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Church Behavior and the Unconscious Bias

Photo by Danny Lines on Unsplash

If we’re not prejudiced, why do we resist anti-racist behaviors and policies so strenuously? Most of the white Mormons in my life are in fact anti-anti-racist.

I finally understand now how Anti-Nephi-Lehies must have felt.

Fortunately, more conservative white Christians are finally coming to understand that if we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body, we should want to help alleviate the oppression of others.

After all, Pontius Pilate didn’t truly absolve himself of all responsibility simply by washing his hands.

It’s one thing for us to control our personal behavior. Not being the racist who shoots Latinx shoppers or the guy who runs over a Black jogger is undoubtedly a good thing. But there are far more ways to inflict harm than by picking up a weapon.

And controlling our own behavior is far too limited a response. We must also step up and be a force challenging racism in each institution we’re a part of—local and federal government, the workplace, and even religion.

Uncle Jeff made a disparaging comment about Asians at a family gathering? For many people of all faiths, family is the most important institution in our lives. To protect it, we must call out inappropriate behavior whenever we see it. Gently, if possible. More firmly if necessary.

As members of a community larger than ourselves, we can work together to understand others, and can learn that empathy doesn’t mean agreement.

For Latter-day Saints, the Church is the second-most important institution. Many Mormons, in fact, despite claims that family is their top priority, clearly put religion first.

But does this mean that LDS leaders, past or present, get a pass on everything?

If our husband has an affair, he’s excommunicated until he repents and is rebaptized. If Mom becomes an alcoholic, we arrange an intervention and try to help her into rehab.

We have no problem accepting—or demanding—consequences for family members. So why can’t we expect appropriate behavior from Church leaders?

Even if we suspect a leader has received the Second Anointing, it doesn’t mean he can’t sin.

Still, if we’re too anxious to retroactively call out Brigham Young for advocating the enslavement of Native Americans, we can certainly change the name of BYU. What’s wrong with Zion University? Deseret University? If the Liahona was a compass helping the faithful move in the right direction, why not Liahona University?

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Which commandment, specifically, do we think we’re breaking by changing the name?

A single act, of course, won’t “solve” racism in our communities. We’ll need to make a far more concerted effort.

In the Missionary Training Center, we spent one hour each week in Culture Capsule. We can easily do something similar at church. If we don’t feel like replacing an existing hour or adding another, we can at least establish a separate weekly fireside.

Or perhaps we could implement a type of home study program. I graduated from Seminary without ever attending early morning classes. In my stake, we had home study. We could likewise provide weekly assignments to help uncover our biases—a specific film, podcast, or article—and then hold a discussion.

People of other faiths can make similar adaptations to their worship and study programs.

If we need to hear about faith once a week, tithing twice a week, prayer three times a week, and repentance four times a week, we certainly need to hear about bias and equity and racial justice more than once a year.

There’s no need, though, to make this solely about race. Most of us would benefit from understanding a bit more about the obstacles facing folks with various disabilities, mental health issues, or any other difference mainstream society uses, intentionally or not, to marginalize others.

My husband and I enjoy School Night once a week, our own version of Family Home Evening, where we watch a documentary that teaches us more about historically oppressed groups. If LDS leaders consider Church members part of their gospel family, they should want to help us all grow into stronger anti-racists.

As members of a community larger than ourselves, we can work together to understand our spiritual brothers and sisters, even if they’re not exactly like us, even if individual Mormon leaders or Church doctrines bear no responsibility for a particular form of exclusion.

We can learn that empathy doesn’t mean agreement.

Do we really expect to reach the Celestial Kingdom without developing that capacity to its fullest?

Making ourselves, our families, and our society better can’t stop merely with our personal behavior. We must also be a blessing to our families, our local communities, and to our nation.

Johnny Townsend

We can only do that, of course, if declaring “Well, I’m not prejudiced” isn’t the beginning and end of our efforts.

Johnny Townsend