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Criticisms omit crucial context

Claims of Mormon racism that rely on repudiated notions and out-of-context quotes are evidence of religious bigotry that seeks to deny Mormons an equal standing in society. Bigoted attempts to label The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as racist often stem from political or theological motives, not a commitment to truth or equality. The attacks rely on dishonest tactics that distort or ignore the complete story.

One illegitimate tactic is use of an error known as “proof texting.” That is, one may use a short quote that, read in isolation, seems to support the argument. But when one understands the full document and its context, it becomes clear that it actually doesn’t support the argument at all. For example,  starting from the 15th century, many Europeans and colonial Americans justified slavery by quoting the Bible’s report that a “mark” was placed upon Cain, saying that Africans are Cain’s descendants and inherited the “mark” in their dark skin tone. However, neither that passage nor the rest of the Bible say anything about the mark being overall skin tone or being inherited. The proof text is a superficial and false argument, and in this case has done incalculable harm.

Proof texts are also used, in an equally superficial and false manner, to argue that the Mormon church is officially racist. In a political forum, a questioner cited Moses 7:8 and argued that the verse proves racism. But a fair reading of the scripture shows that it merely observes that God cursed a region with a hotter climate, that the inhabitants suffered “blackness,” and were “despised” by others. Those inhabitants have no connection to any present-day blacks, and it is unclear whether the “blackness” was a literal change of skin pigmentation, or an idiom akin to Joel 2:6, which indicates a temporary emotional state. The Bible uses “blackness” as an idiom again in Job 30:30: “My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.” In Moses 7:8, others “despised” “blackness,” but there’s no encouragement for readers to do likewise, and in fact those despising are sharply told to repent just a few verses later. Moses 7:8 is not an exhortation to racism, but it takes a long explanation to clarify the assumptions the proof text is likely to cause. Commentators have also recently tried to use proof texts from The Book of Mormon in this way.

A responsible and complete analysis of the Mormon church’s position on race would have to take into account many factors. For instance, 2 Nephi 26:33 is simple and unequivocal that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white.” The Book of Mormon narrative in no way supports the modern concept of racism based on innate biological superiority; rather those described as dark skinned (which is more likely an idiom than a difference in pigmentation as we think of race today) were eagerly sought, welcomed, re-integrated into society after centuries living in a different region, and lionized for their faith and virtue. A responsible and complete analysis would make it clear that Mormon leaders condemn racism and that the Mormon church welcomes all converts, completely regardless of race, and is gaining enthusiastic converts worldwide.

This isn’t to deny that there have been racist Mormon members and leaders, and that past church policies have discriminated on the basis of race. It is fair to analyze and learn from the past. But critics portray racism as present and pervasive in the current doctrine and practice of the LDS Church, when in fact the racism is in the past and discredited. Things that happened decades ago do not legitimize tactics like proof texting or omitting Mormon teachings which clearly contradict the negative portrayal critics would like to popularize.

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MDL.org is now MormonVoices.org

Mormon Defense League is now “Mormon Voices” and our new URL is www.mormonvoices.org. You have automatically been forwarded to our new website. Our mission is the same, but our emphasis will be to help members become involved in critical conversations online.