"I get angry and frustrated when people point at the LDS Church as if it was the only organization in the world that had any people in it who ever made a racist statement," he said Wednesday. "I graduated from high school in California in 1963 — there was a lot of racism back then, everywhere. The LDS Church was way down the list for racism, as far as I was concerned. And that was before I even joined the church."
So in the context of the times, Harwell said, you can understand some of the things LDS leaders said.
"It doesn't excuse it," he said, "but you understand it."
'We don't know'
Bott, a popular religion professor at BYU and the highest-rated professor in America in 2008 according to ratemyprofessor.com, told students in his missionary preparation class Wednesday that he gave the interview to the Post because he was under the impression that the reporter had permission from the church to talk to him.
"He said he had been misquoted," said Katie Cutler, a junior in linguistics from Yorktown, Va. "He said he just shared the scriptures with the reporter and told them that the church hasn't given an official reason for the priesthood ban."
Stephen Whitaker, a BYU graduate who now lives in New Haven, Conn., wrote a concerned email to Professor Bott after reading the story in the Washington Post. Whitaker said that in a "very kind" return email Bott indicated to him that he felt he had been misrepresented in the Post, and that he regretted that the reporter had not given him an opportunity to review his quotes before the story was published.
"He said that if he had been able to read his quotes in advance he would have made significant changes," Whitaker said.
"I feel sorry for him," said Daniel C. Peterson, who is also a BYU religion professor but who says he has never met Bott. "I'm confident, though I don't know him, that he's a good, well-intentioned man."
Writing in his own blog, however, Peterson said he disagrees profoundly with what Bott said to the Post.
"Our speculations as to the reason(s) (for the priesthood ban) have been essentially worthless, and sometimes harmful," Peterson wrote. "God has not seen fit to explain why he commanded or at least permitted the denial of priesthood to blacks.
"We certainly don't know that God withheld the priesthood from blacks in order to protect them, or because they weren't 'ready' for it, or because it 'benefited' them to be denied access to the temple or opportunities to serve missions, and the like," he continued. "We just don't know. And if we ever learn the reason, that knowledge will come through the Lord's chosen prophets and apostles, not through BYU professors like me."
Peterson's position is in line with statements made by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve in a March 2006 interview with Helen Whitney of PBS. During the interview, Elder Holland referred to speculations — including those by early church leaders — about the reasons why blacks could not hold the LDS priesthood for a period of time as "folklore" that "must never be perpetuated."
"All I can say is, however well-intentioned the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong," Elder Holland said. "It would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, (as) with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time ... We simply don't know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place."
One of the most often-quoted church leaders on the subject was Elder Bruce R. McConkie, whose book, "Mormon Doctrine," was seen by several generations as the ultimate reference book on Mormon theology. In a speech given to LDS educators two months after the 1978 revelation in which President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the blessings of the priesthood would be extended to all worthy male members of the church, Elder McConkie said, "Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world."
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