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Brigham Young University religion professor Randy Bott had a bad day last week. His church rebuked him for teaching false doctrine, his colleagues scorned him, and dozens of pious Mormon bloggers called for his resignation.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Bott expressed some views about Mormons and blacks that made his church leaders cringe. Bott said that blacks couldn't hold the LDS priesthood until 1978 because they were considered descendants of Cain, the biblical counterfigure who murdered his brother. "God has always been discriminatory," Bott explained, and, as descendants of Cain, blacks were cursed by God and denied black males were denied the priesthood.
For Bott, blacks were not spiritually ready. You wouldn't give the keys to a car "to a young child" before he was ready to drive, he intoned, concluding that "blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood."
These views angered and embarrassed Mormon leaders.
Just hours after the story broke, the church's public affairs department issued a statement condemning Bott's views, saying they "absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines" of the church. "We do not tolerate racism in any form," the statement read. "Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine."
But did Bott teach false doctrine? Were his views incompatible with Mormon theology? If so, how did a man who gets paid to teach students at an LDS university about Mormon theology not understand this crucial theological point? This is a man who spends the better part of his adult life immersed in the writings and teachings of the men who run The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints someone who asserts on his university web page that he's an expert on the "doctrines of the gospel."
Today's church leaders say "we do not know why God denied blacks the priesthood," but earlier leaders never made that claim. In fact, they made it very clear why blacks couldn't hold the priesthood: God cursed them with the mark of Cain because they lacked moral purity in a pre-Earth life.
If such words make us wince, they didn't have that effect on early church leaders. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the church was thoroughly awash in such teachings.
First Presidency statements (1949), authoritative books (Doctrines of Salvation; Mormon Doctrine) and church magazines (Improvement Era), general conference addresses, manuals all taught that blacks descended from Cain.
Church officials now deny that they ever taught the divine-curse doctrine. "This folklore is not part of and never was taught as doctrine by the church," LDS spokesman Mark Tuttle boldly declared in 2008 on the 30th anniversary of the extension of the priesthood to men of African descent. The church reaffirmed this position in a recent press release, claiming that a few misguided leaders gave "some explanations" about the "origins of priesthood availability" that "do not represent church doctrine."
And yet, the new official line cannot be reconciled with the hundreds, maybe thousands, of authoritative statements the church has made on the subject throughout its 182-year history. Nor can it be squared with its own policies for establishing official doctrinal positions.
As the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney for the White House continues to generate interest in the church's theological past, LDS leaders would be well-served to acknowledge this doctrine, apologize for it and move on. Until they have the courage to do that, more people like Bott will get their knuckles rapped, and more people will ask why the church sweeps its racial history under a rug.
Matthew L. Harris is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in history at Colorado State University-Pueblo in Pueblo, Colo.