The Mormon Church’s “Folk Doctrine” Regarding Blacks

Readers may have heard of the controversy about why the Mormon Church previously banned blacks from the priesthood—particularly a “folk doctrine” described by BYU religion professor Randy Bott in this article.  Slate summarizes Bott’s comments thusly:

Bott cited the Old Testament anti-heroes Cain and Canaan, whom Christians of many denominations long believed to be cursed for their ancient transgressions, marking their offspring with dark skin and casting them into perpetual servitude of the lighter skinned races.

The Mormon Church’s own longstanding priesthood ban was, according to Bott, not racist. Rather, it was a “blessing.” Prior to 1978, blacks weren’t spiritually mature enough to be ordained with such authority. Bott compared blacks to “a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car,” and told Horowitz that misusing priesthood authority—like crashing dad’s Oldsmobile—could have put blacks “in the lowest rungs of hell,” reserved for serial killers, child rapists, world-class tyrants, and “people who abuse their priesthood powers.”

Bott has since apologized, but the issue seems unlikely to disappear if Mitt Romney is the Republican presidential nominee.

In a recently published op-ed, political scientists David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson demonstrate that this “folk doctrine” is either largely unknown or anathema to Americans Mormons:

A few weeks before this controversy flared up, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of American Mormons, and happened to ask about this very folk doctrine.

Adopting Mormon religious language, our question read: “In the past, some Mormons have said that blacks had to wait to hold the priesthood because they were less valiant in the war in heaven, or the pre-mortal existence. Have you ever heard this?” Those who had heard of the statement were then asked whether they agree or disagree.

Less than half of all Mormons, 45 percent, report having heard this teaching. When we combine awareness and agreement, just 9 percent of all Mormons have both heard of, and agree with, the folk doctrine (just 2 percent strongly agree).

In other words, over 90 percent of Mormons have either never heard the folk doctrine or, if they have, reject it.

See the piece for more details.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.