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.
An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections
by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor
A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.
Orthodox Christians and Alevi Muslims in Turkey Fear Consequences of Syria’s Assad Losing Power
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
As our radio show prepares for a production trip to Turkey this coming June, I’m watching for particular stories and voices that might foster our own sense of how to add to the news and information coming out of this country. PRI’s The World offers this smart report on one of the few Orthodox Christian communities in Turkey that has learned to survive in a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation.
Correspondent Matthew Brunwasser reveals the complexity of the social and religious issues of Tokaçlı, a village in Hatay province of Turkey, which was once part of Syria until 1938. With the Altinozu refugee camp ten miles from its back door and 20,000 Syrians expected to stream across the border, this multi-ethnic community is being confronted by the realities of a Syrian civil war:
"Minorities see the Assad regime as representing multi-ethnicity and religious tolerance. And they can’t imagine anyone in a post-Assad Syria giving them a better deal. Just ask Can Coban who owns a cafe here in Tokacli.
'You can’t predict the future,' Coban says. 'But let’s say radical Muslims win the elections. The Christians’ lives will never again be normal like they are now. They could expel the Christians or their lives could get more difficult. They might be prevented from praying and practicing their religion. They live better now in Syria than we do here in Turkey.'”
Also at stake is a peaceful way of life for Alawite Muslims, known as Alevis in Turkey, because President Assad is an Alawite Muslim:
"Alawites make up about 16 percent of the population, and Sunnis resent them for monopolizing power. And so Alawites are terrified of a backlash. And in Hatay there are fears of that backlash spreading across the border."
A Face That Looks Like You: Matthew Septimus and the Protestors of Occupy Wall Street
As the Occupy movement wanes, its protestors brought issues of economic inequality to the forefront of our national political discourse. On Being looks back at the protestors driven out of Zuccotti Park in November and the faces that look like you.
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
As the Occupy Wall Street movement took root, Brooklyn-based photographer Matthew Septimus found himself visiting Zuccotti Park as much as possible. Now in his 50s, Septimus says he’s no stranger to protest movements, but describes his experience of Occupy Wall Street as “something different.” The people he encountered were open, trusting, and eager to have a conversation.
Walking into the park for the first time, Septimus remembers being overwhelmed by a wave of emotion and kept going back for more:
"The thing that resonated was the civility and genuine interest. All are willing to look me in the eye and acknowledge my existence. Not all is peace and love. But on the whole, the community is positive and committed. Finally people are speaking up. And I am engaged, too. It feels good to see people having a conversation."
Over the course of several months, Septimus generated over 1,200 images documenting the scores of people who were drawn to Lower Manhattan to experience the energy and potential of the OWS phenomenon.
Using a vintage Rolleiflex camera, Septimus crafted intimate portraits revealing people’s humanity, diversity, and complexity. “The protester,” as seen through Septimus’ lens, flies in the face of stereotypes. His photographs challenge us to see them more completely.
Desmond Tutu, the Embodiment of the Qualities of the God He Preaches: Compassion, Justice, Patience, Surprise, and Humor
by Krista Tippett, host
Desmond Tutu had long been at the top of my list of people I wanted to interview. I met him in the woods of southern Michigan in 2010, where he was beginning a few days of retreat. He was visibly tired, yet utterly delightful and larger than life. And passion overtook his tiredness as soon as we began to speak about the history he has helped to shape and how he has found meaning within it.
Desmond Tutu’s intellectual intensity and spiritual gravity are tempered by a mischievous wit and a raucous laugh. All of these qualities are abundant in conversation with him, and they infused one of the first stories he told me about his path to political resistance — his realization at some point that “if these white people had intended keeping us under, they shouldn’t have given us the Bible.”
He tells me of preaching and speaking with mature women who were generically called “Annie” by their white employers and grown men forever called “boy” — and handing them the “dynamite” of the Bible as they headed out of church and back into the world. When someone asks you who you are, he recalls telling them, you can say, “I am a God-carrier.” This kind of inner liberation, one life at a time, yielded eventually to an outer upheaval of one of the most entrenched governments of social brutality in modern memory.
As I finally approached this opportunity to speak with Desmond Tutu, I was also deeply aware that South Africa’s transformation, like its previous status quo — like life itself — has been dynamic, not static. The extraordinary accomplishment of a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy has not led to the easy eradication of social and racial inequity.
Violent crime has assumed epic proportions. And, as Desmond Tutu puts it, he has been reminded that original sin doesn’t discriminate on a racial basis — South Africa’s new generations of black leadership are not immune from corruption both personal and political. As he has watched the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he has realized ever more deeply that this was not a closed effort in time, but the origination of a national project that will be the work of generations.
