The Wrong Side of White: Black Mormons in a Presidential Year
by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Who Are Turkish Voices We Can Speak with in Istanbul?
Photo by José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Flick’s Creative Commons license
Our production team will be traveling to Istanbul this Saturday, and we’re looking to speak with some big thinkers for our public radio program. We want to better understand how Turkey carries forward its historical roots in the Ottoman Empire and before, and how its making the transition from a strict, secular democracy to one that allows for a more expression of religious identity and government rule. Who might be able to tease out the nuances of this tension and growth in Turkey as the country becomes a positive model for other burgeoning democracies in the region?
This person who could walk the line between being an expert who lives out these ideas in his or her daily life. Preferably we’d like to speak to someone who is a practicing Muslim and who grew up with a belief in the virtues and values of Ataturk’s secular approach to democracy. Or maybe this person never felt like those two identities fit in Turkey… But now is hopeful that the two can coexist. How does the larger context play out in individual lives of the speaker and other Turks?
And, since we’re a public radio program aired in the U.S., we’ll need them to be able to carry an hour-long conversation in fairly good English.
Offer your suggestions in the comments section here, or even email me at email@example.com. And, if you know others who might have some ideas, please pass our request along. We’d be much indebted to you.
Tap, Ball Tap, Hop, Shuffle, Tap!
National Tap Dance Day is celebrated every year on May 25th, which is the birthday of American Tap Dancer and actor, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Poston, Arizona. A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry entertains her fellow evacuees with a demonstration of her tap dancing ability. This was one number in an outdoor musical show.
Francis Stewart, photographer. From the Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority
It’s Friday. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Lay it down!
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Secularism, Nationalism, and Christian Minorities in Turkey
by Ramazan Kılınç, guest contributor
Halki Monastery and Seminary (photo by ©Nectarios Eben Trevino/Flickr)
In a recent New York Times article Susanne Güsten described the difficulties that Syriac Christians faced throughout the history of Republican Turkey. This story reflects the traumatic consequences of the nation-building process that modern Turkey has experienced since the 1920s and 1930s. The Turkish official national identity was based on the ideology of Kemalism, which idealized a homogenous society defined by secularism and nationalism. This ideal, which has been alien to diversity, made life very difficult for ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkish secularism, in contrast to the American experience of secularism that separated religion and the state, excluded religion from the public sphere and aimed to keep it under state control. In an aim to distance itself from the Ottoman Muslim past, the state took a hostile position against religion. It banned organizing around religion. Even today, all religious associations, including Muslim ones, do not exist legally. Related to this, the state does not allow religious education outside of the state domain. The state itself took the responsibility to teach a Hanefi/Sunni interpretation of Islam. The motive of the “secular” state was to institute an “official Islam.” Only a limited number of non-Muslims, excluding Syriacs, were given the right to open religious schools.
Turkish nationalism perceived ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, as a threat to the ideal of a homogeneous Turkish nation. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey and Greece had large-scale population exchanges in an effort to homogenize their respective societies. Turkish Muslims in Western Thrace moved to Turkey while Greek Christians in Istanbul moved to Greece. In later years when nationalism peaked, the status of minorities including Christians worsened. For example, in the late 1960s, when Turkey had international problems with Greece over the Cyprus conflict, the state expropriated land and properties owned by Christian community foundations by using simple legal technicalities. Again when Turkey had problems with Greece, Turkey closed down the historical Theological School of Halki, which was opened to train Greek Orthodox clergy under Ottoman rule in 1844. Additionally, due mostly to the nationalist security perceptions of the state, religious minorities faced restrictions in opening up spaces for religious practice.
Only after Turkish secularism and nationalism started to weaken in recent years, the Turkish government implemented new reforms enhancing the religious freedoms of Christian minorities in Turkey. Although many significant problems still exist, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has passed several laws to enhance religious liberties for minorities over the last decade. The state passed new laws to return all expropriated properties to non-Muslim community foundations or to compensate the community foundations for properties transferred to third parties. The new laws made it easy to open houses of worship even though some local authorities still keep creating bureaucratic hurdles for non-Muslim minorities.
However, the recent reforms are far from satisfactory. They have not yet offered a solution to many problems that Christian minorities face. Religious communities still do not exist legally and they cannot establish religion-based associations and organizations. Similarly, religious groups cannot open educational institutions to teach religion. The Theological School of Halki, for example, is still closed.
