Editor's note: This essay is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' response to Charlottesville, including its move to clarify its position in the face of those who would use its words as cover for racial chauvinism, and worse, suggests that the current political climate should cause the Saints to examine carefully the contours of their continuing revelations. Its strikingly stark language — most notably, its explicit condemnation of white supremacy — offers yet another indication of where the living God is leading.
The LDS Church issued two statements in response to violence sparked by white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia. The first declaration drew from the teaching of a previous church president to denounce racism and to call for increased compassion for all of God’s children. True to their habit of twisting any ambiguity into an endorsement, voices within the “alt-right” movement claimed that the church’s statement was in keeping with their racially charged call to promote and protect “white culture.” This prompted an addendum from the church, which included the following sentence:
“White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a 'white culture' or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”
This specific targeting of white supremacist sentiments, and the explicit association of such views with moral depravity, effectively clarified the church’s position. Its pointed condemnation was welcomed by Latter-day Saints of color and others who have sought clear statements on what racism means to contemporary Mormons. The statement helped address the frustration that some expressed in the past when the church did not comment on other prominent moments of violent racial hatred.
For instance, in 2015, when Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and gunned down nine African-Americans who had gathered for prayer, communities of color received a horrific reminder of the fact that throughout American history the forces of racism have wrought destruction even in places of worship and moments of devotion. While local LDS leaders and congregations spoke out against the violence and decried its implications for people of faith, the LDS Church did not issue a formal statement. Many African-American Saints had hoped for expressions of solidarity at a time of anguish and fear.
In LDS culture, such moments always carry the weight of the church’s complicated history with race. The historical policy that denied priesthood ordination to men of black African descent and prohibited men and women of black African descent from participating in temple ordinances until 1978 both reflected and generated expressions of racial hierarchy among Mormons, including among church leaders of the highest office. As recently noted in an essay published by the church, LDS authorities did not escape the racist attitudes so prevalent in their times and places. Since the opening up of access to the priesthood to men of all races, the church and its representatives have made numerous declarations of racial equality, but for many Latter-day Saints, especially those of color, a painful past looms over every episode in which the church does, or does not, assert its position on matters of race.
Yet, as the Church’s statements on Charlottesville make clear, Mormon engagements with questions of racial difference are not only defined by this difficult history and its persistent legacies. They are also shaped by the Latter-day Saints’ essential doctrine of living revelation, which holds that God can and does continually speak in order to bring His children toward an ever clearer understanding of His mind, will and heart. The church’s response to Charlottesville marks one more step in the development of a more sharply defined doctrine on the meaning of racial difference for Latter-day Saints. Along the way, the Saints have had such authoritative guideposts as this from church President Gordon B. Hinckley: “May the Lord bless us to work unitedly to remove from our hearts and drive from our society all elements of hatred, bigotry, racism, and other divisive words and actions. The snide remark, the racial slur, hateful epithets, malicious gossip, and mean and vicious rumor-mongering should have no place among us.”
It is telling that, in combination, the church’s Charlottesville statements draw on the full range of the Latter-day Saints’ theological resources. They cite the Bible, the Book of Mormon and modern-day prophets to signal the various moments of revelation in which God has pointed toward a promised land of racial harmony and universal divine love. Like all institutions and all communities, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is bound to and shaped by its history, and that history unavoidably includes the painful burdens of racism. But in carrying that weight into the future, Mormons believe in the propelling and sustaining power of a constant flow of divine revelation: from ancient scripture, from living oracles and from the light of Jesus Christ that illuminates every soul. Without drawing attention to the fact, the church’s statements nonetheless point to the transformative potential of these revelatory possibilities.
To the stubborn vitriol of the country’s current racial climate and emboldened groups that espouse white supremacy, God again displays his capacity to speak. This seems to follow a pattern embedded in all of the sources of revelation that Mormons revere. The Bible begins with a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but its flow of revelation ultimately leads to a redemptive moment when such divisions are done away. The Book of Mormon opens with racialized identities, but its prophetic narrative pushes toward a beautiful climax in which those separations cease. Likewise, the church in this dispensation has its history with racial divisions but — as with the other divine plotlines before it — its trajectory points unmistakably to a future when such things shall be overcome. God’s recurring message to the Saints seems to be that the historical realities that divide us will ultimately give way to the divine love that we share.
Janan Graham-Russell is a doctoral student in religion at Harvard University.
David Holland is a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.