Was 1978 the right year?By: Mormon Heretic
As we come upon the 34th anniversary of the lifting of the priesthood/temple ban, I thought it would be interesting to discuss whether 1978 was the “right year”. The priesthood and temple ban was lifted in a 1978 revelation given to President Spencer W. Kimball and the Twelve Apostles. With Civil Rights being a big issue in the 1960′s, there are many who criticize the church for taking so long in lifting the priesthood ban on black men, and the temple ban on black men and women, or people who married black men and women. Marguerite Driessen gave an interesting perspective in a panel discussion at Mormon Matters. The following transcript comes from Part 2 of the discussion. There is also an interesting speculation by Brad Kramer on why President McKay, who had prayed to have the ban lifted, did not receive inspiration to lift the ban during his lifetime. I wanted to post the part of the conversation, and get your thoughts.
Marguerite, “I do think there are many issues that relate to why this is such a tender issue for some, and such an abrasive issue for others, and yet even a non-issue for some others, and people in those groups probably would surprise you. I’ve known white people much more offended and hurt by the ban—that they’ve come to call the Priesthood ban, but now after talking to Brad, I will call it a Temple Ban, I will just call it ‘The Ban’ or whatever, to make sure that we know it was more than just priesthood—much more hurt and offended by it than say I am, having joined the church in 1981 when it was over. And I didn’t join in Utah, I joined out in Washington, DC.”
Gina interrupts, “Can I just ask a question? If you had known about it, would you have joined the Church?”
Marguerite, “I had known that there was a priesthood restriction until ’78 when I joined the Church. I also knew it wasn’t there anymore. What I never heard before ’81 was the folklore that people had invented to support it. So it actually didn’t affect me at all. I get asked, how can you join a church that is so racist?
And I said, well the policy doesn’t exist anymore, so what are you really asking me? And it turns out, well, they had this policy and they had it longer than other people. And that point, I actually am really comfortable with, and perhaps have a very different perspective than some other people and perhaps it comes from my legal background, but I will tell you—I studied, I studied, the Civil Rights acts of ’54 or ’64. I mean I studied those de-segregation cases and I even met say you know Brown vs Board of Education—famous U.S. case that ended segregation in public education, the girls who were the subject of that lawsuit came to speak at BYU when I was part of the hosting team and spent hours and hours with them over the course of the time that they were here.
You know, it’s a really interesting perspective to talk to really little girls who at the age of 7 had to be escorted to school by the National Guard, or by police because the policy changed from the top down, and the people were angry and resentful and they still had their racist attitudes, and those attitudes had not changed. My perspective on this restriction and the lifting of it and the timing is that, you know, thank goodness God waited until ‘78 because what might have been the result had he moved sooner in other contexts?
I want to explain that which is that when I think of an 8-year old girl, a 7-year old, 9-year old, having to have police protection to walk to school, having excrement thrown at them, being sworn at, having people trying to beat them, throwing rocks, throwing food, throwing garbage, the image that came to me immediately was I knew to my soul that that is not the way that God wanted any of his children to have to go to church. If this ban had come from the top down too soon, that is what people like me would have faced when we embraced the gospel. The doctrine that did not contain the racist poison.
You know certainly there are some questionable texts, and that could be the subject of another Mormon Matters podcast, but I also think that part of those questionable texts, part of the reason that they have had the impact is because people look at them through a lens that is already darkened with racial prejudice through histories of institutional racism, and social racism that they have been trained to accept as normal, so that they think of things in racial terms that were not thought of that way at the time people were writing, and certainly not thought of that way say in the time of the Old Testament or New Testament. But I know in my core that there’s no way Heavenly Father wanted his children to have to go to church with the National Guard to protect them because people around them didn’t want them there.
One absolute benefit of this revelation coming as late as it did is that it came at a time when the vast majority of the people in the church wanted it. A vast majority of people in the church were praying for it individually, and scores of them were writing and lobbying their church leadership to change this hurtful damaging policy for racial reasons, and for compassionate reasons, and for doctrinal reasons all of which were well and good, but what it really meant is [that] when that revelation came in ’78, it was greeted with joy. It was greeted with welcome, almost uniformly throughout the church even among people who still clung to some racist ideas, they believed that denying people blessings for any reason other than their own unworthiness was bad, and that is a benefit from this that is the one aspect of the discussion that we’re not talking about. I don’t deny that it was racist, not at all. I don’t deny that it was horrible, and I don’t deny that it was hurtful. Coming into the church after it was over, I was spared all of that hurt, and I was spared that damage, and I was spared that marginalization, and only then had to deal with the residual, ‘how do you deal with a black person when you’ve been trained all your life to think of them as the cursed seed of Cain with whom you should not mix your blood?’ and people trying to work their way around that or through that.
