LDS Scriptures are unique in the fact that these scriptures have been used to enforce the priesthood and temple ban on black members. Dr. Newell Bringhurst and Dr. Matt Harris weigh in on these scriptures and how the Race and Priesthood essay fails to address these issues.
Newell: I was going to say just a couple of general observations about the Race and Priesthood Essay. As Matt has very effectively pointed out, the inherent aspects of Mormon racism as articulated in Mormon scripture, is nowhere even mentioned or discussed in the Race and Priesthood Essay. I mean, the whole underpinning is Brigham Young being influenced by the racism within the larger American society. To some extent, Lester Bush was making a similar case in his seminal essay, that was published in Dialogue in 1973. He made a deliberate effort, because he was a believing Latter-day Saint, believing in the veracity of Mormon scriptures and Mormon scriptural writings. They had both the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses and I thought that was one of the major failings both of Lester Bush’s initial study and carried over in the Race and Priesthood Essay itself.
Newell: A failure to acknowledge, that at the root of Mormon theological writings, was this belief that dark-skinned people, be they blacks, be they [American] Indians, were divinely cursed with a dark skin. That has, likewise, been reflected in the volume of Saints [Volume 2] that I went through. I thought one of the weakest parts of that volume was the way it handled the issue of blacks and the priesthood. It was standing in sharp contrast to the way it handled polygamy, which was more frank and much more open. I was really disappointed with the way that Saints handled the issue. It’s almost like an echo of the omission that’s in the Gospel Topics Essays.
Matt: I want to make one last point about the scriptures and race, and that is that the Book of Mormon–the scriptures don’t talk about Black people really. It’s interpreting these scriptures. They read blackness into some of these curses. I think that’s an important point to make. The other point is, the Book of Mormon, of course, talks about Lamanites, or Native Americans. So, when people talk about curses in the Book of Mormon, they’re talking about Lamanites, and so forth. But the point I want to make is that Black Latter-day Saints, when they read the Book of Mormon, when they’re in the process of conversion, for example, or even after they’ve been baptized, they read these Lamanite curses, and they wonder, “As a black man, how does this apply to me?” It’s really, really a tough issue for the Church to deal with. Because these racial tropes are all over, especially the Book of Mormon, when you get this racial fluidity. So, it’s a really challenging thing for the Church. Because really, if you were to rewrite these verses, I mean, you’re going to end up taking a pretty significant chunk of scripture out of the Book of Mormon. So it’s really a tough situation.
Matt: So I want to acknowledge that in the Race and Priesthood Essay, I don’t know what the answers would be, I’m not sure how you would even explain these away, because it’s a real thing when you look at what the verses say, and how the leaders interpret them. There are some apologists for the church that just contort themselves into pretzels trying to make sense of these curses. It just means your spiritual soul, or it means animal skins, or any number of bizarre things. Really, when you look at what some, not all, but what some of the brethren are saying in private about these verses, it’s very clear that they think there’s going to be a literal transformation of skin change. Also, it’s very clear that in the 1950s and 60s, Latter-day Saints interpreted it as such.
Matt: Let me give you just one example. At BYU in 1969, there were a couple of students that were doing some research for an English research paper. They did a survey in which they asked both faculty, students and people in their local wards about dark skin turning white. Overwhelmingly, these two students who did the two surveys, said that the majority of the people they surveyed thought that there was going to be a literal skin change from negros, as they put it in those days, to white people. It was pretty darn clear. One of the people doing the interview, after they compiled the data, he said, “This is what they said, but I’m not really quite sure how that works.” I mean, he’s musing about skin color changing.
What are your thoughts about how Mormon scripture has been used with regards to race?
During Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for president BYU professor Randy Bott made headlines in a Washington Post article discussing racial teachings. It turns out that the LDS Church’s silence on racial issues contributed to a misunderstanding of racial teachings, and embarrassed Bott, Romney, and the LDS Church. Dr. Matt Harris and Dr. Newell Bringhurst tell us more about this unfortunate incident.
Matt: The Church is on high alert over two issues during the Mitt Romney campaign, one is polygamy and one is race. These are two issues that they had been rehearsing about. They had been talking about how to deal with it to the media when these inevitable questions would come about polygamy and race. Randy Bott is a well-respected BYU Professor. He made a fateful mistake in the spring of 2012, when he opened up his door to entertain a Washington Post reporter named Jason Horowitz. I interviewed with Horowitz actually and I said…
GT: Oh really?
Matt: Yes, I have him on record. I quote him in my next book.
GT: Oh, nice.
Matt: So I said to Horowitz. I said, “Tell me, How did you come across Bott?” He said, “Well, I just went to BYU, and I didn’t have an appointment.” He probably should have let the administration know that he was coming because this is a high-profile campaign. This is a BYU graduate, a high-profile Mormon person, Mitt Romney. So, Horowitz didn’t do that. He just went to the religion building and started knocking on doors.
