2016-06-30
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A few days ago, I got an email from a non-Mormon friend with whom I frequently discuss the matter of race in American culture. He asked me about an article in the Salt Lake Tribune headlined "LDS Leaders Haven't Discussed Racial Disavowal."

The article was a correction, of sorts. An earlier news story had reported on rumors that the LDS Church leadership was considering an official disavowal of old racial "doctrines" (like black skin being the mark of Cain). The current article reported that the Church had denied the rumor - there had been no such consideration.

Here's what I wrote back to my friend:

"The Church doesn't actually have to disavow any such statements, because none of them were ever official church doctrine....

"The change in policy in 1978 [extending the priesthood and temple ordinances to all qualified members regardless of race] was a complete repudiation of the only things that the official church had ever said or done about race; as for the unofficial statements of church leaders, those were repudiated, just as unofficially, by some of the same church leaders who had propounded their incorrect teachings (notably Bruce R. McConkie). The dead ones can't repudiate their words, but who needs them to?..."

I explained to my friend why this was a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife question. To repudiate the false doctrines would be to give them currency and imply that they used to be officially taught. To deny that there was any plan to repudiate those false doctrines would imply that the Church must condone them. The official Church could not win. Mormonism would be tagged with racism either way. We were set up.

My friend took it all in good humor, but this nonstory is worth looking at as an example of how the American press, now monolithic in its domination by politically correct but not terribly self-critical "intellectuals," selectively picks targets, attacks them, and walks away claiming to be impartial. "We just report the stories." Oh really? This was never a story, by any rational standard. The original story was a report of a rumor. A responsible reporter goes to the source or subject of a rumor and finds out if it's true. In the original story, the reporter would have learned that Church leaders had not discussed the matter and therefore the rumor was entirely false. Having found that out, the paper shouldn't have run anything at all because there was no story.

In the American press, however, once one paper has run a story based on a rumor, other papers can run a story about the first paper's story. And since it's a fact, not a rumor, that the first paper ran the story about the rumor, the other papers are not printing a rumor, they're merely repeating it, which is, apparently, OK.

Besides which, it's a fact that the rumor existed, right? So it really was news in the first place, right?

What complicated the Tribune article I read was that the reporter obviously wanted the rumor to be true, and if the rumor was not true, clearly wanted it to become true. Why else would the heart of the story be an explanation of why a repudiation of those old racist "doctrines" was necessary? If one wishes to make the kindest of all possible assumptions, the reporter might easily be a loyal Latter-day Saint who is just as annoyed as I am by the persistence of these racist "doctrines" and wants the Church to put a stop to them.

The trouble is, the article in question is not going to get the Brethren to do anything of the kind, and if the reporter knew anything about Church government and history, that would be obvious. Why? Because the Church does not officially repudiate doctrines that were never officially taught.

Many of those racist "doctrines" were developed to excuse slavery, before the Mormon Church was organized. But Mormons were not slack in developing new folk doctrines with a specifically Mormon slant. And while the "doctrines" thus developed were definitely racist in their result, as often as not they were speculated about by Mormons who were extremely uncomfortable with the racial policy of the LDS Church before 1978 and who yearned for some kind of explanation that would make the policy seem fair or reasonable.

Ironically, this need to resolve moral dissonance (God is always just, yet the priesthood is denied to Africans for no reason but their race; therefore they must deserve it somehow) meant that many whose instinct was to reject racism ended up being among the most resourceful in defending the Church's racial policy by propagating racist theories. But the vast majority of Saints received the 1978 change in policy with rejoicing. A great burden had been lifted, and most of us gladly shed the "doctrines" along with the policy they defended. Yet we had all heard those "doctrines," and they didn't just vanish from our memories. It helped greatly when Apostle Bruce R. McConkie replied to a public question about such "doctrines" in his own writings by saying, quite simply, that he was wrong. But, just as there are still Mormons who merrily teach the "doctrine" that polygamy remains the true order of heaven, there will continue to be Mormons who teach the "doctrine" that black skin has something to do with the mark of Cain.

The way the Church deals with such false doctrines is, not to attack them, but to teach correct doctrines and insist on correct practices. The official Church shows that there are no grounds for racial distinctions of any kind. We now teach and baptize people of African ancestry with the same vigor with which we teach and baptize people of any other ancestry or physical type. Black Saints serve in leadership positions; they take part in all the blessings of the temple.