But I see things, coming this way at it, and I don’t know Gina in answer to your question, had I found the gospel or the Book of Mormon before ’78, I don’t know that I would have had the courage or the faith of a Darius Gray to join the church anyway and to trust that it will all work out in the end. I joined at a time when the policy was gone, and all I had to do was be able to have a thick skin about the people around me who had not quite caught up with the policy in terms of total equality of access to God’s love and God’s blessings.”
Gina, “Do you think though that Marguerite, that if the church had been allowed to thrive in black communities as kind of black LDS churches, that that might have been a safe place for people. Can you think of anything historically that might have impeded the possibility of…?
Marguerite interrupts, “No, not anything that would have impeded the possibility, but look around you right now. Churches that allowed black congregations to exist and have black ministers, they exist. My dad was Roman Catholic. When we went to his parents home, or went to their church when we had his mom’s funeral, my grandmother’s funeral, there was a whole church full of black Catholic people. But guess what? That is the church where all the black Catholic people went. The white Catholic people to this day don’t go to that building, they go somewhere else. That is the kind of history we could have ended up with had there not been that 10 more years, and that’s really what we’re talking about here.
Ten more years in changing the policy from the top down resulted in a today, a today in which there is not the church on that corner where black Mormons go, and the church on that corner where the white Mormons go, which is the case with Catholics, which is what I have experience with; Methodists as well, which is what my mom was Methodist. I have friends who are Southern Baptist, friends who are Episcopalian, friends who are in religions that did not have a formal priesthood ban or a priesthood restriction for black people until 1978, but to this day have segregated congregations, not by doctrine, not by ecclesiastical fiat, but simply by tradition where people grew apart racially, and now we, as the LDS Church have the opportunity truly to be of one heart and one mind, to be one fold with one shepherd, who is Jesus Christ, and not the pastor on that corner versus the pastor on the other corner.”
Gina, “Well, I mean we have such centralized control though. I wonder if that would be such a bad thing. Like in 2012 the big issue of course would be, how do we bring our two kinds of thriving communities, a black community and a white community into conversation with each other? I’m just kind of throwing that out there.”
Brad, “Segregation is creeping back in because of immigration. There aren’t all-black units in Utah, but there are all Mexican units in Arizona.”
Marguerite, “Well, let me re-phrase, there are units, but they tend to be language units more than anything else. There is no law—the Church has always had a policy of allowing everyone to be taught the gospel in their own language, and so what we have to guard against is the potential for having a Spanish language branch or a Chinese language branch or something like this where people can congregate in their own tongue from becoming a culture apart, like the black Catholic church on one corner in Baltimore, and the white Catholic church across town.”
Brad, “That’s what I’m saying. I know that there are language units everywhere in the church where there’s the need for it. But what I’m hearing about what’s going in some parts of Arizona is that the division is hardening along these more culturally antagonistic lines.”
Gina, “Yes, absolutely.”
Marguerite, “Well, Arizona has some other issues though. Arizona also has the extremely harsh immigration laws. There are other factors contributing to that…”
Brad interrupts, “Right, no question.”
Marguerite, “…in that location, but they do not yet exist everywhere else. I’m not denying that they exist. I’m not denying that they may be coming into existence, but I guarantee you other issues are playing into that in Arizona that are not playing into it as much in other places, where once people are comfortable in English, they don’t feel the need to only attend the Spanish branch anymore.”
Dan, “Cool. Brad, I want to steer to you for just one second, and then Gina I want to go with you. Brad, what I’m hoping is there was something in your blog post that sort of said similar things to what Marguerite said about perhaps the timing was right if it had happened when David O. McKay was petitioning the Lord. Some of the things she was saying there. Do you have any follow up, or did she articulate basically the point that you were making in your blog post or was there pieces that were left out?”
