The LDS Church has long struggled to address persistent racial problems within its culture. Even after the Church reversed its official policy in 1978 in order to allow members with African ancestry to hold the priesthood and participate in temple ordinances, remnants of the past age remain. The inability to fully engage these historical foundations has hindered attempts to address problems in the present. One BYU religion professor was caught in 2012 regurgitating dated justifications, which forced the Church Newsroom to release two brief statements that “condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.” But ambiguity still remained. Even the 2013 “Gospel Topics” essay, which is deservedly heralded as a new landmark for situating the racial restriction within its racist context, came short of directly severing the policy from revelatory origins.
Part of this is to be expected. Any direct questioning of past prophetic statements can undercut the authority of modern prophetic authority. And given that Mormonism, at least in America, remains a predominantly white and middle-to-upper-class demographic—and African converts are mostly unaware of the history—there is no direct and pressing need to come to terms with the persistence of white culture.
But the spread of white nationalism that has accompanied the Age of Trump has provided the circumstances necessary for revisiting the issue. A number of self-identified Mormons have received significant attention for proclaiming their white nationalist views, and none of them received official pushback from the Church. One of them was even scheduled to be a speaker at the rally that took place in Charlottesville last weekend. That was perhaps the apex of the movement’s march to mainstream consciousness.
Once that event caused a national backlash, the LDS Church released a timid statement that “people of any faith, or of no faith at all, should be troubled by the increase of intolerance in both words and actions that we see everywhere.” It mentioned a recent prophet’s denouncement of racism, but the entire statement was quite general toward “intolerance and hatred.” And just like how white nationalists in America rejoiced in the lack of an explicit denial from Donald Trump, Mormon proponents of the alt-right on Twitter happily noted that the Church did not explicitly condemn them:
Mormons noticed. Many petitioned the Church to be more direct in their denouncement of white supremacy. Eventually, the Church updated its announcement on Tuesday with the following direct rebuttal:
It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the Church is neutral toward or in support of their views. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the New Testament, Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39). The Book of Mormon teaches “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a “white culture” or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.
This is perhaps the most direct condemnation of white supremacy the Church has ever issued. (Much to some people’s chagrin.)
But perhaps just as important, it was a direct attack on so-called “white culture.” This is one of the rare instances where the Church went beyond what was expected. It even placed “white culture” in scare quotes, implying that such cultural categories are artificial constructions and “not in harmony” with LDS teachings. As depressing as such a realization may seem, this stance is quite progressive when compared to most official positions. And since it was presented by the Newsroom–in many ways, whether good or not, the most authoritative organ of the modern Church–it carries substantial power.
Whether consciously or not, this statement could open the door to new possibilities. Those hoping to reform LDS culture in an attempt to rid it of troubling remnants of “white culture” now have convincing tools with which to do so. Because, as scholars have often pointed out, elements of whiteness are everywhere in Mormon culture: our artistic depictions of divine beings (with a caucasian Godhead), our methods of cultural performance (like dress and grooming standards), or even our religious rhetoric (and its devotion to “whiteness”). These are outward manifestations of systematic cultural institutions. And, thanks to this new statement, they are not as stable today as they were yesterday.
The Church may yet come to the point of directly refuting its racist past and addressing its racial present.