BYU Prof: Mormon Racism Was Justified


I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons. The history of racism in the LDS church is clear and obvious, yet some look past it. They may have a tougher time doing so now that a BYU religion professor has said that the church’s refusal to allow black people to become leaders in the church was justified.

In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

It’s not clear whether Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, who ordained at least one black priest, supported the ban. But his successor, Brigham Young, enforced it enthusiastically as the word of God, supporting slavery in Utah and decreeing that the “mark” on Cain was “the flat nose and black skin.” Young subsequently urged immediate death to any participant in mixing of the races. As recently as 1949, church leaders suggested that the ban on blacks resulted from the consequences of the “conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence.” As a result, many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades.

“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

Joanne Brooks at Religion Dispatches says this is hardly unusual:

He teaches large sections of required religion courses, including courses designed to prepare future missionaries, to as many as 3,000 students a year. This semester, more than 800 students are registered in Professor Bott’s classes. (Eleven are registered for BYU’s African-American history course this semester.) Professors at BYU routinely find themselves having to address racist and sexist content taught in Bott’s classes, and many are outraged and embarrassed by his rogue remarks to the Washington Post, say sources at the university. “Dr. Bott does not speak for BYU or the Church and his views are his own,” one religion faculty member told me.

But Professor Bott is no outlier. Especially among older Mormons, racist rationale for the priesthood ban—linking it to Old Testament pretexts, or to moral infirmity in a pre-earthly life by the souls of Africans and African-Americans, and other racist apologetic mental gymnastics exemplified in Bott’s statement to the Post—persist and circulate, generally unquestioned and unchallenged.

For its part, the LDS Church has never authoritatively addressed racist theologies developed in defense of the ban in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead, it has attempted to step quietly beyond its racist past, as it has with many other thorny and troubling historical matters.

They should not be allowed to step quietly beyond it.

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    Growing up in the church, the nicey-nice rationalization I heard was along these same lines, but tried slightly harder to conceal the racism: That the reason blacks weren’t “ready” wasn’t their fault, but because past discrimination had given them “enough to contend with” without the “added responsibility” of the priesthood.

    A few years ago — 2008, to be precise — my (still Mormon) parents off-handedly mentioned that they were going to a thing at the stake center (which is like a semi-centralized Mormon church that might serve a county in upstate New York, or a town in Utah) to celebrate 30 years of blacks holding the priesthood. I was dumb-founded. They should be hanging their fucking heads in shame that it wasn’t until 1978 (that’s a 9 in the second digit, not an 8) that they decided to give blacks full membership in the church, they shouldn’t be celebrating! But whatever…

  2. slc1 says

    One should not think for a moment that the lamestream media will question Mr. Romney on these issues. Not a bit of it.

  3. jamessweet says

    I hope the sarcasm dripping from the first paragraph in my previous comment was obvious enough even via the medium of the internet. I felt the pathetic nature of that rationalization spoke for itself, but now I’m worried people will read it as, “Hey, they at least thought they had a good reason!” No, they never thought they had a good reason, and the best attempts they have come up with to offer a “good reason” post hoc are so shitty that IMO they actually make it worse. Better to say “Sorry, we were racist pieces of shit, but we’ve repented and we’re better now!” than to offer up that condescending claptrap. Ugh, sickening.

  4. raven says

    “Dr. Bott does not speak for BYU or the Church and his views are his own,” one religion faculty member told me.

    From what I’ve read, Dr. Bott is wildly popular among the students at BYU. If he doesn’t “speak for BYU or the Church” then why is he teaching religion courses at BYU, the LDS Church University? Something isn’t adding up here. This looks more like damage control.

    He might not speak for highly educated younger Mormons but that appears to be 5 or 10 people. At most.

    BTW, what he, (Bott) said is pretty much pure, straight Mormon theology, word for word.

  5. naturalcynic says

    IIRC, Romney did mention his reaction to the change in dogma: He said that he was driving when the news came over the radio. He had to pull over on the side of the road because he was weeping tears of joy.
    Uh-huh. Sounds typically self-serving.

  6. says

    Unlike most other religions — which can at least claim they were progressive at the time of their founding — Mormonism was backward from day one. The Christian world has been moving away from polygamy practically since the time of Christ (and before, actually); but as late as the 1800s Joe Smith thought polygamy was a wunnerful idea, ordained by God. America had to start a civil war in 1861 just to get started on the path to racial equality; and many mainstream Christian churches were questioning racism long before that; but the Mormons didn’t get the memo until, what, 1978? And now we see a well-established “professor” at their flagship university STILL doesn’t get it.

    This is nothing but a backward church whose backward doctrine is crafted for backward people with backward mindsets. What a fucking joke. At least the Catholic Church tries to pretend to be contrite about their recent atrocities — that’s more than the hacks at BYU can say.

