Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Report "of a Different Color"

Click on the pic for Amazon's link to buy
I finished my copy of W. Paul Reeve's Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. (Oxford University Press, New York, 2015)

It did not disappoint, even if my translation from the Portuguese of our "extra" discussion on race from my mission in Brazil did not get cited. There were still other personal connections to the book. My friend, Ardis, from Keepa, gets special mention in Reeve's acknowledgements as well as the son of a good friend, Christopher Rich, Jr. (I work with his dad, C.R. the Senior). And Reeve already seems like a friend even if I haven't yet met him. He is cited in my pieces here on Mormonism and Race.

The book is very readable and well referenced. It is amazing how the premise makes so much sense once you see so many illustrations from the 19th and early 20th Century forms of political cartoons. The idea is simply that Mormons were considered so far outside of "mainstream" American culture since the beginnings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that they were considered a different race - a sub-race frequently linked to Native Americans (no surprise) and African-Americans (some surprise, but the evidence is all there!). This began even before polygamy was established and linked the Mormons to "degenerate" Asian practices. Then, there were the European "dregs of society" who, upon joining Mormonism, confirmed their depraved and ignorant nature separate from respectable American Society (i.e., white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant).

In first defending and then distancing polygamy, Mormons made the mistake of adopting too much from the "respectable" Protestant American culture and became too "white." The Priesthood and Temple bans on Africans of color followed the justifications of White American culture and even scriptural interpretation - all now declared false by the LDS Church.

Here is a hard-hitting excerpt from the book after discussing the fact that the Prophet, Joseph Smith, had approved the ordination of African-American men to the priesthood:
. . . . [T]he priesthood ban as an a priori assumption hardened even more into something real and tangible in the minds of its creators, shaped and molded by men, baked in the desert sun of accumulated precedent and the heat of distant memories, and then laid at God's feet as if no human hands had touched it. John Taylor began that process in 1879, and Joseph F. Smith finished it in 1908. Other LDS Leaders participated along the way, with each succeeding generation becoming increasingly locked into the previous generation's precedent, especially as they grew to believe that it was a pattern established by Joseph Smith himself.  p. 199.
It wasn't established by Joseph Smith but began under Brigham Young - not that he was the only one to promote it.

Fortunately, Reeve provides a very frank discussion of the movement towards the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood under President Spencer W. Kimball. The best discussion of this process, cited by Reeve in fn. 35, p. 318, remains Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2005) [See my discussion of this at my page on Mormonism and Race.]

Reeve ends his book with a conclusion chapter that may prove a little controversial or at least uncomfortable for some in that he explains how our process "from not white to too white" culminated in --- Mitt Romney. This remains an ironic twist of history as his father, George Romney, Governor of Michigan, while maybe not marching hand-in-hand with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a proponent of Civil Rights in the 1960s contrary to most (but not all) of the members and leadership of his LDS Faith. Nothing is ever easy.

So I will end this before I launch into more controversies with a hearty recommendation. Buy and read this book!

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