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Samuel Brown

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The End in Sight? The Waning of a Racist Mormon Fringe

Posted: 02/29/2012 4:17 pm

Jason Horowitz's intriguing presentation in the Washington Post of the history of race and racism within Mormonism evokes a variety of responses, most of them negative. For those of us who know Mormonism intimately, it is tempting to feel deep indignation at the depiction of what we see as a rich and beautiful religious tradition as little more than a vessel for racist fairy tales. But there is a harder and more interesting truth here than just Horowitz's attempt to privilege certain voices -- in this case the Mormon equivalent of a youth minister teaching as a professor in BYU's religion department -- over others to represent Mormonism in the public square.

Some Latter-day Saints, particularly those now over the age of 70, do maintain bizarre, racist claims about the unworthiness of people of African descent. Though Mr. Horowitz's youth minister informant has no authority to speak for the Church at large, and represents what many Latter-day Saints hope is a at most a fringe tradition in its death throes, his words figure prominently in Mr. Horowitz's reportage.

What I think I realized as I processed my feelings of outrage at the words of this BYU professor was that increased scrutiny to its racial history can ultimately work to the good of Mormonism. Church leaders, including Spencer Kimball (the church president who ended the priesthood restriction against those of African descent in 1978) and Gordon Hinckley (the best known Mormon church president in the 20th century), have publicly denounced entrenched racism among certain demographic groups within the church body. Unfortunately, their efforts have not been successful enough to eliminate intermittent espousal of the kinds of scabrous folklore apparently related by this BYU professor. These narratives are deeply cruel, un-Christian, and contrary to the teachings of modern LDS church leaders. It is well past time for those Mormons who still hold them to abandon them forever, with sincere apologies for treasuring racial bigotry for so long.

In an environment where it is easy to dehumanize and deride our intellectual opponents, I do not presume the right to attack this youth minister on personal level, but I strongly denounce his racism. With luck, public embarrassment in the aftermath of Mr. Horowitz's reporting will induce in this professor and his co-travelers the kind of passionate introspection that many Christians, including the Latter-day Saints, believe motivates repentance.

Until the malevolent nonsense masquerading as historical theology about race is exposed to public view, the Church may prove unable to purify itself entirely of the stain of prior racism. Even as many, hopefully most, Latter-day Saints have moved beyond a racist past they unfortunately shared with most of white America, some holdouts will continue to cause difficulty for the Church and its members. While the media should be cautious to avoid heaping blame on a sometimes embattled religious minority and must recognize that racist fringe elements do not speak for the Mormon Church or other individual Mormons, the sunlight of careful, sometimes hostile, reporting about racism may finally disinfect the minds and souls of those Latter-day Saints who maintain racist views. We who value the church can earnestly hope that this debacle will persuade those Latter-day Saints who hold such moth-eaten, malignant beliefs that it is time to abandon them. The Mormonism that emerges from such a movement forward will be a stronger, healthier, more Christian tradition.