One of his most sobering learnings in that light has been, he says, how “damaged” non-white South Africans were as they entered a new era — and damaged not merely by 50 years of apartheid, but by 300 years of colonialism, which distorted their very sense of themselves. He shares a stunning, saddening story of getting on a plane to Nigeria and seeing, to his great pride, that it was being flown by two black pilots — a first in his lifetime. When awful turbulence hit, he found himself reflexively wishing there were white men in that cockpit to lead them to safety. From such self-knowledge and personal suffering, Desmond Tutu has created a life of deep wisdom and healing, which he extends to all he meets.
At one and the same time, this is a human being overflowing with delight and a kind of infectious spiritual glee. I have never heard anything quite so joyful, or so moving, as the description Desmond Tutu gives me of voting for the first time at the age of 63, comparing it to falling in love — of being transformed from a cipher to a person. And just as vulnerably and powerfully, he reflects on the limits of politics, which turn out to be even more exacting than the decades of struggle that political freedom entailed.
He describes this in theological terms as a movement from being “free from” to being “free for.” He continues to long for a South African society defined not merely by equality under law but by true human flourishing. And the last few centuries of Europe’s history of world war, tyranny, and the Jewish Holocaust, he says — breaking into his raucous laughter even as he makes a deadly serious point — give him great hope for Africa’s eventual progress.
This same long, indeed biblical view of time animates Desmond Tutu’s lifelong insistence that “God is in charge.” He believes as passionately now as he did decades ago that evil, injustice, and suffering will not have the last word. Though he does, he jokes, often ask God if he would please make it a little more obvious that He is in charge.
In the end, Desmond Tutu is the embodiment of the qualities of God he preaches: compassion, a fierce love of justice, divine patience, a capacity to surprise, and a wicked sense of humor. His 21st-century stature as one of the leading clerics of the Anglican church born in England — which was implicated in every one of the 300 years of South Africa’s collective trauma — is another divine irony.
"At the center of this existence is a heart beating with love," says Desmond Tutu. "You and I, and all of us, are incredible… We are, as a matter of fact, made for goodness." Such statements fly in the face of reality as defined by newspaper headlines. But we can only wonder at them, ponder them, and honor them from the mouth of this man, who knows evil and injustice as intimately as he seems to know the mind and heart of God.
This story from BBC News about NASA’s missing moon rocks is absolutely tragic. Accidents do happen but people losing and selling so many of these fragments seems to place so little value on the herculean feat of the human race making it to the moon.
“Each ‘goodwill moon rock’ was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations’ flag attached.”
Romney, Mormonism, and the American Compromise
by Terryl Givens, guest contributor
Mitt Romney is threatening to disturb the American compromise with Mormonism.
Nineteenth-century observers were largely indifferent to the new religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830. Most dismissed his claims about angels and gold plates as just another example of American gullibility. “Had we not seen in our own days similar impostures practiced with success,” yawned one Illinois contemporary, “[Mormonism] would have excited our special wonder; as it is, nothing excites surprise.” But in Missouri and Illinois local tensions erupted in violence, and national concern intensified when Brigham Young — relatively safe in the refuge of Utah — announced a system of plural marriage in 1852.
For the next forty years, from the popular press and pulpits alike, cries for the eradication of this “relic of barbarism” streamed forth from the pulpits, press, and party platforms. Then came concessions — but limited concessions — from both sides. Mormons abandoned polygamy and political isolationism. And America granted partial accommodation. The deal was signed in 1893 — but it was a devil’s bargain. Here is what happened.
At the choral competition of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, on Friday September 8, in front of packed crowds, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir dazzled the audience and the judges alike, to win the silver medal. (The general consensus of Mormon and non-Mormon alike was that they had actually earned the gold.) The recipients of rapturous acclaim, the choir had suddenly become America’s sweetheart. They were invited to provide the patriotic music for the placement of the Liberty Bell at the Chicago Exposition. Their farewell concert was standing room only, journalists raved to a receptive public about the singing sensation, and concert promoters lobbied the choir to tour the east. Suddenly, Mormons were not just legitimate, they were popular.
And then, a funny thing happened on the way to the festivities. In conjunction with the grandiose Columbian Exposition, organizers had planned a World’s Parliament of Religion for September 11-22, 1893, in order to “promote and deepen the spirit of human brotherhood among religious men of diverse faiths.” Over three thousand invitations had been sent worldwide, to bring together representatives of every world faith and Christian denomination in a momentous gesture of interfaith respect and dialogue. Many faiths were underrepresented — but only one group was deliberately and conspicuously left out altogether. And that was, not unpredictably, the Mormons. So even while the choir was singing its way into history and America’s heart, the Mormon church was emphatically denied a voice in the nation’s first attempt at a comprehensive interfaith dialogue. What seemed like a contradiction was actually a compromise.
In the century since the Chicago fair, Mormons have been lauded for their choirs and their football. They are largely respected as good, decent, family-centered people, who are welcome to sing for presidents and dance with the stars — and everyone agrees to avoid theological questions. But as presidential nominations near, Romney’s candidacy threatens this compromise, because what a Mormon presidential candidate actually believes seems far too important to table. And when Mormon theology enters the public discussion, the words Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 strike many as still apt: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say, is mostly nonsense.”
But this is only true because in acquiescing to the compromise, Mormons have largely left others to frame the theological discussion. In opting to emphasize Mormon culture over Mormon theology, Mormons have too often left the media and ministers free to select the most esoteric and idiosyncratic for ridicule. So jibes about Kolob and magic underwear usurp serious engagement, much as public knowledge about the Amish is confined to a two-dimensional caricature involving a horse and buggy. But members of a faith community should recognize themselves in any fair depiction. And it is the fundamentals of Mormonism that should ground any debate worth having about Mormon beliefs or Mormon membership in the Christian community. What are these fundamentals?
- God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
- Men and women existed as spiritual beings in the presence of God before progressing to this mortal life.
- Adam and Eve were noble progenitors of the human family, and their fall made possible human life in this realm. Men and women are born pure and innocent, with no taint of original sin. (We find plenty on our own).
- God has the desire and the power to save, through his son Jesus Christ, the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and except for the most perversely unwilling, that will be our destiny.
- Heaven will principally consist in the eternal duration of those relationships that matter most to us now: spouses, children, and friends.
None of these beliefs is relevant to a political candidate’s fitness for office. But they should be the starting point for any serious attempt to get at the core of Mormon belief. And there should be no compromise on that point.
Terryl Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
"Lonely Old Widow" Eloquently Argues on Behalf of Same-Sex Marriage
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In the state of Washington, a vigorous debate is taking place on the issue of same-sex marriage. A Republican state lawmaker, Rep. Maureen Walsh, offered this humble, passionate speech defending marriage equality on February 8, 2012.
Where she starts begins with the most human of stories: the death and loss of her husband of 23 years: “I’m a lonely old widow right now, looking for a boyfriend. Not having much luck with that. … And I think of all the wonderful years we had and the wonderful fringe benefit of having three children. I don’t miss the sex. You know. And to me that’s what this kind of boils down to.”
She proceeds to tell the story of a proud mother who thought she’d agonize over her daughter being gay, and was surprised she didn’t. She continues, “How could I deny anyone the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life? To me it seems almost cruel.”
Her speech and her story showcases the best of political discussion and civil debate, no matter what side of the issue you support. If we could all model that civility in our public and private lives.
Desecrated Bodies, Dashed Hopes
by Arezou Rezvani, guest contributor
When a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters became international headline news last month, national dialogue around the incident centered mostly on its impact on U.S.-brokered peace talks, the safety of military personnel in the region, and the military culture that some argue contributed to the dehumanizing act. Largely absent from mainstream news media coverage, however, was any meaningful attempt to understand how the global Muslim community viewed the desecration of the corpses.
What took place in January was not unique. In 2010 images of a group of U.S. Army soldiers dubbed the “kill team” posing with mutilated Afghan corpses emerged and were eventually published in Rolling Stone magazine. Now, just over a year later, a similar war crime has been committed by American Marines, sparking a fresh but familiar conversation about how the psychology in and around war is not well understood by the American public.
It is indeed an important conversation to be had, particularly if there is any sincere interest in helping the latest and largest wave of U.S. troops that left Iraq in December transition back to civilian life. What is equally important, however, is a discussion around the recurring theme of desecrating the dead in a Muslim country.
In Islam, desecrating enemy corpses was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad and is regarded today by practicing Muslims as a sin and a crime. The religion also rejects cremation as a proper rite for death as it is believed that the tailbone, which is thought to regenerate the complete human being on the Day of Resurrection, would be destroyed. Another interpretation within Islam condemns any desecration of a corpse on the premise that the resurrected body will appear as it did at the moment of death.
When one considers the funeral rites and regulations in Islam, from the process of washing the body — a step that in itself entails a very particular set of instructions — to the act of shrouding a corpse in white prior to interment, it becomes clear that the rituals associated with the transition between life and death are an integral part of the faith.
The most recent incident of depriving the dead Taliban fighters of that ritual could have been an opportunity to start a dialogue around Muslim religion and culture. Instead, most of the coverage further enabled the American public’s blindness toward the “other.” This disinclination to examine the global consequences of collective ignorance, which in this instance manifested as an indifference toward the desecration of Taliban corpses, only serves to exacerbate tensions between Americans and the broader Muslim world.
American news media have an obligation to offer comprehensive coverage and fine-grained contextualizing of events that the public is not always ready confront. To be sure, debates around whether the incident will prompt another wave of anti-American sentiment in the region, or whether military culture is to blame for the dehumanizing act, makes for good television and two-page spreads in print publications. But ultimately it’s cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that will help to avert similar future acts of dehumanization and diffuse tensions. Until the news media are willing to create the kind of broad narrative understanding of events that makes such dialogue possible, their tacit enabling of collective ignorance means that they will be complicit in any future acts of dehumanization.
Arezou Rezvani is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Her work appears on NBC Los Angeles and American Public Media’s Marketplace, where she explores themes related to business, religion, and foreign affairs. You can see more of her reporting at Spectrum.