Apologies & Disavowals

By: hawkgrrrl
September 18, 2012

A recent Huffington Post article discussed the difficulty the Mormon church has in making an official apology for the Priesthood Ban, and according to the article, the reason is not racism.  This will come as no surprise to most Mormons who are not racist but hesitate to completely throw revered prophets and church leaders under the bus.  While the author, Samuel Brown, makes many salient points (the article is certainly worth a read on its own), I’ll boil them down to some underlying themes:

  • Prior generations, whether Mormon or not, were more prone to be racist, and the policy was set by prior generations.
  • Even our current leaders are essentially from prior generations.
  • Mormonism is a community, like an extended family.
  • We revere our recent ancestors, read their journals, tell their stories, and celebrate their sacrifices.
  • Mormons are divided on whether an official repudiation is necessary or will have reverberating effects that shake the foundation of prophetic leadership our church is based on.

There are two aspects of the desire to avoid an official apology that outside critics usually overlook:

Community Loyalty.  Based on my own observations, it’s much easier to disavow aspects of Mormonism that our own families were never involved in.  For example, as someone with no polygamist ancestry and whose family joined the church well after Declaration 1 repudiated the practice, I don’t feel very conflicted about polygamy.  I don’t accept it, and I never did.  Even when YW leaders would talk about it as an eventual theoretical requirement in the Celestial Kingdom, it just seemed so outlandish that I couldn’t imagine it (in fairness, I couldn’t imagine marriage at all at that age, let alone as a second or thirty-third wife).  In a sense that means it’s not an issue for me.  But I have to think that would be different if my own family members descended from polygamists.

The article pointed out the need to defend or at least contextualize views of our recent predecessors that we don’t personally share. Your parents may be sexist.  Your grandparents may be racist.  But they also have loved you, cared for you in your time of need, and in a very real way sacrificed everything for you.  If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t be here.

For many Mormons, an official apology would feel disloyal to their own family members.

Divine Revelation.  Because there is no originating revelation instituting the Priesthood Ban, some members would not be troubled by a disavowal of the same.  For others, it’s a slippery slope.  If you begin to throw out things said by previous leaders, what’s next?  There are other candidates for the chopping block identified in the article:  gender roles and gay marriage.  If leaders were wrong about the Priesthood Ban, what else are they wrong about?

Many LDS find great meaning in the confidence that their leaders are divinely inspired. Because of the theology and structure of their church, many non-racist Mormons have a difficult path ahead.

Personally, I question the value of official apologies.  A few years ago, the Anglican church issued an official apology to Charles Darwin 126 years after his death.  The apology was called “ludicrous” and “pointless.”  After reading about the apology, I was surprised to encounter Darwin’s grave at Westminster Abbey among England’s greatest and most revered intellectual and political leaders.  Wasn’t that a more timely form of reconciliation?  This incident points out some of the reasons that institutional apologies are ineffective:

  • Institutions are usually doing the apology for some political motive.  In the case of the Anglican church, it was to demonstrate to increasingly secular Brits that the church is not anti-science or irrelevant in our rational age.  Since the church was already not anti-evolution, did this really convince anyone?
  • The floodgates are open.  One critic asked what would be next, Italians apologizing for Pontius Pilate?  Every institution has offended someone at some time.  Where do the apologies end?
  • The supposed beneficiary doesn’t get anything from it.  In the case of Darwin, he’s dead and already revered, having been buried in a place of honour.  Who would benefit from an official apology for the ban? Mostly the non-racist members who feel it would absolve them from an institutional sin.  But would it really accomplish that?

Since institutional apologies are always an apology for the actions of others, the point is really to distance ourselves from our predecessors whose views we find repugnant and to align with our contemporaries, usually those outside of our tribe, since those inside our tribe already understand the context.  Is it more important to build that bridge to the outside or to increase our loyalty to the group?  And which effort is more likely to work?

What do you think?

What should the church do at this point about the Priesthood Ban?

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19 Responses to Apologies & Disavowals

  1. Mike S on September 18, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    Because there is no originating revelation instituting the Priesthood Ban, some members would not be troubled by a disavowal of the same. For others, it’s a slippery slope. If you begin to throw out things said by previous leaders, what’s next?

    I think this is the key point. We have not had ANY “originating revelation” added to our canon in decades or longer. We have OD#2 ending the ban on blacks and the priesthood in 1978. We have OD#1 ending polygamy. But other than those, it’s been nearly a century since an official “originating revelation”.

    Instead, we have “squishy” statements. They are things that are indeed preached and taught by prophets and apostles. They become de facto doctrine. These include things like earrings and Coke and beards and changing the sacrament ordinance to exclude wine and whatever. The problem is that these aren’t “set”. Any leader can later come along and say that these were just a prior leader’s opinion but that they aren’t actually “doctrine”. And we end up with things like the caffeine debacle at BYU, where some people are castigating those who are clamoring to had caffeinated sodas by calling them “less” or “not following the prophets”.

