, you should post more often! Buzzfeed and this other site have picked you up!