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?