    The unfortunate part is that we have a mechanism to prevent all of this. We claim to believe in an open canon. We claim that God can still give revelation to the Church through a prophet. We claim that we can add these revelations “by common consent”. We could easily clarify the “core” of the gospel, and say that for everything else, it is between that individual and God.

    Instead, we are left with “squishy” blogs from the Church’s PR department and statements from a BYU Food Services employee to define our doctrine. And that is very unfortunate. So given how reluctant our leaders are to publicly talk about even mundane things like caffeinated sodas, there is no way they will publicly offer an apology for the priesthood ban.

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  2. ji on September 18, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    There is another reason an apology is not appropriate — the Church is a collection of members and officers — each teaches others as best as he or she knows how — if someone teaches or emphasizes something that differs from his or her predecessor in office, that’s fine and there is no need for an apology.

    Should a new ward Relief Society president issue an “official” apology for something her predecessor said or did? No. A new bishop? No. A new president of the Church? No. We just teach as best we can, with the light and knowledge that we have.

    I joined the Church after 1978, so maybe I don’t carry any guilt like others seem to do. But even those who were members before 1978 need not carry any guilt unless they personally were offensive to others, and then they as individuals need to apologize.

    You ask, “Is it more important to build that bridge to the outside or to increase our loyalty to the group?” It is most important to teach correct principles, as best as one can.

    When I teach young men, I often tell them that whatever were talking about isn’t about right and wrong, it’s just different. So it is with the priesthood ban — there is no need to decry it as wrong or defend it as right — it’s over, it’s gone, its creators are dead and buried. Today the priesthood is open to all men who will qualify themselves for it — that is so wonderful! That’s the story!

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  3. Douglas on September 18, 2012 at 11:17 AM

    No “apology” need be forthcoming since we are talking about the AUTHORIZATION to act in the stead of the Savior. If it is HIS Priesthood, then HE sets its bounds. Else the discussion is meaningless. See D&C 1:38.
    This doesn’t mean that a dissertation on leaving behind some “quaint” notions about race relations wouldn’t be useful. I can understand if those of the African persuasion aren’t necessarily grateful to the late Mark E Petersen for “allowing” them to drive a Cadillac if they can afford one. The LDS, even if well-intentioned, are no less a product of the prevailing culture.

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  4. honey on September 18, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    Did it really affect our lives when a few years ago the state of Illinois apologized for allowing the members of the church to be driven from their state? Really it was my third great-grandparents who lost all their stuff and one child, not me! I hold no resentment to the state of Illinois. Those apologizing weren’t leading the state in 1845 either. Those kind of statements are meaningless!

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  5. Margaret Blair Young on September 18, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    Personal apologies have been made, though. These are my thoughts on Pastor Cecil Murray’s account of Pres. Hinckley’s apology:

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  6. Paolo on September 18, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    Well, what about the “apology” for Mountain Meadows. How was that received and did it do any good? We basically owned up to it, helped put up a memorial at the site, and moved on. Now when it is brought up, we all say, “yup, it happened, there was some culpability, but that’s all past”

    At least we (as a church) owned up to it (sort-of) and now it’s not still a big elephant in the room.

    My thought is to to have some sort of official acknowledgement, a thoughtful discussion from an actual leader of the church (like 1st prez or Q12), and then we can move ahead.

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  7. Molly on September 18, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    I think, if there is ever an apology, it can’t be where there is a) a Mormon Presidential candidate, or b) a Mormon President. It would feel too much like there is an ulterior motive.

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  8. Sam R on September 18, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    Agree with #6 and #7. I don’t think a formal apology is necessary, but the church shouldn’t leave it as “we don’t know”.

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  9. NewlyHousewife on September 18, 2012 at 2:04 PM

    Mike S, your comment was so amazing it deserved a comment with praising. Because it has been so long since we’ve had real revelation, people are making up their own.

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  10. Jeremiah S on September 18, 2012 at 7:19 PM

    I fully admit that mistakes have been made… ;-)

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  11. Roger on September 18, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    To Ms. Blair—

    Thanks for referring to your article on Pastor Murray and President Hinkley—it actually served to assuage some of the rancor that at times, still surfaces within me over this issue. To those who joined LDS organization after 1978—-let me tell you, prior to that time, just absolutely incredible things were announced as doctrine on matters of race in SS classes, seminary, missionaries spouting off, you name it. I was heartened to hear President Hinkley’s 2006 conference address. We could stand to hear it again. . . .

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  12. Brian on September 18, 2012 at 8:59 PM

    Without knowing why the policy was in force, as leaders claim, I would not apologize. I do not think an apology would have a negative affect, however. Believers will still believe. It may weed out some on the fringe. The affect of it, however, should not be considered. Do the right thing, whatever that is, although I realize organizations are self-serving and are not good at that kind of stuff. This from someone who already left.

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  13. Paul 2 on September 19, 2012 at 1:36 AM

    The problem with the current disavowals is that they are not specific enough. For example, a statement that the church is against racist folk beliefs is different from a letter pointing out which specific statements in the 1949 letter from the First Presdidency were erroneous, and in what way they were erroneous. There should also be a clear statement that official teachings are sometimes incorrect and that the leadership is prayerfully and honestly seeking to know the will of God, but will make significant mistakes from time to time.

