Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Race and Ron Paul (and Mormons)

The best thing you can say about the Ron Paul newsletter controversy is that his Libertarian sentiments are broad-based to the point that they simple don't recognize race. Worse, and more accurately (IMO), with Paul's attempts to distance himself from an unidentified author, and allowing such expressions under his name without much contemporaneous concern, reflect societal cancers of racial prejudice--at least the prejudice of neglect and avoidance of the malignancy.

I've been reading a quite a few reports on the Paul controversy, mostly on the Atlantic website and on Andrew Sullivan's where he initially endorsed Paul then withdrew the endorsement after a reconsideration of the newsletter issues.

Race is so very, very difficult to discuss in this country. It was much more directly addressed in Brazil when I served there on my LDS Mission. Brazil is not without its racial issues. I'm side-tracking yet bringing myself back to LDS themes as I was in Brazil when the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood extending all church authority and rights to all members including black Africans or those of that heritage. The Temple under construction in São Paulo had to have been part of the motivation for President Kimball's hard work to get that revelation. Just before the revelation, there was a bishop's wife who told me that she thought there might be some black blood in her husband's family. She said that if it had been her, he would drop her in an instant. Of course that might say more about gender issues rather than race.

For my part, I accepted the priesthood ban in my youth without too much thought. My parents tried hard to be fair and respectful on race matters. They were far from being civil rights activists and they inherited some general prejudices on race, but they tried. And that's to their credit. My grandparents even tried. My paternal grandmother who passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 99 acknowledged the positives of her surprise, that she had never expected to see a black President. Grandpa, a bit more crudely, and some years earlier, had said that racial conflicts would only end in this country when there was enough mixing that everybody was born the same shade of brown.

When I went to Brazil in 1976, the policy of the mission was to inquire about the family backgrounds of potential converts. If they had black ancestry of any degree, we could baptize them but could not ordain the men to the priesthood. I accepted that with a little discomfort but didn't think or do too much about it. We had an unofficial discussion in the mission on mimeographed copies to "teach" about the priesthood ban. It was full of all kinds of ideas that were later declared to be false doctrine. I only used it once when I was a District Leader with a black family that had been taught by the other elders to prepare them for baptism. I wanted to make sure they understood what they were were getting into.

Early in the year of 1978, our Mission President - a native Brazilian of European ancestry - directed us that we didn't need to worry if we had questions about a convert's ancestry. He said that without any clear evidence of African ancestry to go ahead and ordain the men to the priesthood, "The Lord would sort it all out." I was fine with that. There was a Brazilian elder who told me he thought the President was apostatizing. My sentiments were with the President. And then the Revelation came.

I was pleased and somewhat surprised by how well it was received in the church. There was not a mass schism or even smaller break-away groups on race policy in my general awareness. The church work proceeds in Africa with Temples in predominately black nations. In fact, besides the Brazilian Temple, there was a large impetus for the revelation because of the several Mormon groups that had self-organized in Africa without the benefit of priesthood authority connected to the presiding authorities at Church Headquarters.

Coming back to President Kimball and the Revelation, I was stunned by the frank chapters in Edward Kimball's book on his father. I have a digital copy on disk from BYU Studies of Lenghthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, (Deseret Boook, Salt Lake City 2005) (Kimball). There are five chapters to tell this story. They are honest and respectful on a challenging and difficult issue.

Edward begins with compliments noting his father's advanced age and his ability to change as he began to question the reasons for the priesthood ban without finding any clear explanations as to why it existed. He also directly yet respectfully deals with contradictions and conclusory statements from past church leaders lacking historical  evidence or scriptural basis for their positions. Similarly to the experience with my Mission President, Kimball reports on indications of spiritual promptings among members of the church of all races as well as leaders indicating that this was a matter the Lord would address to the blessing of faithful members.

One interesting quote reminds me of an inclination that I often have regarding difficult controversies in the church:
To an unbeliever the Church position looked like simple bigotry; to Spencer there seemed no way to explain the policy without being misunderstood, so he talked very little about it. . . .
Kimball, at  211. Yet here I go right in.

President Kimball worked hard to get the Revelation. A concise explanation was provided by President Gordon B. Hinckley:
'Here was a little man [in stature],' President Hinckley is reported to have said, "filled with love, able to reach out to people. . . . He was not the first to worry about the priesthood question, but he had the compassion to pursue it and a boldness that allowed him to act, to get the revelation.'
Id., at 215. One of the more surprising aspects of this pursuit was that:
In June 1977 he invited at least three General Authorities to write memos about the doctrinal basis of the policy and how a change might effect the Church. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote a long treatise concluding that no scriptural barrier existed to a change.  
Id., at 216 (emphasis added). I find that rather astounding. It also helps explains Elder McConkie's later statement to:
'Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
'. . . It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation.'
Id., at 238. Even if  Elder McConkie's rhetoric still got away from him at times, I like this statement and choose to accept this over all other "doctrinal" statements he ever pronounced as it reflects his best side, both on race and on the humility of admitting error. All the previous "explanations" of the curse of Cain, pre-mortal fence-sitting, contorted interpretation of scripture, and certainly, racial inferiority justified by whatever argument--all dissipate as previous error.

