(Before commenting on this post I would ask that you read the entire post. The point of this essay is to promote civil discussion and dialogue. Extreme polemics and ad hominem attacks are not helpful for any discussion. Be careful how you use and define labels. The following comments are offered in the spirit of understanding-I hope that our readers will participate in the same spirit. Please think before you write.)The copious debates that have followed David’s post regarding a BYU program that perpetuates some of the myths regarding African Americans and the priesthood have proved that the Bloggernacle and members of the church in general still have divided feelings about the ban, its origins, and its perpetuation. I agree wholeheartedly that the folklore around the ban must cease, but I am much more interested in the reason why such views continue to exist despite all the historical scholarship that forcefully places the origin of the ban during Brigham Young’s presidency. Why do people feel obligated to defend such obviously racist folklore revolving around premortal valiance or dalliance? I think the answer can be found in the Mormon conceptualization of historicity. I utilize the idea of historicity to describe the ways in which people understand how history progresses over time. In my mind, conceptions of historicity, when considering the flow of history from a religious point of view, vary along an axis between those that believe God directs every effort of man and those who hold no belief at all in a higher being.
By no means is this continuum of historical perception restricted to Mormons; in fact, most Mormons probably inhabit the more believing end of the spectrum, but would lag behind many born again Christians. Nevertheless, I find the heterogeneity of Mormon views about the extent of God’s role in the world and throughout the ebb and flow of historical time fascinating-particularly when perceptions of polarized beliefs catalyze such obvious hostility. Terryl Givens has theorized that paradox is at the heart of much of the Mormon experience, and I thought it might be interesting to explore the kinds of paradoxical Mormon understandings that might undergird arguments over historical questions like the Priesthood ban and that create labels such as liberal or conservative.
Givens has spent much of his scholarly career positing that the truly radical and possibly dangerous potential of Mormon theology lies in the way that we collapse the distance between God and man. For those who followed or continue to follow Joseph Smith, a variety of factors from the creation of Zion, the emergence of new revelation, the building of temples, the translation of the Book of Mormon, and the telling and retelling of the foundation stories of Restoration all serve as evidences of an interventionist God.. Yet Mormons also believe in a God that lets bad things happen to good people and who allows people to act in very despicable ways in order to guarantee their agency. This paradox exists fairly comfortably under the radar of mainstream Mormonism until moments when hagiography comes into conflict with the historical record. When such contradictions seem to emerge, such as in the case of the priesthood ban, differing sentiments of historicity tend to polarize the discussion.
For example, when historians point out the seemingly racist decision made by Brigham Young to deny African Americans access to the priesthood and leadership in the church, some find such a characterization antithetical to their personal conception of an interventionist God. “God couldn’t possibly allow a racist prophet to create a racist policy and allow subsequent leaders of the church to perpetuate such a racist policy.” Thus, over time church leaders developed various justifications for the priesthood ban that allowed them to maintain their conception of an activist God who intervenes in the lives of those in his church. Even though current church policy has pulled the rug from under these folklorical explanations without replacing them, people still stand up to protect their former prophets and leaders because these men stand as embodied reminders of the way God intervenes in the world.
On the other hand, historians and other scholars, with training in critical thinking, are often trained to see the entire scope of human experience-both good and bad. Historical studies make them aware of all of the horrible incidents of violence, injustice, and greed in the world. Knowledge of such human depravity and horror makes them much more cynically aware of the necessity for a theodicy-a philosophical explanation for the existence of evil in the world). They realize that the concept of agency offers one possible theodicy for the terrible things that sometimes happen around us. They are much more willing to consign the blame for the Holocaust on evil men than on the will of God. For those that think this way, the idea of a god that would permit such obvious racial inequality as manifested in the Priesthood Ban does not mesh with their conception of a perfect and just Creator. They want to assure their African American brothers and sisters that God is no respecter of persons, and that all men are equal before His face. They also have little patience for anti-historical justifications for the ban.
For the sake of understanding, I am presenting caricatures of two strains of Mormon thought. I think at their most profound, the positions are both much more nuanced than I am portraying and there are many people that inhabit the middle ground of this debate. Those that frame the ban as a creation of racist agency within an intensely racist era have the added advantage of historical data demonstrating that rhetoric for the ban began in the presidency of Brigham Young. They also have irrefutable evidence that Elijah Abel received the priesthood with the approbation of the Prophet Joseph Smith. On the other hand, doctrinal explanations like Pre-mortal weakness and the curse of Cain have been refuted by current church leaders and the official explanation of “we don’t know” leaves the historical side with a viable explanation while the other side has lost its authoritarian justifications-though the church has never refuted the ban or those that instituted it..
This post isn’t meant to start another debate about the racist versus divine origins of the priesthood ban. I am just trying to show the humanity involved in each side of the debate. I understand and sympathize with those that want to protect the leaders of the church, but I also truly respect those who push for a
apology repudiation as an institutional assurance that God loves all of his children. Both groups operate in a revelatory vacuum as the Lord has decided to leave us to our own devices on this question in our current historical moment. I hope that by understanding that one side isn’t out to refute the church or the existence of God, while the other is striving to protect their conception of an interventionist Heavenly Father that both sides can work together to build the church and a more equitable world.