    My own parents are imperfect, made bad decisions, committed sins, etc. but I have had moments with them where God spoke through them, and I love them. People learn to deal with imperfections in families all the time and go forward in a healthy way. Some people don’t, but many do. People can learn to do the same with church leaders, present and past.

    All of the “tough issues” in the church are probably a blessing in disguise. It is a blessing to know that earlier leaders were imperfect, sinful, and/or limited. History always does future generations a favor. Knowing them inoculates us against fanaticism and the calcification of our limited world view. It can prevent us from trying to outsource the construction of our world view. We are meant for the eternities, after all, and there is lots to learn individually.

    My post is an attempt to communicate my way of judging the situation. At the same time, I am keenly aware of my own imperfections and sins, which keep me from accomplishing the things I would like to do and those that God expects me to do—just because I can identify an erroneous teaching with David O. McKay’s signature on it does not make me more courageous, more hard-working, or more reliable than him, or better at following the Holy Spirit. I hope that my engagement in these kind of questions will lead me to a firm commitment to build a better character rather than discouragement.

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  14. Geoff - A on September 19, 2012 at 3:46 AM

    In Australia there were terrible Government policies toward our aboriginal inhabitants, such as the government forcibly removing half cast children from their parents (called the stolen generation).

    Conservative Prime Ministers refused to apologise for years. When a new Labor Prime Minister was elected there first thing he did was apologise.

    There was an incredible feeling of unity and national pride.

    I believe it would be helpful for current leaders to apologise for the racism of their predecessors, the problem would be in what venue, perhaps conference, perhaps if Obama wins.

    Agree with you Mike about the lack of revelation. We are unique because we have a Prophet but he doesn’t do anything prophetic so what good is that?

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  15. KT on September 19, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    I agree with Mike S. Admitting it was human error and apologizing – I think the Church likely views that as a slippery slope. People could then point to it and say, “see look, they admitted human error on this, that (like women not having priesthood) could be generational/human error too.” The Church doesn’t want that. They want NO questioning leadership. They don’t even want to crack that door. Especially because of the claims toward it being inspired or having scriptural basis.

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  16. brjones on September 19, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    “There is another reason an apology is not appropriate — the Church is a collection of members and officers — each teaches others as best as he or she knows how — if someone teaches or emphasizes something that differs from his or her predecessor in office, that’s fine and there is no need for an apology.”

    I think this is inaccurate, Ji. The issue isn’t one of guilt. It’s one of truth, and to a lesser degree, one of credibility. The church holds itself out not only as a source of pure, unadulterated truth, straight from god’s mouth, but as the only such institutional source on the earth. We’re not talking about a relief society president teaching a doctrine or principle in a divergent way from her predecessor. We’re talking about supposed prophets, seers and revelators embracing and adopting a formal position, ostensibly in the name, and at the direction of god himself, then suddenly doing an about face with no real explanation of either the original policy or the reversal.

    For me, the apology isn’t the issue. The policy was what it was. If anyone wants to ding the church for having the policy, then they have to give credit to the church for discontinuing it when they did. The problem is, the church wants continued credibility to be accepted as one that speaks for god, but it doesn’t do the things that entitle it to such credibility. Forget explaining, supporting or justifying its pronouncements or policies. How about simply being consistent, or at the very least standing firmly behind policies and doctrines that supposedly eminate from a god who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and to whom you supposedly have face to face access? How many times can church leaders finesse or massage pronouncements of past leaders, or simply disavow them wholesale, and realistically expect intelligent members, let alone the world at large, to accept their authority to such matters?

    As you said, Ji, the apology wouldn’t change anything, but it would explicitly acknowledge what most people in and out of the church already believe: that the policy was wrong from its inception, and the current church not only no longer practices it, but that it completely rejects it and any principles for which it may have stood.

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  17. wreddyornot on September 19, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    I apologize when I sneeze. The ban was far more offensive and the Church and everyone who tolerated it should say excuse me. As to slippery slopes, we’ve learned how to build lifts to the tops and ski down and have some fun doing so.

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  18. Ziff on September 20, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    I agree with you, hawkgrrrl, that the reason the Church doesn’t do apologies and disavowals is that they worry it’s a slippery slope. Once you apologize for a clearly mistaken past policy, this calls into question whether current policies are also mistaken. More simply, issuing apologies and disavowals is an acknowledgement of fallibility. And although they likely wouldn’t like the word, Church leaders would prefer we think of them as infallible. (Witness all the lessons and talks we get on exact obedience.)

    It is for precisely this reason that I would welcome an apology for the priesthood/temple ban. It’s not the content of the apology that would be important. It’s the signal the apology would send about Church leaders agreeing that they’re not infallible.

    Or, what brjones said. Well put, brjones!

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  19. Will on April 8, 2013 at 8:25 PM

    I think the Mormon church made the right decision about the ban and offered the priesthood to all worthy men at the right time. No need to apologize if you haven’t done anything wrong

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