Taking the Lead: Mormon Church Condemns White Supremacy
By Gregory A Prince
Mormons have been on both ends of the persecution/discrimination stick. Driven at gunpoint from Missouri in the late 1830s and taking temporary refuge in Illinois, they saw their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, murdered by a mob as law enforcement officers stood by passively. Two years later, driven from Illinois, they sought temporary refuge outside the United States, only to be subjected to persecution once again as Utah Territory became part of the United States.
Threatened by the federal government with disenfranchisement because of their practice of plural marriage, Mormons retaliated by terrorizing federal officials, some of whom fled the territory in the dead of night, fearful for their lives.
Discrimination against Blacks, a milder albeit unjustifiable form of persecution, began with Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, who declared that no man with even a drop of black African “blood” could be ordained to the church’s otherwise universal male lay priesthood. Young’s action was buoyed by the Book of Mormon, wherein a persistent theme is the coupling of dark skin with wickedness, and of white skin with righteousness. With the priesthood ban hovering in the background, by the middle of the 20th century Utah was as unwelcoming to Blacks as was the Deep South. Even the church’s otherwise progressive president, David O. McKay, defended the right of businessmen to deny lodging and other services on the basis of race, preached against interracial marriage, and denounced efforts to end school segregation.
Although there was near-universal rejoicing within the Mormon Church when church president Spencer W. Kimball dropped the priesthood ban in 1978, racism remained an endemic problem of sufficient magnitude that church president Gordon B. Hinckley, in an unprecedented move, used the forum of the church’s world conference in 2006 to denounce it in strong language. “No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.”
But even Hinckley’s denunciation wasn’t enough to quell Mormon racism. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 election, in which Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, Utah ranked fourth in the country—trailing only Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia—in generating racist tweets.
More recently, church leaders took a pass on condemning Islamophobia in the United States, despite parallels between 19th century persecution of Mormons and 20th century persecution of Muslims that would have given a Mormon denunciation unique moral authority.
It is this historical backdrop that made the Mormon Church statement this week particularly newsworthy. After an initial statement that did not employ the term “white supremacy” was perverted by some as justification for their racism, the church responded on Tuesday with an unprecedented and unequivocal denunciation:
“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.… 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.”
While many, including some Republican elected officials, have called out Donald Trump by name, the church statement was consistent with a longstanding policy of non-engagement in partisan politics—in essence, condemning the sin without naming the sinner. Nonetheless, the statement was still remarkable given the “redness” of Utah and the backlash from its Republican (and largely Mormon) base several years ago when a member of the church’s First Presidency announced unity with the Obama Administration on immigration policy.
It is no secret that Mormon Congressmen from Utah consult with church officials on a variety of issues, nor should it be surprising. The Mormon Church is the largest institutional constituency within the state, and elected officials are obligated to represent both individuals and institutions within their districts. While such officials sometimes speak out while the church remains silent—recall denunciations by Utah Senator Mike Lee and Utah Governor Gary Herbert of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” boasts of female groping—public statements by the church serve to provide cover to Utah Republicans who are in continual danger of being “primaried” by the far right wing of the party.
Indeed, the first casualty of the tea party movement in 2010 was Senator Robert Bennett, who was ambushed by tea party candidate (and current Senator) Mike Lee for having been too moderate. Senator Orrin Hatch’s passionate denunciation of President Trump’s defense of neo-Nazism—“We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”—will carry additional weight because of the church’s statement. Perhaps other elected officials will now feel emboldened to condemn the sin of white supremacy—and even the sinner.
Perhaps Charlottesville will be Donald Trump’s “bridge too far.”
Gregory A. Prince is an American pathology researcher, businessman, author, and historian of the Latter Day Saint movement.