GT: No way. (Chuckling)
Matt: There’s a policy at BYU that you’re supposed to go through this protocol to talk to people about certain high profile issues. This certainly would have been one of them, a Washington Post reporter. This wasn’t from the Provo Daily Herald. This is the Washington Post. So, he knocks on a door and one of the professors opens up the door. “I’m Jason Horowitz, Washington Post. Can I interview you about Mitt Romney? I just want some stuff about Mitt Romney.” The first professor says, “Oh, I can’t talk to you because you didn’t go through the protocols.” He knocks on another door. He went through a handful of this door knocking when they just said, “No, we can’t talk to you.” Randy Bott says, “Sure, come on in.” So, keep in mind, it wasn’t a gotcha story. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I heard Mormons have some weird things to say about race. Let me try to get them on record and embarrass their candidate.” It wasn’t that at all. Horowitz flew to Provo because he wanted to do a story on Mitt Romney. That’s all it was.
Matt: So, he told him “We’re just going to do a story of Mitt Romney.” Bott said, “Okay, fine.” He said, “I want to ask you about his faith,” all of that. So, the first part of this story that Horowitz told me, he said it was pretty normal. We were just talking about Mitt Romney and the Mormon faith and what Mormons believe and all of this stuff. Then Randy Bott starts talking about race and how black people could not hold the priesthood. It would be like giving keys to a child to drive a car. They weren’t ready. I mean, it was so humiliating. I asked Horowitz. I said, “What did you think when he started telling you about black people being cursed and comparing their inability to hold the priesthood to a child driving a car?” He just said, “Oh, I knew there was a story.”
I’ve been surprised how many people don’t remember the story of Randy Bott & the Washington Post. What are your memories? Is Randy the fall guy for a poor policy of silence on behalf of Church leaders?
Some random and tentative thoughts on “how Mormon scripture has been[or could be] used with regards to race”:
1. Whatever it meant to Nephites, “black skin” in the BoM had nothing to do with people of sub-Saharan African descent who were often since the mid 16th century called Negros (adopted from Spanish or Portuguese — https://www.etymonline.com/word/negro ) and now usually called Blacks because “Negro” became an offensive term. But in the view of some BoM prophets the “black skin” was a curse from God. Some argue naturalistic explanations for early Lamanites becoming darker than early Nephites that the curse-from-God designation means no more than recognizing the creator’s hand in all things. However, that does not appear to have been the most common interpretation among Mormons or their leaders. And the righteous-Lamanites-becoming-white-and-delightsome language was certainly taken literally as to skin color by at least SWK.
2. If the Church can now claim BY was culturally influenced and wrong about God, Cain, and skin color/racist positions in his 1852 preaching to the Utah legislature, there would seem to be no impediment to claiming that certain Nephite prophets and SWK and others were also wrong about skin color/racist positions, That need not affect the position that the BoM was the “most correct” book, if that JS statement is taken in its context as a reference to principles to be followed to bring one closer to God. Insisting on Nephite infallibility while denying Bible and BY infallibility seems just a bit silly, however common.
3. It has been quite common to overlook the time in the BoM narrative when there were no Lamanites or Nephites and, therefore, race — if it existed — made no difference. I do not remember any indication that the later narrative of splitting into two groups/cultures and their adopting the Lamanite and Nephite designations was reported as in any way based on race or skin color. Instead, there is a common but I think largely groundless assumption that the cultural split was along the lines of descendency from Laman and his cohorts on the one hand and from Nephi and his cohorts on the other. I say “largely” because one reading of early Nephi’s prophecies can be taken as consistent with that assumption, despite the intervening no-manner-of-ites interlude.
4. If one abandons the notion of Nephite prophet infallibility and reads the BoM as a whole, it seems to some that the message of the book, as opposed to the message of certain characters in the book, is one of the ultimate destructiveness of us vs. them thinking whether “us” and “them” are defined by race or skin color or not. Why burden the book with the interpretations of otherwise fallible prophets or Church members?
What do you think?
I don’t see Randy Bott as a “fall guy” as I understand the term. But he, like some others including Church leaders, seems to me to have been overconfident of his (and some Church leaders’) speculations, as well as too willing to share them. I’m not sure what you mean by “policy of silence on behalf of Church leaders”. Sometimes I wish some of them would adhere to a policy of silence on some subjects. 🙂
Perhaps I remember the Bott story because, about that same time, the Washington Post (and the NY Times) also wanted to interview me about Mitt Romney. It took me a few days to get back to them to let them know it was pointless. It turned out they had dug through enough old records to discover that Romney and I graduated from BYU the same August and were both convocation speakers. They merely theorized I might know him. I don’t. But I was amused at the lengths they would go to looking for a “story.”