Indeed, from 1978 on, because of the uniformity of official practices in the Church, we made a radical shift from being a Church that allowed and, in some regions of the world, nurtured racism, to being one of the least racist churches in America, a nation where racism is still rampant.

And the official Church takes great care to try to keep racism from rearing its ugly head in any actions by the official Church. For instance, a dozen or so years ago, in the southern town where I live, as in many other southern towns, Church leaders were aware of an alarming problem: Most new converts to the Church were African-Americans, but the retention rate among African-Americans was far lower than among converts from any other group.

The reasons were obvious. First, while racial distinctions had been officially abolished, that did not change the hearts of members of the Church who had openly racist views. (Oddly enough, in our southern ward the worst racists were not southerners - the diehard southern racists had all gone inactive in 1978 and we never saw them or heard from them at all. No, the problem racists - the people who wouldn't let their kids take part in girls' camp or youth conference if they might end up bunking with blacks - were invariably from the West.)

Insults and offenses by individual racist whites against individual blacks continue to this day, requiring great patience on the part of African-American members - and continuing vigilance on the part of non-racist white members, to make sure that social pressure is exerted on those who say or do such cruel things so they learn to keep their nastiness to themselves.

Second, unconscious racism also persists. I remember sitting in a high council meeting back in 1983 where a good old southerner - a kindly man who thought of himself as not racist at all - explained to us all that while it was good for these black converts to be part of the church, it would take "generations" before they were "ready" for leadership positions. I pointed out that it didn't take generations for Brigham Young or Parley Pratt to be ready for leadership, to which he replied that these new converts were no Brigham Young or Parley Pratt, to which I responded, How do you know they're not, at which point the stake president intervened to restore harmony to the meeting.

This good brother - and I have known him well in the years since then, and I assure you he is indeed a good man - was appalled that anyone could think his attitude was racist, but the fact is that it takes time for people to identify and get rid of the influences of the surrounding culture in their own hearts. Just as some converts have a hard time remembering that the main meeting room is called a "chapel" and not a "sanctuary," it can take a while for people to get rid of old racial attitudes and assumptions.

While overt, active racism must be stopped sharply, sharpness is both ineffective and inappropriate in dealing with unconscious racism (as I proved by my own self-righteous tone in that high council meeting). A general change of heart happens with time, experience, and, it must be said, attrition. The Church is full of people who are in the midst of repenting of many sins and shedding many attitudes learned from the surrounding culture. (The biggest problem with political correctness is that it shows cruel, unforgiving intolerance for some sinners, while giving absolution without repentance to all the rest.) Since I hope for patience concerning the sins I've not yet overmastered, I try to show the same patience in helping others learn to master the sins that still trouble their lives.

And we are making great progress in this area. In our ward in Greensboro, no one bats an eye at interracial couples, and no one today would dream of saying something like what was said in that high council meeting in 1983. Time is passing, and we're growing up - especially here in the South, where blacks and whites rub shoulders all the time and therefore have a chance to get used to seeing each other and talking to each other and overcoming many of the false assumptions we make about each other.

Third, there's the matter of geography. For many years, Church leaders would buy land for meetinghouses in "nice neighborhoods." The result was that, in order to attend church meetings, black converts had to go to lily-white neighborhoods where they felt every bit as uncomfortable as whites feel going into all-black neighborhoods. Add to that the poverty of many of the new converts and the virtual unavailability of public transportation, and you had a recipe for low attendance or outright avoidance of Church meetings.

So Church leaders began experimenting - not in a big public way, with announcements in Salt Lake City, but quietly - with inner-city branches, in which new converts could attend meetings close to their homes. Before creating such a branch in Greensboro, stake leaders met with the longtime black members of the stake to find out how they felt about this. Was it a good idea to create a branch in which black members were the vast majority and blacks would have all (or almost all) the teaching and leadership positions?

The branch would exist only temporarily. The goal was not at all to create a segregated congregation, but rather to get these new members into the habit of attending and serving in the church, so when they returned to regular wards they would not feel so estranged and uncomfortable. The branch would only accomplish its purpose, however, if longtime black members accepted the mission of serving in leadership and teaching positions. If they did not believe in the concept of this inner-city branch, it wouldn't work and so it wasn't worth trying.

The black Saints embraced the idea, the inner-city branch was formed, and for the years it existed, it did a good job of accomplishing its purpose. It has since been dissolved, the retention rate of black converts is much higher than before, and the wards in our area are far more fully integrated than they ever were.

