Book painfully details acceptance of racism in church’s past and present

Members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may find Joanne Brooks’ Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and The Problem of Racial Innocence (Oxford University Press, 2020) a painful read.

Brooks, a lifelong Latter-day Saint and scholar perhaps known best for her book The Book of Mormon Girl, quickly dismantles any conception that the Church’s former temple ban on blacks was a mere policy or a practice whose ramifications ended in 1978 when the Church allowed males of African descent to receive the priesthood. Instead, she painstakingly lays out the case that the ban not only was taught as doctrine since the days of Brigham Young, but that the ill effects of the pernicious teaching linger on.

It isn’t just that blacks continue to be excluded from the highest levels of the Church’s power structure (some 190 years since the Church was organized, it still hasn’t had a black apostle). It’s that the institutional Church has yet to grapple with its racist — even white supremacist — legacy, having never made a clear statement that the past teachings weren’t divinely inspired. Even today, she writes, white Mormons are afraid of saying that the temple ban was wrong, that they “will express a generalized fear of ‘getting in trouble’ with Church authorities, incurring reaction from other whites, straining relationships, and losing status, credibility, or opportunities” if they do so.

Those who have studied Church history will be familiar with many of the accounts that Brooks researched: that Church founder Joseph Smith welcomed and even ordained a few blacks, that Brigham Young institutionalized the temple ban, that one justification for the practice borrowed from Protestant teaching at the time tied blackness to the Old Testament’s Cain and Ham, that a distinctly Latter-day Saint justification for the ban was the claim that blacks had been less than valiant in their pre-Earth lives, and that the exclusion was sharply criticized by outsiders before it was reversed in 1978.

I was disappointed that Brooks didn’t go into more detail about the steps involved in the 1978 action, which has been written about more extensively elsewhere. But she more than made up that deficit with her accounts of the decades before then. I hadn’t known, for example, a member of First Presidency had acted to keep whites from receiving blood transfusions from blacks. Other accounts detail the tightrope that supporters of civil rights, such as Michigan Gov. George Romney, walked on in order to remain the Church’s good standing.

But Mormonism and White Supremacy isn’t merely a backwards-looking book. In her final chapter, Brooks forcefully examines the present and points out the harm that the Church’s legacy of white supremacy continues to bring. By its refusal to admit it once taught false doctrine, the Church has repressed internal critiques, allowed its mostly white membership to maintain its sense of superiority, and corroded its integrity, she writes. In the end, Brooks makes as strong of a case against the Church’s de facto doctrine of apostolic infallibility as she does against its racial history, seeing them as fully intertwined.

Those are harsh words. Brooks is not making them as an outside critic, but as one who has been shaped by her faith community, a community she wants to see it move forward. Her book makes clear that isn’t going to happen by continuing to paper over the past and pretending that all is well in Zion.

Photo of Brigham Young statue in Salt Lake City by Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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