A strudel for Lawrence
He can’t say he wasn’t warned about the strudel, either.
So, Lawrence O’Donnell seems to have an interesting set of beliefs about Mormons and Romney. His discussion is a little disjointed, but as far as I can tell from his interview, his Hewitt interview, and his Huffington Post column, his beliefs can basically be distilled into some major ideas. For example:
1. Early Mormon leaders said some strange things.
2. All of those strange things play an important role in Mormonism today.
3. There are no moderate Mormons. All Mormons fervently believe everything that any prior church leader has ever said, and they accord those statements a very high priority.
3a. Mitt Romney is not a moderate Mormon. (This follows naturally from “there are no moderate Mormons”).
4. Therefore, Mitt Romney’s worldview is closely linked to any strange thing Brigham Young may have said 150 years ago.
5. Romney’s refusal to state this (and to discuss Mormon theology and/or history in detail) makes him a liar.
Let’s look at a few of these ideas.
First, O’Donnell points out that early church leaders said some problematic things. And of course, he’s right. For instance, Brigham Young spoke publicly on a few occasions against interracial marriage. O’Donnell cites to one of these, a sermon where Brigham Young states, “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.” Yep, that’s a pretty awful thing to say.
Of course, it’s not really that surprising of a statement, coming from a mid-19th-century white person. Unfortunately, these kinds of views were rather mainstream at the time. Most contemporaneous whites believed that interracial marriage was wrong. Really! Quick quiz: Which 19th-century figure said this about interracial marriage?
I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
That would be Abraham Lincoln.
Yep, it was the mid-19th Century, and most white people held ugly, racist views. Brigham Young was one of them. His 19th-century views on interracial marriage don’t stand up well today; neither do Lincoln’s, and neither do the ideas about race held by most 19th-century white elites.
So, why are we worried about what Brigham Young said in the 19th century? In linking this idea to Mitt Romney, or to Mormonism today, O’Donnell implies that these statements have some sort of salience today. That claim is just silly.
Let’s start with provenance. The Brigham Young statement cited comes from the Journal of Discourses. The JD, as historians call it, is a 26-volume collection of 1,500 transcribed sermons given by dozens of different church leaders over a 30-year period. It’s kinda like the Congressional Record. If anyone said anything, it went into the JD. This is why it’s 26 volumes and thousands of pages.
There are huge problems with any suggestion that the JD has much salience today. First, the JD is not church doctrine, and has no binding weight as church doctrine. Church members read the scriptures regularly; many don’t even know that the JD exists.
Not only is it not doctrinal — the JD is also essentially unknown to most church members. I grew up as a church member, and my parents didn’t have a copy of the JD in their home. (Why would they? 26 volumes of old talks.) I don’t have one in my home now, and I’ve got well over a hundred church books on my shelves. I do keep thinking that I should get one, but that’s because I’ve been doing some historical reading, and it’s interesting as a an old historical relic. No one, except for a real history junkie, has a copy of the JD on their shelves.
The church publishes an official manual called the Teachings of Brigham Young. This is a book-sized official church publication, on every church member’s bookcase, and it’s one that church members are instructed to teach class out of, every Sunday, for a year. This is what Mormons today actually read, study, follow, out of Brigham Young’s teachings. And the line about race isn’t part of this collection. (Check for yourself — the entire manual is available online.)
I’ve been attending church regularly for over 30 years, and I have never once heard Brigham Young’s line about interracial marriage cited in a church setting. Ever.
And I personally know church members who are in interracial marriages — and no one gets killed or cast out. One member who I personally know, a Black man in an interracial marriage, was the bishop of a ward that I attended for four years.
Present-day church leaders also give highly public sermons about the evils of racism. They make statements like, “God’s second commandment, love thy neighbor, clearly leaves no room for racism” and “I have learned to admire, respect, and love the good people from every race, culture, and nation that I have been privileged to visit. In my experience, no race or class seems superior to any other in spirituality and faithfulness.” A lengthy recent statement from church leader Gordon B. Hinckley condemned racism in no uncertain terms:
Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.
Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.
Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.
Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.
So, let’s see:
Brigham Young said some problematic and racist statements. Yep. Those statements were unfortunately pretty consistent with elite white thinking at the time; those statements are essentially unknown to most Mormons today, because they’re not doctrinal and the only place anyone could find them is in a musty old collection that nobody reads; those statements set out certain rules (such as prohibiting interracial marriage) that are neither discussed, followed or enforced in the church today. Brigham Young’s statement is unfortunate; unsurprising, given the era; unread; unknown; and unenforced.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t Mormons who are racist jerks. I know some of those, too. That’s unfortunate.
And, it isn’t to say that racist ideas haven’t existed in church. Clearly, racist ideas have existed at various times during church history. At times, racist views seem to have been relatively widespread in the church. (They were pretty widespread out of the church, too.) Brigham Young certainly wasn’t the last prominent church member to hold racist beliefs, and other prominent members have made racist statements over time. There have been some interesting studies, such as those by sociologist Armand Mauss, about the place of racist lore in church culture over time.
And many church members, myself included, find the prior racist statements disturbing. There have been some public repudiations of prior racist statements, which is a good development. I’m not the only church member who would be happy if there were more discussion, and further repudiation and apology for past statements. That would be great. No argument there.
Also, the work of dedicated scholars like Margaret Young, Darius Gray, Newell Bringhurst, Armand Mauss, Lester Bush, and others has been instrumental in highlighting the stories of Black Mormons, including some who are relatively unknown. Emphasizing the stories of Black Mormons is a very positive development, that helps counter past racist ideas.
And of course, there’s always room for improvement. Some members have racist ideas, and things could always be made better. The church isn’t a perfect place, as far as attitudes towards race.
But it’s silly to act as though modern church members teach Brigham Young’s racist ideas as doctrine (they don’t), or that those ideas play a significant role in everyday church membership today.