And that's where I go with this. None of us human beings are perfect. The important thing is this ability to correct mistakes especially as we seek out with deep spiritual struggles to determine the will of the Lord. Perfection is a process of completion that is only accomplished by the Lord's Grace "after all we can do." We just need to do more and trust more in Him.

Yet there is another very important aspect of President Kimball's struggle. Chapter 22 of his son's book lays out President Kimball's strong desire and patience to allow each member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to come to their own conclusion to accept this as the will of the Lord for unanimity in their leadership of the Church. And he was so careful not to force his personal view on them by "pulling rank" as the prophet and presiding apostle. He once described their final discussion, after all his spiritual struggles, this way:
'. . . I want to know. Whatever the Lord's decision is, I will defend it to the limits of my strength, even to death.'
He then outlined the direction his thoughts had carried him--the fading of his reluctance, the disappearance of objections, the growing assurance he had received, the tentative decision he had reached, and his desire for a clear answer. Once more he asked the Twelve to speak freely and without concern for seniority. Elder McConkie spoke in favor of the change, noting there was no scriptural impediment. President Tanner asked searching questions as Elder McConkie spoke. Elder Packer also favored the change, speaking at length, quoting scripture (D&C 124:49; 56:4-5; 58:32) in support. Eight of the ten volunteered their views, all favorable. President Kimball called on the other two, and they also spoke in favor. Discussion continued for two hours. Elder Packer said a few weeks later, 'One objection would have deterred him, would have made him put it off, so careful was he . . . that it had to be right.'
Id., at 221. Then they sought and received their spiritual confirmation. Revelation doesn't come but by an awful lot of struggle and work. I'll leave you to seek out the reports of the spiritual confirmation or to receive one yourself.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

So what does all this have to do with Ron Paul?

Some out there may be offended by my attempted linkage. But what I see is that Paul and many of his Libertarian followers, some of whom I consider my good friends, seem caught up in dogmatic philosophies or policies without the willingness to progress and change that we see in President Kimball's story. I have heard their explanations that the principles of libertarian freedom and free markets create an equal playing field for all. But we aren't starting from an equal place. We still live with historical wrongs of slavery, segregation, and racial hierarchies that are not resolved by declaring the playing field fair. We have some work to do to get there.

It's not easy. I have a good friend (not African-American and not of a Libertarian-bent) who recently served as President of an inner-city Branch in an eastern city of the U.S. There was very little local priesthood leadership to draw upon. He explained that the local culture was so very resistant to the basic principles of the gospel and church programs that the only real hope any of the members had to really progress in life and the gospel, was to relocate to the suburbs. And once each one left, there went one more prospective, local priesthood leader.

And I've seen myself how challenging it is to integrate African-American members into culturally suburban LDS congregations. As a young, Elder's Quorum President in the mid-eighties, I was excited to inform a recent, middle-aged, African-American convert that the Church was organizing a "Genesis" group in the area for Black Mormons. His response was, "I don't want to be a 'Black' Mormon. I want to be a Mormon." And when I was bishop, there was an African-American single mother convert who claimed that an anonymous someone had called her on the phone to tell her that she and her "n----- brat" were not welcome in our Church. I had my suspicions as to who may have called her, but never enough evidence to initiate a church court. [I should explain that my "suspect" was active but not temple-worthy with a history of other problems. It could also have been some poser from outside the church.]  That women fell away in spite of the efforts of many in the ward to fellowship her. I have more work to do as we all do.

Part of the problem is that I still don't have as many contacts as I would like inside or outside the Church to better understand a different perspective. And I know it's not just one perspective or that anyone should be considered as a part of a unified whole solely based on a racial classification. I just fall into the same traps even if I'm maybe prejudiced on a more "liberal" side.

This may only offend more--I only hope for some additional thought on this matter--a facing of reality as I have tried to do in my own life and religion as respectfully as I can. But I see the Revelation on the Priesthood similarly to the Fourteenth Amendment. Yes, the different contexts in the religious and political spheres, not to mention the distance in time of more than a century create stark differences. But there is that terrific struggle to get to each and the dramatic change from the "accepted" culture that preceded each. While there is no need to wallow in past wrongs in either the religious or political contexts, it also does us no good to ignore the past even if we only do so to accept it and move beyond it.

I have a hard time understanding those who fail to recognize the conflicts over slavery and race that led to the Civil War resulting in the Fourteenth Amendment and the federal Civil Rights laws and enforcement more than a hundred years later continuing into the present. This seems to be common in the Skousenite strain of Mormon conservatism. Sure, the Fourteenth Amendment and Civil Rights laws are not a perfect solution. We still have work to do--just as we do in fully incorporating the gospel of Christ and its blessings to all the peoples of the earth. I just want to see us keep working on both.

February 16, 2012
For a really good summary of Mormonism and racial issues, check out W. Paul Reeve's post at


  1. Ron Paul is not a racist.

    He is the only candidate fully in line with LDS principles and the teachings of the prophets on preserving the Constitution, the dangers of socialism, and the preservation of Liberty.

    He is the most consistent proponent of free agency in the government today, which is the cornerstone of the plan of happiness.

  2. Rachael, Thanks. But I don't think I ever said Paul was a racist. I am just troubled by his lack of support (or seeing the necessity for) civil rights laws and the Fourteenth Amendment. And I strongly dispute your statements on "LDS Principles" for reasons that should be apparent throughout this blog. But, thanks for reading!


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