The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a problem. A historical problem. A problem disclosing the difficult parts of its history to its members. This problem exists because the church’s current outlook on itself and its leaders makes it difficult—and at times, impossible—to craft the entirety of its own history into a faith-promoting narrative. Those parts that cannot be safely included are instead quietly omitted.
Evidence of these omissions is abundant. Ex-Mormon disaffiliation narratives frequently revolve around some point in a person’s journey wherein the member learned something about church history not previously known before, something that became a catalyst for loss of faith. The recently published (2011) Daughters in My Kingdom manual makes no mention of the first Relief Society President’s defection from Brigham Young’s faction of Saints, or 19th century Mormon women regularly performing blessings and anointing with oil, or the fact that the Relief Society was shut down in 1844 because Emma Smith was using it to oppose polygamy, making DiMK but one of many official church manuals to carefully tiptoe around the problematic aspects of the church’s history. More obviously, the Church’s official Joseph Smith Web site says not a word about polygamy. It mentions the existence of some of his polygamous wives, like Eliza R. Snow, but it fails to mention that they were married to Smith. When it comes to potentially troubling details in LDS history, the church’s unspoken policy seems to be something to the effect of, don’t ask, don’t tell.
Unfortunately for the church, its history has a habit of getting loose in very public and embarrassing ways despite its best efforts to sweep it under the rug. This was recently seen in the saga of BYU religion professor Randy Bott’s remarks on race to The Washington Post. I won’t go into an extensive summary of that issue here as others (myself included) have done so elsewhere. Bott’s rehearsal of long neglected but never formally repudiated Mormon teachings on race to a widely-read, national newspaper set against the potential backdrop of a white Mormon and a black man competing for POTUS tore asunder an old wound that many believed to have healed sufficiently. How mistaken they were.
In the wake of Professor Bott’s innocent but disastrous blunder, many asked the question: would the the LDS church finally acknowledge and apologize for its history of institutionalized racism? Would it take advantage of this moment to repudiate its former teachings on race once and for all? The answer to both of these questions, of course, was “no.” Instead the church issued a press release denying that Bott’s remarks represented “the teachings and doctrines” of the church without ever acknowledging that they used to represent the teachings and doctrines of the church. The church also issued a general condemnation of “any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church,” but again avoided acknowledging any wrongdoing in its own history of institutional racism.
MatthewC at the Mormon Expressions Blog has a post worth reading in full entitled, “Why The Church Hasn’t Condemned Its Racist Past.” He hits on the crux of the problem: the LDS church claims to have leaders who commune with and speak for God. Its one thing for said leaders to engage in personal sins, but it’s quite another for those same men to lead the entire church down a sinful and harmful path, all the while claiming that they have been inquiring of the Lord and he has revealed that the sinful and harmful path is his divine will. It raises the possibility that the LDS church’s leaders do not have any greater access to the mind of God than any other church, and that they are every bit as capable of mixing their own prejudices and failings with the will of God as any other woman or man. Or worse: it raises the possibility that the heavens are indeed closed and the LDS leaders are getting things so tragically wrong because no one is really answering.
I propose that what the church needs is not a mere apology for its past wrongdoings and/or the past wrongs committed by its leaders. It makes little sense to call for such apologies when its current paradigm leaves precious little room for anything of the sort. What the church needs is a paradigm shift. One that allows for it to acknowledge and apologize for the wrongdoings of its past whilst retaining its claim to being the “one true church” possessing apostles and prophets who speak for God. I propose that such an answer may be found in a more grace-centered theology (or ecclesiology, if you will). Grace can save Mormonism.
A grace-centric paradigm would hold that the LDS church is God’s church, not because the Mormon church is more righteous or more holy than other institutions, but because God has graciously chosen it to be his church in spite of its failings and flaws. A grace-centric paradigm would maintain that LDS prophets and apostles do speak with God. However, they are capable of letting their own sinfulness and hard-heartedness cloud his voice, even to the point of misleading people for a time on important points of salvation, and it is by God’s grace that they remain as his servants in spite of their hard-heartedness.
The church’s current approach to the race issue is to insist that it was from God, that former leaders did not err in blocking people from a fulness of salvation based on the color of their skin. A grace-centric approach would allow the church to acknowledge the wrong-doing inherent in its former policies. This grace-centric approach could even give the church room to acknowledge that polygamy was wrong—whether in its very nature or merely in the way that so many Saints (Joseph Smith included) practiced it—yet through the grace of God, this “wrong” practice still became the vehicle for a kernel of truth: i. e. eternal families.
I need to stress that this proposal could only be of help in allowing the church to speak freely of its own history, particularly those problematic actions and teachings on the part of its leaders. I have no suggestions for other problems facing Mormonism such as the historical challenges to the Book of Mormon, the First Vision, the restoration of the priesthood, or Joseph Smith’s abilities as a translator of ancient documents (for my own part, I view these things as unresolvable). However, in regards to the church’s historical difficulties, I believe the paradigm shift I am proposing could be very useful. The days when the church could safely keep the difficult parts of its history from the majority of its membership are long over. Something needs to change. That something could be this.