Racist Remarks by popular BYU Religion Professor Spark Controversy

Racist apologetics by a popular Brigham Young University religion professor are sparking controversy, as election-year scrutiny sheds a revealing light on the persistence of racist belief among LDS Church members.

On Tuesday, Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, told the Washington Post that the LDS Church’s historic prohibition on priesthood ordination for men of African descent was a “blessing” to blacks because they were not “ready” for priesthood authority.

“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott… 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.”

Bott was the highest-rated professor in America in 2008, according to RateMyProfessor.com. He teaches large sections of required religion courses, including courses designed to prepare future missionaries, to as many as 3,000 students a year. This semester, more than 800 students are registered in Professor Bott’s classes. (Eleven are registered for BYU’s African-American history course this semester.) Professors at BYU routinely find themselves having to address racist and sexist content taught in Bott’s classes, and many are outraged and embarrassed by his rogue remarks to the Washington Post, say sources at the university. “Dr. Bott does not speak for BYU or the Church and his views are his own,” one religion faculty member told me.

But Professor Bott is no outlier. Especially among older Mormons, racist rationale for the priesthood ban—linking it to Old Testament pretexts, or to moral infirmity in a pre-earthly life by the souls of Africans and African-Americans, and other racist apologetic mental gymnastics exemplified in Bott’s statement to the Post—persist and circulate, generally unquestioned and unchallenged.

For its part, the LDS Church has never authoritatively addressed racist theologies developed in defense of the ban in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Instead, it has attempted to step quietly beyond its racist past, as it has with many other thorny and troubling historical matters.

African-American men enjoyed full status (including priesthood ordination) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until the 1840s. Historians still debate the reasons why ordination of African-Americans generally halted (with a few exceptions) during the tenure of LDS Church President Brigham Young. By the early twentieth century, restriction of priesthood ordination from African-Americans was considered LDS Church policy, and a host of rationale grew up in its defense—some drawn from American folk theology linking racial blackness to the curse of Cain or Ham, and some particular to Mormon contexts.

LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball declared the end of the priesthood ban in June 1978, an announcement later canonized as scripture, but he did not address its historic origins or theological rationale. A few months later, in August 1978, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Church’s high-ranking Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, once a leading proponent of racist theological justifications of the ban, told a gathering of LDS educators:

“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.”

Still, McConkie’s own book, Mormon Doctrine, which propounded racist legitimations for the priesthood ban, remained for sale in LDS bookstores and on the shelves of LDS homes.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when questioned about the ban in public, LDS Church leaders continued to sidestep its origins and rationale. Mormons hungry for a more direct approach welcomed LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s 2006 address, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” as a long-awaited denunciation of racism:

“Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord. Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.”

But neither Hinckley nor any other Church official used an authoritative Church setting or occasion to formally and specifically renounce racist teachings propounded by earlier Mormon leaders.

And without open renunciation of racist theologies by LDS Church leaders, Professor Randy Bott (who on his personal blog apologetically prevaricates on facts of Mormon history) and others have continued to espouse and communicate them to a new generation of Mormons.

As progressive BYU students prepare to protest Bott’s remarks, others await formal statements by Brigham Young University or the LDS Church, hoping—perhaps, this time, in the scrutiny of this election year—that someone will finally articulate the most credible and reasonable explanation for Mormonism’s historic discrimination against black people: we were wrong.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.