Mormons, Catholics, other Utah faith leaders denounce bigotry, but some worry about persistent racism

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Mormons walk around Temple Square before the afternoon session of the 186th LDS General Conference at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday April 2, 2016.

It is not often that Mormon leaders speak out about current events, but after Saturday’s deadly clashes in Virginia, Utah’s predominant LDS Church decided to take a stand.

And, in a similarly rare move, a Mormon bishop in Charlottesville, mentioned in Sunday services the racial hatred that had devastated the city and reminded his flock that everyone is a child of God.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thus, joined others across the country in condemning bigotry.

“People of any faith, or of no faith at all, should be troubled,” read a statement posted late Sunday on the Utah-based faith’s official website, “by the increase of intolerance in both words and actions that we see everywhere.”

Lamenting the violence, intolerance and hatred on display in Charlottesville, the news release resurrected the words of a recent Mormon prophet to reaffirm the faith’s stance against racism.

In 2006, the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley emphasized that “no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the church of Christ.”

“We reaffirm that teaching today,” Sunday’s statement added, “and the Savior’s admonition to love our neighbor.”

That sentiment was echoed Monday by a chorus of Utah faith groups.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City decried “white supremacy and racism in all its forms,” noting that they deny “the dignity and sanctity of life.”

“We urge all people of goodwill to recognize that race and ethnicity are part of who we are, but do not render any individual or group superior to another,” spokeswoman Jean Hill said. “We must strive to love one another as Christ loves us; to love all of our neighbors as ourselves.”

The Rev. Gregory Johnson, who leads a collection of Utah evangelical churches known as Standing Together, said he was “deeply disturbed by people who feel like violence is the right way to express their feelings.”

Using skin color to judge or injure another, he said, “is totally unacceptable, wrong, a sin.”

Racism “grieves the heart of God,” Johnson explained. “We have to make sure these movements don’t grow.”

White nationalism/supremacists “stand in opposition to the biblical teaching and truth that God loves all people and is not a respecter of persons,” Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in an email.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Baptist denomination, split off from the North over slavery in the 19th century.

In June, the SBC voted nearly unanimously, Lee said, “in favor of a resolution to stand against racism and white nationalist/supremacists’ ideologies.”

For Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami, the tragedy hit perilously close to home.

Schwartzman grew up in Charlottesville, graduated from the University of Virginia and has family members still living there.

When some so-called alt-right marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” it was doubly painful, the rabbi said, as she had lost family members in the Holocaust, too.

For years, Jews in the South were not considered white or black, she said, so many of them aligned with all minorities.

Such slogans are voiced by “people who are so afraid and insecure,” Schwartzman said, “they worry that their privileged place is being taken from them.”

The rabbi is fine being associated with minorities. “If I am going to get shoved into a category,” she said, “I’d rather be with the hated groups than the haters.”

The Rev. France Davis, longtime pastor of the mostly black Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and a civil rights leader, appreciates the condemnations of the Charlottesville rally, but he cautions that racism is not confined to that city, state, or to the South.

Davis cites the racist posters that dotted the University of Utah campus last week as worrisome evidence.

The actions of many of our leaders give people permission “to express their hatred and do it violently,” said Davis, who also teaches at the U. “That’s unfortunate.”

The United States has come far in the quest for justice and racial equality, he said, “but we have a terribly long ways to go and haven’t come as far as I had hoped.”

The LDS Church ended its own ban on black men and boys being ordained to the all-male priesthood and on females participating in temple rituals in 1978, but racism among some Mormons persists.

Last weekend’s white nationalism march, including possible participation by fellow Mormons, was unsettling to Tamu Smith, a black convert in Utah County, who was dropping off her daughter at college in central California.

“I’ve always taught my children that the LDS Church is their home base and it’s a safe place for them. However, yesterday as I watched what was happening in Charlottesville,” Smith wrote on Facebook, “it hit me that one of my Relief Society sisters played a role in the planning of and helped promote such a hateful event. … The fear of placing my child in physical and spiritual danger is now a reality.”

Smith was referring to alt-right advocate and Mormon blogger Ayla Stewart — “Wife With a Purpose” — who said she had planned to speak at the rally but was advised against it due to “security” issues.

After her church’s Sunday statement, which did not explicitly condemn white nationalism, Stewart tweeted, “The LDS Church teachings are clear, you cannot be anti-white and a follower of Christ. We are ALL God’s children!”

Zandra Vranes, Smith’s partner on the Sistas in Zion website, wrote on Facebook that the church’s failure to call out any particular movement allowed the blogger to think the statement wasn’t talking about her or those who share her views.

“I’m glad for the statement from the church,” Vranes wrote, “and I won’t let anyone tarnish an answered prayer.”

But, she added, “I’m also oh so very weary.”

Editor David Noyce contributed to this story.