But ... to get back to the original topic of this column, what would have happened if there had been press scrutiny of these inner-city branches? Can there be any doubt that "impartial" articles would have quoted blacks (Mormon or non-) who called this a "return to segregation" and proof of "persistent Mormon racism"? Is there any chance that the spin in the articles would have been to take the Church's statement of its purpose at face value - that the goal was to use these branches as a tool to more fully integrate the Church?

In the end, the sincerity of the Church was proved. The inner-city branch in Greensboro did not solve all racial problems, but it solved or partly solved some of them, which is about all that could be hoped for in such a short time. Today, with the exception of Unitarians and Quakers, the LDS Church may well have the most integrated congregations in Greensboro; and we are certainly the mostly-white Church most active in trying to bring new members into the Church from the black community. By contrast, most of the mainline Protestant churches in town seem content to be almost completely monoracial.

Yet the Church issued no press releases in order to play up our efforts at integration for "good public relations." This was not a cosmetic gesture, as a repudiation of "doctrines" that were never officially taught would have been. This was a delicately balanced attempt to change people's lives in such a way as to reduce the effects of lingering racism and heal old wounds. Press attention, of the sort that would have been inevitable, would have made the project impossible - it would have been publically tagged as racist from the start, and few self-respecting black members would have been able to take part in it.

The press does not just report on events - it shapes them. The relentless political correctness of the attitudes in most news stories, where there are no token conservatives or moderates as there are on the op-ed pages, guarantees that Church actions are usually reported on with a hostile spin. Even many LDS reporters are so immersed in the press culture surrounding them that they remain oblivious to the way their own writings become attacks on the Church. I daresay that the writer of that Tribune article my friend sent me would emphatically deny any desire to embarrass or even influence the Church. But the article could not have been more effectively written if the intent had been to make the Church appear racist.

This is part of a much larger pattern of the press to be relentlessly hostile to morally conservative institutions, individuals, and viewpoints, while giving a free ride and, often, a huge boost to morally "liberal" (some, including me, would say "morally destructive") institutions, individuals, and causes.

If you want, I can elaborate with many examples of press bias and suggestions on what to do about it. But for now, let me point to just one example - the headlines that were originally put on my column here at BeliefNet.

Now, the first thing to remember is that Beliefnet has bent over backward to be fair to the Mormon religion. The very fact that the Mormon section is listed among the Christian religions has caused Beliefnet to take enormous heat from those who don't think you can be a Christian if you reject the Nicene Creed.

But that doesn't mean that an unconscious bias against the institutional Church can't creep in, despite the best of intentions.

When my column was first put up, the come-on was "President Hinckley is no man of the century," or words to that effect. It sounded as though my column were going to be an explanation of why the Mormon Church president wasn't worthy of such recognition. In fact, my column was about how embarrassing it was that some Mormons were touting the prophet in a popularity poll.

Soon a more accurate headline for that column appeared ("A Pathetic Hunger for a Photo Op"), but the tag line under it on the Mormon page spoke of "The LDS Church's silly man-of-the-year campaign" - even though my column made it clear that the campaign, though silly, was not emanating from the LDS Church. Again, the heading made it seem I was criticizing the official church. Were these misrepresentations of my column a conspiracy? Of course not. As soon as the problem was pointed out, the headlines were changed. My point is not that the people who slant these stories have some evil plot in mind. Rather, the bias against politically incorrect institutions is so all-pervasive that even people who are trying not to be biased can slip into such errors unaware.

One answer to such story-slanting in the press is to complain to the publications that do the slanting, with gentlespoken letters that start from the assumption that the slant was inadvertent.

After all, it's not entirely the press's fault. Because of the politically correct bias of the press, most moral conservatives have become fearful. They keep their heads down, lest one of the politically correct point the finger of scorn at them. So what shows up from our team are mostly the vituperative, paranoid screeds - which makes people of moderate temperament wish to distance themselves from us.

I suspect that among the press there might be reporters, editors, and publishers who would be happy to use rational and positive images of moral conservatism ... if they could easily find them. In the meantime, though, the majority of the press seems perfectly happy to depict us and our views as unpleasantly as they can. And nonstories painting Mormonism as racist seem suspiciously timed to discredit the Church in the midst of its struggle to oppose the legalization of gay "marriage." We don't have to be paranoid to wonder if we're being borked.

Until the happy day that we have a more balanced press culture, the Mormon Church will have no choice but to continue to do most of its important work in obscurity. We avoid the press for the same reason that a five-year-old trying to build with blocks has to keep the two-year-old out of the room.

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