The BOM is the most correct book, until it isn’t. You know what? Once you realize that the Church’s racial policies with respect to blacks AND Native Americans AND Polynesians was just simple white-main racism, it all makes so much sense. No need to twist myself into understanding.
Side note: the scriptures are very weak on homosexuality. Where in the BOM does it say homosexuality is immoral?
In a very real way, Randy Bott did the Church a big favor. They had been avoiding this problem, and they had not issued directives that the myths surrounding the priesthood policy were not to be taught. And it’s also good that Bott gave the interview because he had been teaching this stuff to hundreds of BYU students, most of them in his mission prep classes. It’s incalculable how much damage he did, but the interview stopped it (cost him his job, too), and it made the Church face the music, sort of, in addressing the ongoing racism issue that the revelation did not solve.
I’m sorry but if Randy Bott can’t see how insane it is to suggest that you can give the priesthood to pre-teens with no problem… but for black people, it’s handing the car keys to a child, then he deserves to be the fall guy.
I heard the “fence sitters” theory when I was 14 and it shaped my view but even with that I was still able to see that this was just one person’s opinion with no backup sources or anything.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at how Joseph treated Elijah Abel vs. how Brigham Young treated him, to see where the ban can from.
Is Randy Bott a fall guy? Gawd, no. The man teaches at a prominent university and he couldn’t keep from walking into this mess. I think you could evaluate the entire affair from at least two perspectives:
1. Why did Bott not foresee how racist his analogy would appear to non-members? I find this question interesting because there are countless members of the church with no actual racist animosity toward people of color, yet they retain a belief in clearly racist tropes and myths. Mormonism is their world view, which is both good and bad in that they embrace kindness and courtesy while also embracing ideas like predestination and premortal ambivalence. I imagine that Bott was so embedded in his culture that he didn’t see the snare until he walked into it. I also imagine that if he was so comfortable (naive?) talking with a WaPo reporter about this, he must have shared this view with students regularly. I’m just surprised no one complained about the naked racism of Professor Bott previously.
2. How was the church allowed ideas like this to persist? A professor at the church’s flagship school pulls this out of his hat unsolicited. That’s a rather stunning turn of events. I’m sure the church was embarrassed, which is the correct response. What’s followed, however, has NOT been a concerted effort to root out these kinds of discriminatory views, as Bringhurst alludes to in acknowledging how unsatisfactory is the Gospel Topics essay. I have no idea why race seems to present a problem the church can’t get a handle on. They still grapple with sex and gender also, of course, but those are more recent concerns that have not been in the public consciousness for centuries.
A tangent – but that should be OK here.
I had a mission companion who immigrated from Mexico with his family when he was very young. They ended up in Reno, Nevada, my home town, though we didn’t know each other there.
He was going home before me and I helped him do some paperwork for the Lamanite programs at BYU. Because – he’s a Lamanite.
When he got back he found that Mexicans did not qualify as Lamanites under any of the BYU programs. Native Americans and South Americans had scholarship programs, but not his neck of the woods. I really didn’t know what to make of that – not sure why he wasn’t considered a Lamanite for BYU’s purposes.
On another tangent, Mitt Romney referred one of the Bain Capital employees in the Detroit area to the mission president. He didn’t live in my area, but the MP tapped me and my comp to teach him. It was a success. Also, I served in father George Romney’s ward – he can sleep with his eyes open while sitting upright. Mitt was my SP when we lived in Massachusetts. Wonderful speaker and leader.
I had an awesome teacher in ninth grade seminary. He was smart, charismatic, funny, kind, and I learned a lot of good stuff from him. I sort of worshipped the ground he walked on, as did most of his other students. I still have most of the scriptures from that year memorized. But every single thing that Randy Bott got in trouble for saying, was something I also learned in that seminary class. And I took it to heart.
I carried those beliefs with me to some degree into the mission field, into my student wards, into my quorum presidencies and teaching positions in primary and Sunday school. I don’t remember ever teaching any of that, but it’s quite possible I did. It was the water I swam in and I really didn’t think much of it.
The church would like to just make the awkward stuff disappear, to let everyone forget about it, but belief doesn’t work that way. It’s not just race, but these racist ideas are some of the more harmful beliefs in our legacy. There’s also polygamy and young earth creationism, among others. This stuff doesn’t just go away. It’s in our culture, in the standard works, and in our manuals. It’s in quotes from our leaders f times past. It was taught as doctrine at one time, and people will continue to believe it is doctrine until it is replaced with a new doctrine.