The only comprehensive solution to these problems is to redefine Turkish secularism to make it more inclusive. Secularism in its current form is used as an ideological tool to guarantee state control of religion. For religious freedoms to thrive, Turkish secularism should be transformed into a constitutional principle that guarantees religious freedoms while keeping religion out of the control of the state. This change will prevent the state from intervening in the internal affairs of religious communities including Christian minorities. A change that allows an autonomous sphere to religious minorities would also bring them legal guarantees. While it is true that the current government in Turkey is more tolerant of Christian minorities than its predecessors, Turkey still needs a legal framework that protects the freedoms of Christian minorities. Only a transformation of Turkish secularism could make such a legal framework possible.
Ramazan Kılınç is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Song of Sitting Bull at the Surrender of Fort Buford
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For the Lakota people, Cedric Good House of Standing Rock Reservation says, songs kept different memories and meanings alive. Sitting Bull sang the song above, Mr. Good House says, to remind his people of their way of living at a time when things looked most bleak — in what the history books describe as the “surrender” at Fort Buford:
“Our story says it was an exchange of lifestyle. People were starving. He chose that the better would be for them to have food and shelter. So he in turn took his rifle, he gave it to his son; his son gave it to Colonel Buford or whatever his name was. And he’s the one that called it a surrender, but it wasn’t a surrender. It was an exchange of lifestyle. You’re going to give this lifestyle to my son, not to me.”
Check out the rest of our show, “Tatanka Iyotake: Reimagining Sitting Bull,” to hear more of Cedric Good House and Sitting Bull’s great-grandson Ernie LaPointe describe the spiritual legacy of Tatanka Iyotake.
Patriarchy’s Persistent Bastion? Religion
by Felice Lifshitz, guest contributor
A woman tends to a child during a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the March 8 Washington Post article “Feminism’s Final Frontier? Religion,” Lisa Miller predicted that American women would soon abandon the Republican party in droves, just as they are reportedly quitting conservative Christian churches in historically large numbers. In both cases, women’s disaffection appears to be fueled by the disrespect shown to them by male leaders, a disrespect revealed in the ecclesiastical sphere by evangelical minister Jim Henderson’s new book, The Resignation of Eve, and visible in the political sphere to anyone who has followed the recent debates over access to birth control.
As “the men of the right” (as Miller calls them) insult women of faith, many of the latter are rejecting the communities that demean them, and creating leadership roles for themselves elsewhere. She suggests that a similar dynamic will soon govern American party politics. However, the implications of the current situation may not be that clear-cut, religiously or politically.
Miller believes women’s disaffection to be a new phenomenon, spurred by the incongruities between a newfound economic independence and an old-fashioned gender hierarchy:
“In churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the land, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And because women of faith are increasingly breadwinners, single moms and heads of households, that diminished status is beginning to rankle” (emphasis mine).
The assumption that previous generations of women of faith uniformly accepted an inferior position, that is, that religion constitutes “feminism’s final frontier,” leads the author to predict a major break with the patriarchal past due to a novel combination of propitious circumstances and female aspirations. But the “resignation” described by Henderson is not a new departure potentially signaling a major break with tradition; rather, it is the latest permutation of the gender conflict that has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition from earliest times.
Indeed, the struggle over gender and spiritual authority set in early enough to affect the canon of the New Testament. Many women supported Paul, the greatest early Christian missionary, including Prisca (Priscilla), who was instrumental in the apostle’s successes at Corinth and Ephesus, and whom he ordained as a congregational leader along with her husband Aquila (Acts 18). Yet, misogynistic editors of biblical manuscripts successfully obscured Paul’s respect for female religious leaders by falsely attributing to him — either through misplaced punctuation or outright interpolation — the sentiment that women should be silent in churches (1 Cor. 14:33-36).
Nevertheless, women persisted by, among other things, writing or supporting the composition of egalitarian texts, founding and governing monastic communities, pressing the liberationist claims of virginal feminism, exercising a number of liturgical (at times sacerdotal) functions, articulating a whole range of new theologies (including feminine theologies of the godhead), and establishing innumerable beguine communities that were absolutely independent of male ecclesiastical authority. In sum, women consistently found ways to control their own religious destinies and to assume leadership roles within Christian contexts, including during the European Middle Ages, a period popularly (albeit erroneously) conceived as particularly repressive of women. Yet, none of these activities ever fully erased the persistent commitment to gender hierarchy cherished by the “men of the right” whose values have determined the character of most mainstream hegemonic institutions.
