Building bridges between an anti-racist movement and a conservative faith
EVEN AS American debates over race and identity turn increasingly toxic, one of the country’s most powerful religious groups and one of its most venerable anti-racist groups have taken a step in the opposite direction. The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, still known widely as the Mormons even though they have renounced that name, received a warm welcome on July 21st in an unlikely setting: the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
“We strive to build bridges of co-operation rather than walls of segregation,” declared Russell Nelson, a lively 94-year-old, at the gathering in Detroit. Drawing polite applause, he quoted a line from the Mormon scriptures, affirming that Jesus Christ “denies none that come unto him: black and white, bond and free, male and female, all are alike unto God.”
For the NAACP, making friends with the LDS was a difficult journey, steered by a handful of individuals in the movement’s leadership and initially resisted by some members. The rapprochement has been in high gear since the spring of 2018. In purely human terms, the groups got better acquainted when the NAACP’s current president, Derrick Johnson, accompanied an LDS lawyer on a trip to Tanzania in 2010. One of the early fruits of this relationship was an article on the LDS website in 2013 which looked frankly at the LDS’s history on questions of race.
The church started in 1830, when a man in New York state called Joseph Smith published texts which he called fresh revelations from God. In its first couple of decades, at least a few black men became priests, and by the time of his murder in 1844 Smith had become an opponent of slavery. But the church’s next powerful leader, Brigham Young, declared in 1852 that black men could not become priests. Over the following few years black people were excluded from rites such as “endowment”, a ceremony which is intended to prepare believers for a high status in the after-life.
As the 2013 article, which is understood to have been co-authored by a prominent African-American LDS member, bluntly explains, such exclusions were rooted in racist religious myths that were not confined to the early Mormons: for example, the idea that black people inherit a curse from the Biblical figure of Cain. By the 1970s, these restrictions had become bitterly controversial, bringing opprobrium on the sports teams fielded by Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution. The policies also became untenable when the church decided, in 1975, to found a temple in multi-racial Brazil, and as it gained hundreds of thousands of converts in Ghana and Nigeria.
Four decades on, the practice of open discrimination seems like a distant, unpleasant memory. But it is fair to say that LDS culture, especially in the faith’s stronghold of Utah, remains rooted in middle-class white America, where the struggles of chronically disadvantaged groups to escape the traps of poverty and lawlessness seem very far away. The American LDS have been efficient and generous as donors of aid and emergency relief in poor countries. They also engage in poverty relief at home, but they are restrained by a strong philosophical objection to anything that encourages chronic dependence.
That’s one reason why the relationship between the NAACP and the church’s leadership is an improbable breakthrough. One of its early manifestations reflects the LDS ethos of self-reliance: in four inner cities the church is offering free courses on how poor people can manage their money.
These exercises amount to a cautious rapprochement between segments of American society that remain very different. George Handley, a professor who specialises in literature and cultural studies at Brigham Young University, believes that, paradoxically, the collective memory of struggling to survive in the 19th century made the LDS more insular and less inclined to empathise with other groups. “The experience of being persecuted gave us a tendency to separate ourselves, almost to create our own civilisation,” he says. “That led to great accomplishments, but it also made us less aware of the struggles of other communities.”
Only now, it seems, is that awareness developing as it should.