So when you ask if Randy Bott was a fall guy, I respond by saying that he should have known better, but so should I. So should you. So also everyone reading this blog, and yet many of us heard and internalized those same racist ideas, without ever hearing a counter argument beyond a vague disavowal of racist policies that doesn’t actually enumerate what those policies are. My point is that we have all been set up to be the fall guy, and it is embarrassing how old I was before in realized it.
A different take on the Bott Episode: It shows what a bubble LDS leadership and BYU Religion and CES live in. They can believe and teach a lot of crazy stuff inside the bubble, surrounded by members and students who are either compelled (more or less) to go along with the crazy stuff or who willingly do so. Then, from time to time — BANG! — a slice of reality punctures the bubble and everyone inside panics. Adjustments are made and the bubble reseals itself.
The Bott Episode is good evidence many Mormons and some Mormon institutions are living inside a bubble.
Dave B hit the nail on the head. It’s the bubble. I guess the difference for me is that I’m out in California and didn’t go to BYU. I’ve had everything I’ve believed from religion to politics questioned.
There’s been a lot of cognitive dissonance in my life but I’m better for it and wouldn’t trade it.
What Dave B said. Plus, Bott wasn’t just a prof, he was the head of the religion department. That fact makes this closed off information loop even worse. It is really surprising someone as bereft on basic Church positions could get to that level.
Also, not to pile on Bott too much, but his insulting analogy about giving car keys to kids was also laced with racial stereotypes. Bott didn’t say car, he chose a make and model of car for the black kids who shouldn’t be given car keys. You guessed it, a Cadillac. For men of his generation, it was a crude, insulting stereotype that black men drove Cadillacs. Bott was obviously surrounded by minivans (to traffic in a Mormon stereotype!) so I wonder why he went to a Cadillac for his ill informed analogy.
A bubble indeed.
“For men of his generation, it was a crude, insulting stereotype that black men drove Cadillacs.”
I’ve decided to be amused at this insulting stereotype of men of Randy Bott’s generation as holding an insulting stereotype of Black men.
I could tell a short first hand observation of Blacks and Cadillacs in a segregated, northern US metropolitan area in the early 60s, but for me that observation never resulted in a stereotype of anyone.
Bott may have chosen “Cadillac” because it was to him a symbol of a valuable car, economically out of his reach, while he valued Priesthood highly as well. With his background he could be just as ignorant of any such stereotype of Black men as I am.
Of course, none of this is a defense of his insulting ideas too freely expressed.
Matt Harris seems to be blaming the messenger, the Washington Post reporter, rather than the one delivering the message, Randy Bott. As if to say if only the Washington Post had gone through the proper channels them BYU would have had time to prepare to not reveal the old school racist thought still lingering in the Department of Ancient Scripture. Come on Harris. Let’s face some inconvenient truths.
Of all the expensive cars to choose from (BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Volvo?, Lexus etc) Bott coincidently lands on the model that white men of his generation routinely lampooned black men for buying?!?!?. Your experience may have been different but I recall hearing the crude jokes often enough. To be fair to Bott, and this gets back to the overarching problem here, he was so far entrenched in his Mormon/LDS and BYU bubble he may not have been aware he was recycling an old, insulting trope when he used a Cadillac in his example of cars black people try to drive.
John W. I didn’t hear Matt Harris blame the WaPo here. As I recall, Prof. Harris blamed Bott for not following BYU channels (again, he was the head of the department!) before talking to the WaPo. Bott may have been unaware he should have routed the reporter to BYU public affairs. Whether through hubris or naïveté, Bott didn’t follow BYU protocol for the WaPo interview. That was on Bott, not the WaPo. (FWIW, outside of the sports section, the WaPo is almost unreadable these days.)
For the poor folks at BYU, Bott should not have freelanced with the WaPo reporter. For the rest of us, however, we have more reasons to wonder about the quality of BYU religious education and the bubble in which BYU/CES operates.
John W, clearly Matt did not blame the Washington Post reporter at all. I’m unclear why you said that, but clearly you didn’t listen to the interview to come to that conclusion.
rb’s summary is correct. (Nice initials, but not me.)
Interesting to hear the story behind the story. I’d just assumed that some liberal student tipped off WaPo to Bott’s classes. I was in Bott’s mission prep class, and somehow I remember the Cadillac comparison but not what he was comparing it to (race and priesthood).
Before I took that class, my seminary teachers took the stance that seems to be popular today: That dark skin was the SIGN of the curse, not the curse itself. Which never made sense to me.
When it came up in family scriptures, I went the prophetic fallibility direction. Our interracial family is familiar with different skin tones within a clan as well as basic evolutionary theory, and from there it was a short leap to speculating that Nephites could have misinterpreted a darker skin tone among an isolated, inbred group as a curse. That’s the best I could come up with, since my husband and I have an agreement that I won’t question the historocity of the BoM with the kids.