Christianity has consistently been open to pro-feminist movements, but this has resulted neither in a fundamental egalitarian transformation of Christian institutions, nor in a mass exodus of disaffected women. The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power.
“The men of the right” have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.
Today’s feminists of faith can draw on a rich heritage to stake out positions that might ultimately justify both Henderson’s warnings and Miller’s optimism. Success may well depend precisely on an awareness of that inspirational heritage. A radical egalitarian transformation will require an unprecedented struggle; it will not be the inevitable result of the rise of the female breadwinner.
Felice Lifshitz earned a PhD in History from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published numerous books, articles, and essay collections concerning medieval Christianity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Bourbon Barrels in a Plantation Home
by Susan Leem, associate producer
While researching the Chief Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, we happened upon these vivid images of bourbon barrels in the basement of the historic Cherokee plantation home. A hearty thanks to photographer John A. Lees, who was kind enough to permit us to use his photos in a slideshow for our recent show “Toward Living Memory” with Tiya Miles.
The Wide Lens of History and the Conjoined Realities of Our Past
by Krista Tippett, host
I always read the MacArthur “genius” grant lists with great interest. They uncover people who are making great marks on the world in their chosen fields, but are usually out of the spotlight. This year the name that jumped out at me was Tiya Miles. I was intrigued with the description of her as a “public historian” illuminating the meaning of “ancestry and citizenship.” There was a personal connection for me, too, as the particular history she’s unearthed has resonance with the world of my childhood in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory.
I grew up hearing a family legend about a Cherokee ancestor, though it was transmitted with little detail or enthusiasm. Tiya Miles’ African-American grandmother also had such a story, and she told it with pride. She had endless stories, and the vital link she made between past and present inspired her granddaughter. Tiya Miles took up the study of history. Then, as a graduate student, she stumbled upon the little-remembered history of some Native Americans, Cherokee landowners who held African-American slaves.
This is of course not merely a story about Cherokee people and black people but about all of us, all of our ancestors. The Cherokee were deemed one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by the American government of that era. Growing up on land first given to, then taken away from, these indigenous peoples, I never questioned the backhanded presumption in this label they were given. Now, in conversation with Tiya Miles, I learn that their honored status was earned and conferred in part because of their “civilized” behavior of holding slaves.
This memory is as tragically nonsensical as any in the institution of slavery — so hard to reckon with and make sense of, it seems, that it literally fell away. Tiya Miles’ curiosity was first captured by a footnote about what was described as the first Afro-Cherokee marriage. She doggedly pursued a nearly non-existent trail to discover that this “marriage” was between a middle-class Cherokee landowner in his 40s and a teenage slave girl he had bought or procured by force. He had five children by her. He later won their freedom, but he never made her free. In arguing for their children, in fact, he proclaimed publicly that he had “debased” himself by bringing them into the world through union with her.
Tiya Miles’ other ground-breaking research has unfolded across a number of years at the Chief Vann House in Georgia — a grand antebellum plantation owned by a wealthy Cherokee chief. She is a lover of old houses. She knew that slaves worked this plantation as every other. But when she went for a tour of the house and its history in the 1990s, no mention was made of these hundreds of human beings who yielded the abundance of that land. They had been forgotten, nearly erased from memory. Tiya Miles vowed to create a more ethical telling of their story.
She is keenly aware of the complexity, indeed the multitudinous slippery slopes, of setting out to tell a story — any story — more ethically. As an historian, she is nearly haunted by her knowledge that every story can be told differently from many different angles. Her approach is fresh and innovative — and the emerging field of public history is distinctive — in its insistence on setting stories this painful in a context that can hold both the hardest truths and the seeds of their own healing.
I love the idea of looking more deeply at history to find vital openings, new possibilities, for starting fresh in the present. In the history of this radio program, my conversations have revealed this possibility over and over again — from looking more closely at Charles Darwin in order to reframe the “science-religion” divide or how Kwame Anthony Appiah has looked at history to see the surprising ingredients that allow profound societal and moral change to happen. I take heart in Tiya Miles’ learned insistence that even the most painful and divisive history is about “conjoined realities” — and that a wide historical lens will always reveal human beings’ connections to each other as something more generous than the darkest moments of our past.