LDS apostle vows support for social-justice groups — as long as they’re not undercutting the Constitution

(photo courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Elder Quentin L. Cook speaks during the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference on April 5, 2020.

An apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expressed general support for social-justice movements Monday, while at the same time warning that some of those fighting against racism and police violence are undermining the U.S. Constitution.

“We all support peaceful efforts to overcome racial and social injustice. This needs to be accomplished,” Elder Quentin L. Cook told faculty at the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo. And he urged his listeners to “be on the forefront of righteously repenting and following the counsel of [LDS Church] President Russell M. Nelson, who asked us to ‘build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation.’”

But Cook voiced concern that some in those movements are attacking faith and attempting to reframe and distort history.

“Some, intentionally or not, are trying to undermine our country’s founding history and the United States Constitution,” Cook said. “Whether by intention or by myopia, both effects are regrettable. … My concern is that some are also trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that has blessed this country and protected people of all faiths.

“We need to protect religious freedom. Far too many have turned from the worship of and accountability to God.”

Cook also defended the man BYU is named after — former church President Brigham Young — from charges that he was a racist, asserting that such attacks have been taken out of historical context.

It was Young, who in a February 1852 speech before the Utah Territorial Legislature, set up a racial hierarchy, drawing on the biblical tale of Cain killing his brother Abel, the same story Southern Christians had used to defend slavery.

That was the beginning of a racial policy that barred Black men and boys from being ordained to the church’s all-male priesthood and women and girls from its temples for more than a century. The ban, which caused endless pain and suffering to Latter-day Saints of African descent, ended in June 1978.

In his Monday speech, Cook acknowledged that Young “said things about race that fall short of our standards today,” saying that “some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time.” But the 79-year-old apostle insisted the church’s second president (from 1847 to 1877) taught that “of one blood has God made all flesh. We don’t care about the color.”

He also noted Young’s relative kindness toward Native Americans.

In June, the statue of Young that stands in front of BYU’s administration building — named after Abraham O. Smoot, who was a slave owner, was doused in red paint and the word “racist” was sprayed on its base.

It is “distressing,” the apostle said, “when the church and its leaders are unfairly criticized, especially by those who purport to be faithful adherents to its doctrine.”

Much of the criticism is “powerful, direct and divisive,” Cook said, and sometimes may be “meant to destroy faith.”

Nowadays “people are dismissive, highly critical or disparaging of prior leaders,” he said, “whether in government, academia, or religious leaders, including our own.”

Yet, Latter-day Saint leaders often choose to “turn the other cheek,” he said, or ignore critiques. “We are certainly among the least aggressive in defending ourselves against obviously untrue and/or unfair criticism.”

When church or BYU administrators do not respond, it does not mean the criticism is justified.

When there is a risk of destroying faith, he said, the church sometimes needs to offer “a direct response or litigation.”

Most criticism is based on words or actions that are taken out of context, Cook said. “The big picture is seldom painted.”

Knowing the faith’s history of being marginalized and persecuted, he said, should give members courage to stand with the marginalized today, ‘to bear one another’s burdens,’ to ‘mourn with those that mourn,’ and ‘comfort those that stand in need of comfort.’”

Recognizing when members “have fallen short,” Cook said, “should create more desire to do our best today.”

Cook delivered his remarks to BYU faculty and staff. Classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 31.

Kimberly Applewhite, a Salt Lake City psychologist and Black Latter-day Saint, was disappointed in Cook’s message.

“If we’re calling ourselves the Lord’s people, we can and should do more to build the kingdom of heaven on earth,” she wrote in an email, “and not look for reasons to protect our reputations or take ourselves out of doing the work.”

The apostle’s justifications for the early Mormon behavior “not only feel like an inaccurate portrayal of church history but also take away a lot of the context for why church members have more to do today,” she said. “Can we stop saying Brigham Young was a product of his time? We already know that many of his contemporaries felt differently about Black people. And it doesn’t excuse the way that people took his thoughts and ran with them in a way that continues to damage the church’s relationship with the Black community at large.”

When Cook said that the church supports peaceful efforts to overcome racial and social injustice, Applewhite said, “I’m curious how he would see that the church as an organization has done so.”

She pointed to the statements of former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson, who decried the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader was “perhaps the prime example of American pacifism in social justice.”

Although Cook dubbed King a “hero” and called the civil rights movement of the 1960s an “exciting time” when he was in law school at Stanford, Applewhite said the voices of the church’s prophets “have been missing for nearly every major media injustice of my lifetime related to race.”

“The partnership with the NAACP seems to be at a standstill,” she said. “What have we been doing? As the hymn goes, when Black [Latter-day] Saints have needed the church’s help, were they there?”

The Utah professional respects her Latter-day Saint leaders, she said. “I want to sustain them and hold them up as they earnestly seek the counsel of the Lord to teach [members] to be their brother’s and sister’s keepers, so that the souls of Black Saints do not cry up from the dust against them.”