Just before the final presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney last year, American Atheists paid for this ad to be driven around Boca Raton, Florida, where the debate was being held:
The ad referenced two doctrines of the Mormon faith — one, that black people were forbidden from entering the priesthood until 1978, and second, that sexually-active gay people are still banned from the church altogether.
Let me repeat that first part: Black people were forbidden from entering the priesthood until 1978. 1978!
It’s a fact echoed in the lyrics to “I Believe” in the musical “The Book of Mormon”:
I Believe; that Satan has a hold of you
I Believe; that the Lord, God, has sent me here
And I Believe; that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!
You can be a Mormon
A Mormon who just believes!
It’s one of those things you can’t sweep under the rug. It was blatant racism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has never really owned up to it.
Until now, anyway.
On Friday, the Mormon church’s website released a statement admitting that the reason for the black priest ban was racism, pure and simple:
In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
Nevertheless, given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy, and they made ongoing efforts to understand what should be done. After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.
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 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.
They’re still bigots when it comes to the LGBT community, of course, but at least they’re not racist!
It’s important to point out that the explanation for how the policy got changed — thanks to a revelation from God — is about the worst explanation possible. It’s a way for the LDS church to save face and say, “We really wanted to change the policy, but Heavenly Father wouldn’t let us!” As if the responsibility was in God’s hands and not their own. Like they couldn’t have just changed it if they wanted to. Good thing God had nothing better to do in June of 1978 or the institutional racism might still be alive today!…
It does lead to a lot of questions, though.
Why did Brigham Young never get that revelation? What was wrong with him?
Is God going to soon reveal that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality?
More importantly, what’s to stop God from revealing to a future Mormon leader that he wants black people banned from the priesthood again? If the policy was changed just like that in 1978, isn’t it at least plausible that God might change His mind? He is pretty finicky, after all…
It’s all a whitewashed history, anyway. By 1978, institutional racism just became too socially unacceptable to continue. The Church had to change its policy or risk losing the members who were still there. It was a mighty convenient revelation.
Mormon historian Richard Bushman feels like this statement could backfire:
Mormons believe that their leaders are in regular communication with God, so if you say Young could make a serious error, he said, “it brings into question all of the prophet’s inspiration.”
Members need to recognize that God can “work through imperfect instruments,” Bushman said. “For many Latter-day Saints, that is going to be a difficult transition. But it is part of our maturation as a church.”
If the church’s beliefs can be wiped out by an immediate (or even delayed) “revelation from God,” there’s just no reason to take its current doctrine seriously. The racist policy was wrong then, it’s wrong now even in hindsight, and, while I take Church leaders at their word that they’re glad the ban is gone, the explanation for how the ban was dropped leaves open the possibility that it could be re-instituted the next time God gets bored.