I recently had a conversation with a Mormon girl on Twitter, in which I tried to explain the extent of the LDS Church’s past racism (which has since mellowed into a more lovable brand of ethnocentrism, yay!) I presented her with quotes such as the ones below to highlight how from-the-top the Church’s racism was, and how current LDS teachings on what happened ignore just how bad the situation was:
“Negroes in this life are denied the Priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them… negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow there from, but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, is based on his eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of Spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate.” – Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1966, pp. 527-528.
“Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 10, page 110.
After realizing that she couldn’t deny the source of the quotes, she gave a response typical of someone experiencing the mental stress of their beliefs being challenged by evidence. She went into protective shut-down mode and said, “I don’t understand everything that has happened throughout church history, I just know that God loves us and guides His church.”
The issue being discussed didn’t have to be racism. It could have been polygamy, polyamory, child brides, blood atonement, Adam-God theory, Joseph’s failed prophecies and history as a treasure hunting fraudster—any of the many issues the LDS Church has had to whitewash over the years that this girl likely knew very little about. Chances are, she still would have defaulted to that “I don’t know why things happened the way they did, but I still know the church is true” response. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to stick with racism, and we’re going to quickly go through an important logical process that Mormons usually don’t follow in their desperation to avoid that which is faith destroying.
Let’s break down exactly why Mormons don’t (and can’t) have any satisfactory, faith-promoting answers for issues like the priesthood ban, because the overarching answer is simply, “The LDS Church is not true, and it’s only because of underexposure to evidence and overexposure to conditioning that you haven’t realized it yet.”
So, you’re a faithful Mormon and you hear something new and unsettling about church history—in this case, related to racism. You already knew that there was a priesthood ban for black people until 1978 (maybe you didn’t know the exact year it was lifted), but you’ve never really thought about it too much, let alone read quotes showing just how racist prophets’ teachings were. Reading one or several for perhaps the first time is jarring, especially when you see that the source is not some crazy “anti-Mormon” website you’ve been warned about (lol), but the Journal of Discourses, or another official publication of the Church. You feel anxious and frustrated—certain that there’s some explanation that the unfaithful person showing you the quote hasn’t grasped. You’re annoyed because your faith is built on so many different things—you aren’t going to abandon your beliefs because of something one ex-Mormon shows you—but you also don’t know a whole lot about the issue. You want to defend the Church, but you’re not sure how. You don’t understand everything, but you do know that the Church is true. You’re as certain about that as you are anything in life, and to lose your faith would be beyond devastating—so devastating you literally can’t even comprehend it happening.
These are pretty high stakes! There’s a lot of pressure for your brain to comfortably resolve the cognitive dissonance you experience when you read something racist Mormon leaders taught in the past, and it’s not going down without a fight! You’re going to doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith because that’s what you’ve been taught is right, and you’re not going to start questioning something your entire life has been built on just because of one new piece of evidence! However, denying the source of the evidence isn’t really possible in this situation, because it’s right there in the Journal of Discourses. In the past you’ve been able to brush off arguments that are critical of your faith because they were either based in emotion that didn’t resonate with you or you figured it must have been from some anti-Mormon source from Satan. But not today!
Reading new evidence of your beloved Church leaders being racist is tough for your brain, because it means one of two things:
Those are the only two explanations for the LDS Church’s racism—either it was from God or it wasn’t from God. Both are uncomfortable for a Mormon brain to process, so it usually settles for half-formed “maybes” to try and minimize the issue in their minds. (“God banned certain tribes from the priesthood in the Bible! Maybe it was fine until 1978 too!”)
Saying that “prophets are human/the products of their time/they make mistakes too” isn’t a satisfactory justification for the priesthood ban and racist teachings, because it neglects to recognize that those prophets delivered their messages with the same authority that leaders today teach things. And if you’re going to tell yourself those things as your Soothing Excuse, you have to accept that prophets have been wrong about a lot of things, and will no doubt continue to be wrong about a lot of things. Gay marriage, anyone? (For any Mormons thinking, “But that’s so different, the family is at the core of the whole gospel message, the Church will never change its position on gay marriage”, spend some time reading how the black priesthood ban was talked about and taught.)
For many difficult issues with Mormonism, there are only a finite number of potential explanations, and usually they’re all uncomfortable for Mormons, so they continue on with their “We don’t know everything” mindset and try to ignore reality. FairMormon is a great example of Mormons offering any excuse possible to justify obvious signs that the LDS Church isn’t what it claims to be. The not-official-but-kind-of-official-but-who-really-knows apologetics site often ignores logic and evidence in favor of answers that feel comfortable and almost plausible if you don’t think about them too much or dive too deep into the sources they will and won’t accept as valid. Intellectual integrity is not the goal of FairMormon—the goal is to justify any and every potential doubt someone could have about the LDS Church, regardless of how much solid evidence said doubt is based on. It’s a thrill ride that accelerated my journey out of the Church, as I realized how weak and unsupported by logic their justifications for things were.
All it really takes for Mormons to “wake up” is some basic research that involves examining evidence, determining its validity, and recognizing that both/all potential justifications aren’t satisfactory and there’s no magic way to somehow make it all ok. As you learn more about LDS Church history, you start seeing a pattern of dishonesty and false narratives, and your testimony begins to unwind—usually making justification pit stops along the way because you want it all to be true. It’s a fairly horrific process for your brain to go through, so naturally, it avoids it at all costs.