  7. nonpersonhobofico says

    The reason that Bott is popular among students at BYU is that he’s willing to make clear, aggressive assertions that challenge contemporary thinking. The LDS church teaches that their prophets and leaders are inspired men who commune with God. A member of the church might reasonably expect that someone who communes with God might have some solid direction from him, but instead the leaders of the Mormon church must hide behind carefully worded PR releases to protect themselves from a media onslaught. Many Mormons are yearning for strong leadership, and Bott provides that. Too bad he’s a racist idiot. And too bad the students of BYU don’t wisen up and realize that if Prophet whoever were talking with God, things would be a lot easier for the Mormon church. The truth doesn’t need to hide from the light of day, but the Mormon church does.

  8. Taz says

    “What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right?”

    Actually, Mr. Bott, my dictionary defines it as:

    treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit”

    Now I wonder where I could find a good example to illustrate that?

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed…

    This idea of a hereditary curse has precedent in the real Bible.

    Numbers 14:18 The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

    Exodus 20:5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

    etc. I should point out that it was way more than 3 or 4 generations from Ham to the present. Also, note that Yahweh is an immoral asshole who bears no resemblance to the omnibenevolent, un-disprovable god of the philosophers and liberal theists.
    .
    On the other hand:

    Ezekiel 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

  10. lofgren says

    I felt the pathetic nature of that rationalization spoke for itself, but now I’m worried people will read it as, “Hey, they at least thought they had a good reason!”

    Of course they thought they had a good reason. Negroes are subhuman creatures who lack the moral insight of the more evolved white man. That’s why they had to protected from overburdening themselves with complex religious notions. It’s for their own good.

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons. The history of racism in the LDS church is clear and obvious, yet some look past it.

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of Catholic humans. The history of human abuse in the Catholic church is clear and obvious, yet some people look past it.

    Although, to be fair, our country as founded on racism yet all the black people didn’t rush to start their own country when they were freed from slavery. There is a difference between a thing as it exists and a thing as it aspires to be. If the aspirational nature of the thing is worthwhile, sometimes it’s worth forgiving it for failing to live up to those ideals – even for failing over and over again, for a hundred years – if forgiving it affords you an opportunity to come closer to living up to itself.

  11. John Hinkle says

    In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains…

    It never ceases to amaze me that one can get a doctorate in fantasy. This one’s even sillier to me, since didn’t Joseph Smith go off into the woods alone to a top secret location to have an entmoot with the Padre, Junior, and the Holy Spook? And then didn’t he have some plaques or something with magic writing on them that mysteriously disappeared?

    It’s like getting a doctorate in the incoherent ramblings of a bunch of stoners doing bongs in one of their parent’s basement.*

    * I swear that was not me. We used a bowl because our bong had a leak.

  12. says

    Dude, the stuff my stoner friends and I talked about in our parents’ basements was, like, far more doctorate-worthy than this Mormon freakiness. What was the question again?

  13. Who Knows? says

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons Christians. Given the treatment they’ve received in general. To be honest though, I’m a bit baffled by the existence of anyone of faith.

  14. d cwilson says

    I always wondered how racists got around the whole Noah’s flood thing when trying to explain their belief that black people carry the “Mark of Cain”. Now I know.

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons.

    Well, I’m baffled by the existence of any Mormons. Have you ever read some of things in the Book of Mormon? Disproving the events of the Bible takes some serious scholarship, since it all allegedly happened two thousand years ago and the records are just sparse enough to give them some wiggle room. But the Book of Mormon was the brainchild of convicted fraudster. We have the court records of Smith’s conviction!

    And it’s full of stories of a lost tribe of Israel living in North America, riding horses that didn’t exist on this continenet until the Spaniards arrived, growing crops that weren’t here until the Europeans started colonizing, and trading with coins that never existed. Anyone with a basic knowledge of pre-Colombian American history can poke a thousand holes in that story

  15. d cwilson says

    It never ceases to amaze me that one can get a doctorate in fantasy.

    I’m sure there are dozens of comparative literature professors who did their desertations on Tolkien’s works.

  16. Trebuchet says

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons.

    It’s kind of like the existence of working-class Republicans, who are being convinced by the party to vote against their own better interests. Most tea-partiers seem to fall into that category. Baffling.

    And of course, the 1978 “revelation” had NOTHING to do with the fact that no other major universities would play football against BYU any more.

  17. juice says

    I’m always a bit baffled by the existence of black Mormons.

    Hey. I don’t get gay Christians either. I know a few too, even a lesbian Catholic. Makes no sense to me.

  18. mrbongo says

    Trebuchet @16 says “It’s kind of like the existence of working-class Republicans, who are being convinced by the party to vote against their own better interests.”

    I would love an explanation how California’s current tax code is proworking class. This ought to be great! I’m not saying the repubs have the answers, but man, did the dems screw this state up for working people.

  19. John Hinkle says

    It never ceases to amaze me that one can get a doctorate in fantasy.

    I’m sure there are dozens of comparative literature professors who did their desertations on Tolkien’s works.

    Well ok, d cwilson, way to take the wind out of my sails. I bet you even went to college, Mr. Look Who Thinks He Knows So Much. ;)

  20. slc1 says

    Re John Hinkle @ #11

    AFAIK, the LSD Church claims that the sacred tablets were handed to Joe Smith by the angel Moroni on Hill Cumorah, which is located southeast of Rochester, NY in Palmyra, NY.

    I drove past that location on many occasions as a graduate student at a university in Upstate NY.

  21. Homo Straminus says

    Vaguely on topic: I had never read the Mt. Sinai story until just the other day. It’s about as random and pointlessly specific as I would have guessed. But this part (quoted from Wikipedia) threw me for a loop:

    “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf [that people had made because he’d been gone along time and they got worried], and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.” (Ex.32:19) After the events in chapters 32 and 33, the Lord told Moses, “Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.” (Ex.34:1)

    So, Moses spends 40 days and nights* on a mountain and at the end of it is given god’s LAWS CARVED IN STONE. He then comes down, sees his people having a (sacreligious) party, gets pissed, and he BREAKS THE STONES?! The stones he was just given, personally, by god, to take to his followers.

    …Dude’s got some big brass ones, I tell you what.

     
    *) That whole “40 X” thing is pretty popular, incidentally, with the thinking I guess being that the author didn’t want to say “uhhhhh, a really really long time,” but wanted something more specific. It takes two people’s fingers and toes to count to 40, and as we all know, two people counting to 40 together is frowned upon.

  22. Pinky says

    Bah; its religion. All religion exists to deliver power, money and adoration to a select few. Mormonism seems more illogical because it was started much more recently than the Abrahamic religions and the rantings of the petty con man who invented it are more easily checked.

    Where the Abrahamic creeds sometimes lag behind popular culture by centuries the LDS church has been quick to make changes to it’s basic canon for political reward.

    Joe Smith was boffing boatloads of beauteous babes (“But I must honey, god told me to do it!”), had hordes of followers worshiping him and putting their riches into his pockets. (Good job if you can get it.) The downside was Joe’s church was in conflict with popular opinion.

    When the church saw achieving statehood was a good idea, LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto on September 24th, 1890, declaring god had visited him and said something to the effect: “Oh, my bad, if polygamy is holding you up from being a state than fuhgeddaboudit.”

    In 1978 finding the exclusion of black men from the LDS priesthood was becoming inconvenient the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles asked god for guidance and god said: “Yeah can it if its holding up profits. Could one of you bums pass me the coffee and donuts?”

    It can be summed up in the fabled response Mohammad and J. Smith received from their wives when telling them god had told them to have numerous wives: “You know its strange how everything you want god also wants.”

  23. Synfandel says

    Anyone with a basic knowledge of pre-Colombian American history can poke a thousand holes in that story

    This is, of course, part of the point of religion—any religion. You can’t get people to shut down their critical faculties and have faith by telling them things that are provable or even plausible. You truly have them by the mental short-and-curlies only when they have accepted the patently impossible as truth. After that, evidence is irrelevant. They believe.

  24. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Pinky #24

    When the church saw achieving statehood was a good idea, LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto on September 24th, 1890, declaring god had visited him and said something to the effect: “Oh, my bad, if polygamy is holding you up from being a state than fuhgeddaboudit.”

    It was even more basic than that. Joseph Smith got a revelation from “Heavenly Father” that certain men, including himself, could practice multiple marriage. This was codified in Doctrine and Covenants 132. So Joe had around 27 wives (two of them 14 years old and 11 others married to someone else when Joe decided he needed a new bedwarmer. Joe’s bestest buddy Brigham Young had 54 wives who he kept in a mansion with over 50 bedrooms (the idea of poverty as preached by Jesus obviously didn’t apply to the cult leader).

    Unfortunately other people had other ideas. The key plank of the Republican Party’s 1856 platform was “to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery”. The Mormon leadership believed that their religious-based practice of plural marriage was protected by the Constitution. However, the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. United States 98 US 145 (1878) declared that polygamy was not protected by the Constitution, based on the longstanding legal principle that “laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with … religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”

    The Church continued to permit senior members to marry as many women as they could afford. In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act disincorporated the LDS church on the grounds that it fostered polygamy. The act prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine and imprisonment. It dissolved the corporation of the church and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties.

