Thirty-five years ago marked a significant shift in policy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) when it lifted its priesthood ban against black males. For much of its history as an organized religion (1830-2013), the LDS Church denied people of African ancestry full rights and privileges that white male church leadership was bound to uphold. Church authorities claimed that black skin was a sign of God's displeasure with them according to various Mormon beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. In addition to the time-honored, Christian-centered Curse of Ham belief, Mormons also believed that Cain, the biblical counter figure found in the Christian Bible, committed fratricide. Hence, a vengeful God punished him with a skin of blackness, thus accenting his transgression to the world and singling his progeny out for differential treatment. Another popular belief found within the Mormon canon is that blacks were fence-sitters between God and the devil in the Great War in heaven. And because they were not valiant in the pre-existence, their contemporary spirits were rendered ineligible for the all-male Mormon priesthood and other church callings and responsibilities.
Dominant racist ideologies of black bodies as inferior were routine understandings within the official teachings of the Salt Lake City-based church. Rarely did church leaders publically denounce racism or theorize around the idea that social and material conditions of U.S. racism and class inequalities were attendant to black suffering. President David O. McKay put it this way, "...there is an explanation for... racial discrimination, dating back to the pre-existent state, but modern sociologists will not accept it... they are writing appealing to us to lift the ban upon the Negro race, and adopt racial equality in the Church."
By the 1960s and 1970s, the ethereal framework of blackness was well established among the LDS rank-in-file. The Church-owned and operated Brigham Young University reflected the sentiments of the mainline LDS Church from that time period and demonstrated the degree of Mormon ambiguity and hypocrisy toward black people, despite the Church's claims to universalism. The 1969 First Presidency Statement, the second of three official statements on race by the Mormon Church, epitomized this dichotomy:
It follows, therefore, that we believe the Negro, as well as those of other races, should have his full Constitutional privileges as a member of society, and we hope that members of the Church everywhere will do their part as citizens to see that these rights are held inviolate. Each citizen must have equal opportunities and protection under the law with reference to civil rights.
However, matters of faith, conscience, and theology are not within the purview of the civil law...
The campus racial climate at BYU reflected the whiteness of the nation as a whole and its struggle to desegregate. The Mormon Church itself was no different in rationalizing its teachings that underscored the poor treatment black people, but instead of using overt physical violence to control them, they relied on "the word of God," ironically, as an ideological weapon of omission in their meetings houses, conference halls and academic institutions. This allowed them to continue practicing a politic of exclusion under the guise of Divinity, which also extended to their school's athletic field. Very few blacks were recruited to play on the "greens" of BYU with administrators and coaches often surreptitiously citing the Church's prohibition of interracial dating as a detractor to its applicants (whom they assumed would want to date their white female students).
Mormon racial folklore was becoming more public knowledge, and the negative media attention that surrounded Church headquarters was extensive. At a time when student rebellions were widespread, the Church's racial stance provoked a new wave of protests. Proving it difficult to challenge the LDS Church itself as God was protected in the First Amendment, African American students chose to take up aim with the Church-sponsored school. A West Coast faction, led by institutions such a San Jose State, Berkeley, University of Washington and Stanford, protested against BYU, often refusing to compete against them as a "right of conscious."
After the lifting of the ban on June 6, 1978, very little changed in the recruiting department. In 2002, BYU head football coach Gary Crowton (2001-2004) attempted to change that perception by recruiting the largest class of non-LDS recruits in the school's history, many of them black athletes. With many of these athletes experiencing a culture shock of rules from their own more lenient environment, honor code rules appeared to be broken at an exponential rate. As apposed to supporting these recruits within the confines of their new faith-based school, a swift hand of justice was issued, warranted or not. This eventually cost Crowton his job amid allegations that he was too slack with his honor code enforcement. Apparently, he was not the overseer that the BYU athletic department had hoped. And since his departure from BYU, the athletic department has taken a more cautionary approach to recruitment of non-LDS (i.e., black) athletes, trying to find those that have a pre-disposition (e.g., Mormon) to adapt to the rigors of life on campus rather than spending time aiding such students in creating a less hostile campus climate.
Even if BYU denies its hesitancy in accepting black players among their ranks, the campus climate has made it difficult to recruit and retain black athletes on campus. There is no program in place to help newcomers adjust to an all-white and religiously-strict milieu. But more importantly, unlike other major, competitive institutions, they have not created any programs to aid these incoming athletes in thriving amongst the rigors of being a student athlete. And unfortunately, the white racial frame allows them to think that they are under no obligation to do so. With the lifting of the now-defunct priesthood ban 35 years ago, Church leaders appeared convinced that the 1978 official declaration was enough change 20 generations of racist ideology. Racist one day, non-racist the next. But as the history of BYU athletics has shown, historical patterns of exclusion do not die easily simply by enacting legislation -- or by having a revelation.
Follow Darron T. Smith, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrDarronSmith