I don’t know if many of you have been following the Romney-Sharpton debacle. The strange part about this is that the comment Sharpton made about Mormons was in the context of a debate with Christopher Hitchens, author of the new book God isn’t Great. Sharpton’s comment was a rebuttal to Hitchens’ scathing remarks about Mormons and their racist past. To a certain extent, I can see where Sharpton’s explanation about his unfortunate remark is coming from, though it is obviously highly problematic. However, I want to focus on the other person in this controversy, namely Hitchens.
I have been watching Hitchens appear to promote his book on a few different programs. Every time I see him I just have to cringe. His argument against religion is about the equivalent of an 8th grader’s. I have yet to see him give a single factual statement about any of the religions that he speaks about. For instance, in a vulgar discussion of sex on one talk show he claimed that every single major God had been born from a virgin and how this is misogynistic. Uh, not only is it not true about every single god (not many, actually), but also it makes no sense how this is in any way against women. I had to chuckle when John Stewart actually called him an a**hole during their interview. There are plenty of good atheists out there who have well-thought out, sophisticated comments about religion. Hitchens is more like a joke whose arguments are so easy to knock down that as a sympathetic non-atheist, I can’t help but be embarrassed for him.
Fast forward to the most recent controversy with Mormons, specifically his Lou Dobbs interview. Hitchens claims that it is Mormons who are bigoted because they believed up until 1965 (sic) that black people were inferior to others. Sharpton has also accused Mormons of “segregation” prior to 1978. These comments have got me thinking about the nature of pre-1978 racialized policies. There is no denying that there is a generally “racist” element to the policy of “one drop” and the priesthood ban. However, it strikes me that this policy does not always easily fit into the larger discourse of racism.
First, the LDS policy was never directed against any other races except those of African descent. There was no sense of white superiority either by nature or by divine grace. In fact, Mormons were strong advocates of missionizing to all peoples, with very early missions to India, China, Polynesia, etc.
Second, Mormons never practiced segregation. To the extent that there were black members of the church, they always worshiped alongside other members. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that today Mormon congregations are less segregated than many denominations (prorated to numbers of members of different races).
Third, while there are certainly instances of comments that were based in scientific racism (the belief that some races are innately superior and others are innately inferior on an evolutionary continuum) by church leaders, this is really not the basis of either the Hamitic doctrine or the other popular explanations of the priesthood restriction. Even still, the Hamitic doctrine in Mormonism was used substantially differently than it was used by other 19th and 20th c. Christians. There cannot be a simple understanding of the Mormon case by just looking at how other Christians invoked this doctrine. Mormons really were different in tone, if not in tune. This might be disputed, but it seems to me that the most vocal voices in this issue seemed to emphasize God’s love for all of his people and argue for an eventual lifting of the “curse.” This is much less like a belief in superiority/inferiority, but I am not entirely sure how to characterize the difference.
I think that Romney’s engagement with charges of “bigotry” have unfortunately opened up this debate in a way. No doubt many will continue hurling charges of past (and present) racism at Mormons. The question is whether any of these charges will be made carefully and responsibly, since the nature of the Mormon past with racial difference does not fit into the normal American discourse of racism. Further, I hope that the claim of persistent Mormon racism will be exposed as nothing more than senseless slander.