Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Randy Bott, Racism, and Reconciliation

It was near the end of my mission. I was fairly new to my area, and my companion and I were dutifully compiling our nightly numbers (designed, as far as I can tell, to make teaching the gospel as cold and impersonal as possible). Out of the blue, the phone rang. My companion answered; it was one of the zone leaders. He wanted to speak with me.

This was a surprise, because I barely knew this elder. We'd crossed paths at a zone meeting or two, but had hardly spoken. So, while I had nothing against him, I couldn't imagine what he wanted to talk about. Being a lousy journal keeper means I have to reconstruct our conversation from memory, but as I recall his first words were something like, "So I just want to know why you don't believe in prophets and apostles."

I responded succinctly: "Huh?"

"You told Elder So-and-So that that you don't believe in Mormon Doctrine."

Ah yes. Sometime not long before, I had spoken with another elder about my feelings on the venerable MoDo, particularly as it related to black people and the priesthood. Not as a debate, just an amiable exchange of ideas. My position, naturally, was that MoDo wasn't authoritative, and that the "seed of Cain/Abrahamic curse" interpretations of the priesthood ban were perhaps unfounded. Back then I wouldn't have said (as I do now) that such views stem solely from racism and have no part in my brand of Mormonism, but I still knew I was uncomfortable with MoDo and with interpretations of priesthood and race that seemed arbitrary and hateful.

So when my ZL brought that up with such fighting words, I knew I had a choice. Perhaps lacking the humility of a true servant of Christ, I chose to bash. Being a missionary in the South, I knew perfectly well that bashing accomplishes nothing and leads only to rancor. As a seasoned elder I knew how to avoid arguments and diffuse tension.But not this night.

I charged right in, and sure enough, the zone leader took issue not only with my appraisal of McConkie but also my rejection (in his view) of Abraham and Genesis. Scriptures were quoted, blood pressure rose, time was wasted, and nobody's mind was changed. I believe that the elder was transferred a few weeks later, and I never heard from him again (though I did learn that my final companion, on being called for his transfer to me, was told by this elder, "Oh, you get Elder Walrath...sorry, man.")

I bring this up because that missionary touched on a tender spot. How that came to be I'm not sure - spending time with a lot of black people definitely got me thinking, as did the racialized discourse that still prevails in the South, both in and out of the Church. Either way, the issue of priesthood limitations based on race became became something I could hardly fathom, let alone defend or celebrate. When I hear interpretations of the doctrine that are rooted in racism, bad history, and shoddy exegesis,* it brings up strong feelings.

Which brings me to the catalyst for this post: remarks made by BYU Professor Randy Bott to the Washington Post about Mormonism and race, originally brought to my attention by the Exponent. Randy Bott, if you don't know, teaches Missionary Prep, and is beloved for being very entertaining, very spiritual, and a very easy grader (it is no coincidence that he also dominates RateMyProfessor). I took Mish Prep** from a different professor long before I knew about Bott, but I have read some of his books, which seemed harmless enough. But in WaPo, Bott rehashed the old canards about Ham, Egyptus, and Cain as a defense of the priesthood ban. I find that distasteful, but okay, whatever. Brigham Young certainly thought that, and it's his damned university. Thankfully that kind of talk is disappearing. I'd have preferred it had been presented as, "This is what some Mormons believe, but the Church has backed away from this," but oh well. Then comes this:
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood. 
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

What do you say to that? Really? REALLY? @#&$! Having calmed down slightly since first reading the article, I can at least say that BYU should be ashamed that such a man has influenced so many students. Especially any black students, though they probably lacked the spirituality to truly understand him, the poor, benighted souls.

But leaving behind Bott's paternalistic racism (and that's exactly what it was), the larger question is, how does one deal with situations like this? As my mission experience taught me, these kinds of views are out there, and there are a small minority of members willing to be very vocal about them. My responses, respectively, have been to argue and to publicly call a professor racist. Cathartic but probably not too productive. So I pose that as a question: What do you do about...this? No doubt it's healthy to set it aside and be charitable, but shouldn't it be dealt with...somehow? How does that apply to other areas where you may disagree with other church members on critical points? For that matter, how should conservative members deal when some loudmouth goes off on Mormon Doctrine in a blog?

In short, what do you do if someone ostensibly on your side argues for something that is really, really awful? And how do you know that the person isn't you?


*The worst offense is when people compare biblical Aaronic priesthood limitations to modern LDS racial bans. Without going into too much detail, the two are simply not analogous. To me that's just a lazy argument. Far more compelling is, "That's just the way it is and we don't understand." While I don't find that sufficient, at least it's a humble response that shows considerations of the many complications involved.

**Remind me to do a post one day on how BYU gives college credit for a class like Missionary Preparation. Yeesh.