Brad, “No there’s a follow up that I wanted to make, a kind of perhaps slightly different, but also complimentary read on the sort of question we’re defining. By the time this is becoming a real problem—for a long time the ban exists and it’s not a—nobody is treating it as a problem. Nobody considers it to be a problem. It’s not until during the 20th century that you get to the point where anybody on the inside, certainly anybody at the center of the church is considering it a problem at all, and it becomes increasingly a problem. So you have people starting to ask questions about it.
So then the issue becomes, from the perspective of God, you’ve got 2 problems. You’ve got a church where this ban exists, it’s already there, regardless of where it came from, it’s already there, but it’s also a church that’s profoundly racist, and where lots of racist sentiment exists. So then you’ve got to deal with the question well ok, if I the Lord end this policy by fiat right now, say it’s 1950, ok? A little ahead of the curve so to speak. I’m going to end this policy right now. Then it’s very easy to imagine that the consequence of that would have been black priesthood holders presiding over black units, black temple workers officiating in black temples.
In other words, racism can still exist in the church and all the really—you can basically approach the question as ok, blacks are still inferior but they can still have the priesthood now. Those two things could have been compatible with each other. So when I look at someone like David O. McKay, vigorously opposed Civil Rights legislation, and not just on the grounds of sort of constitutional technicalities, but opposed Civil Rights legislation because he was uncomfortable with integration, and because he was uncomfortable with what he would have described as race-mixing.
So if somebody like that is asking me, can the blacks have the priesthood? If essentially what he’s asking me is can we finally give this inferior race some priesthood here? My answer is going to be stop asking, it’s not going to happen when you’re in charge—exactly the answer that he got.
Marguerite, “Well, and I would also add to that— we’ve been told as LDS people that God has a really interesting way of hiding the mysteries of the universe. He doesn’t tell us anything if we just ask. He will give us everything if we just ask. But it’s not just asking. Oliver Cowdery learned that. What are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to study it out in your own mind, you’re supposed to come up with an answer, and then you ask God if your answer is right. So we know from historical events and conversations and statements that McKay made and others made, that McKay was taking a question to the Lord, but do you know what that question was?”
Dan, “Yeah, he wasn’t framing it right.”
Marguerite continues, “Do you know how it was framed? The fact is, he was bringing a question to the Lord, but it very may not have been, ‘I have decided now is the right time. Do you concur?’ It might have been something else.”
Brad, “Yeah, and it goes to this larger question of the relationship between the ban and the racist teachings. Because what ends up happening, the longer the ban persists, the more it becomes a sort of millstone around our neck. It becomes an embarrassment, something to be boycotted, and a big problem and everyone is trying to deal with it and try to figure out what to do about it. People are digging their heels in to explain it and to rationalize it, and the effect of all of this pressure is that this pressure locks all of this racist sentiment in the Church to the ban. And the longer the ban persists, the more the ban gets tied to the racist sentiment, and the racist teachings, and the racist idea about the differences between people of African descent, and people without African lineage.
And so the effect can then be that when God tells the church, and we don’t know what he said. We don’t have the revelation, right? Official Declaration 2 is the language that church leaders use to announce to the church that a revelation has been received. It’s not the language of any revelation. We don’t know what the revelation was other than that the substance of it was, all worthy male members. And so what happens is that all of this waiting, persistent waiting, this embarrassing sort of how long it’s taking, and all of the racist teachings and rationalizations lead to a moment when God can say, every worthy male member, and that alone can stand as a repudiation of all the racist nonsense.
Marguerite, “And that’s how Bruce R. McConkie interpreted it when he in his ‘78 in his devotional address said forget everything that everybody’s ever said cause they didn’t have the light that we now have. Not that He gave us everything they gave him, that the presidency got. As you said, we didn’t get the actual revelation. We got the announcement, but Bruce R. McConkie specifically said, forget anything we’ve ever said about this explaining it. Anything, it all came without the knowledge, with lesser light, lesser knowledge. It was wrong. He acknowledged that. People still kept their pet theories.
Dan, “Right. But it hasn’t come from a General Conference pulpit yet. I think it needs to come from a First Presidency member in General Conference to really have the true effect, so we’ll hope for that.
If you’d like to see the previous conversation, I talked about Misunderstanding Racism with this same panel. What do you think of Marguerite’s belief that 1978 was the right time? What do you think of Brad’s speculation about President McKay? Do you have any thoughts about the cultural problems in Arizona?