    So guess what, the president, prophet, seer, and revelator of the church, Wilford Woodruff, had a new revelation. “Heavenly Father” decided that only one wife at a time was good in His eyes. Woodruff issued The Manifesto in 1890 saying the church no longer endorsed multiple marriages. The church’s money and property were saved.

  25. mrbongo says

    I do have this to say as well. Utah is full of hot women and Mormons are probably the best people to do business with in my experience.

  26. lofgren says

    But this part (quoted from Wikipedia) threw me for a loop:

    Check out Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are careful to specify that the ark contains the original ten commandments, the ones “destroyed by Moses,” not the replacements that God gave him when he went back up.

  27. demonhauntedworld says

    The GOP nomination would have been so much more interesting if it came down to Romney vs Cain.

  28. Homo Straminus says

    Lofgren @ 31: “…original ten commandments…”

    Now that’s just being silly.

  29. Larry says

    I’m sure there are dozens of comparative literature professors who did their desertations on Tolkien’s works.

    I’m far more prepared to believe in hobbits, wizards, and orcs than I am in a man who dug up a bunch of solid gold tablets, carried ‘em home, and translated them with magic glasses.

  30. says

    Lofgren @ 31: “…original ten commandments…”

    Now that’s just being silly.

    Exactly: everyone knows that there were originally fifteen.

  31. Erp says

    And of course, the 1978 “revelation” had NOTHING to do with the fact that no other major universities would play football against BYU any more.

    I’m not sure about no other major university since plenty practiced de facto segregation even if it were only in what positions were available though certainly some did boycott BYU sports (Stanford I believe was the first but that had started nearly a decade before).

    A more important issue was that the LDS was evangelizing Brazil (the first temple there opened in 1978), a country where many people have ‘mixed’ ancestry. It was perhaps getting difficult to explain that a man could be a priest (which for men is a sign of full membership) but his sons could not due to the mother being ‘black’ in the eyes of the LDS.

  32. says

    A more important issue was that the LDS was evangelizing Brazil (the first temple there opened in 1978), a country where many people have ‘mixed’ ancestry.

    Yeah, that whole “cursed by God” “Mark of Cain” thing kinda falls apart when you get outside the USA, doesn’t it? What, God’s curse doesn’t work across national borders? It’s a glaring testament to Mor[m]on stupidity and insularity that they didn’t think of this earlier. Such ignorance of how things are in other countries might be forgivable if it hadn’t been hard-wired into their official “absolute divine truth” from the get-go.

  33. timothyyoung says

    Professor or Mormon Theology? I suppose Professors of mainstream Protestant or Catholic theology must look down their noses at this guy. ‘Oh c’mon now, Bott, you just stand up there and pull stuff out of your ass, right?’

  34. says

    “I’m sure there are dozens of comparative literature professors who did their desertations on Tolkien’s works.”

    I imagine that there is a trendy little cafe that has “Baked Orodruin”–a molten center sortacake covered in chocolate ice cream, topped with meringue and sprinkled with multi-colored “Orc” jimmies–on it desertations menu. :>)

    Sooooooooooo, Jesus, Buddha, Kali and Baal walk into a bar–no they don’t–they don’t fucking EXIST! Ha,ha,ha,ha!!!

  35. wheatdogg says

    @15 d cwilson:
    I’m sure there are dozens of comparative literature professors who did their desertations on Tolkien’s works.

    Well, speaking as a comp lit major, I can say the main difference would be that we know what we analyze is fantasy. Religion profs like Bott, on the other hand, believe what they analyze is actual true historical fact.

    And it’s “dissertations”, by the way. Desertations is something you do in an oasis, as in that old Maria Muldaur song.

  36. says

    “it was started much more recently than the Abrahamic religions”

    Sorry to nitpick, but I’d have thought that Mormonism was one of the Abrahamic religions (if you are going to classify as a religion in its own right and not just a sect of Christianity).

    Also, forgive the puerility, but I can’t be the only one to think that if your name was, in all seriousness, Randy Bott, you wouldn’t want to be affiliated with one of the more gay-bashing churches there is…surely?

    Maybe it sounds less silly to Americans than to a Brit.

  37. Reginald Selkirk says

    The GOP nomination would have been so much more interesting if it came down to Romney vs Cain.

    I was hoping for a Cain and McCain ticket. Just think of the Gog and Magog jokes.

  38. lofgren says

    Now that’s just being silly.

    ??

    Jones: Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School? Look, the Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them into the Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called The Temple of Solomon, where it stayed for many years, till all of a sudden… whoosh, it was gone.

    This line is the only reason that I knew that the ten commandments were smashed by Moses.

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