I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who attends Zoom Sunday School every week in my best T-shirt. I am also a human being who marches against police brutality and for black lives.
Right now, these two sides of myself don’t get along.
As Elder Johnston, I spent two years shaking hands and loving people who spoke Spanish and English in Louisiana. Black people, brown people and white people lived in segregated neighborhoods of varying quality and inspired me by how they would serve others in church callings or outside of the church entirely. But the systemic nature of what Black and Hispanic people suffer in Louisiana is part-and-parcel of what they face all over the country.
My recent attempts to express this sentiment in church have generated plenty of resistance. Variations of “Well, I’m not a racist,” and, “Those people need to stop burning their own neighborhoods,” come up like clockwork.
I am not even a member of the Black community, and therefore don’t know the weight of systemic racism’s anvil on my back day after day for years, but I tremble with frustration when people in the church repeatedly tell me not to “bring politics into Sunday School.” To my fellow Latter-day Saints I say: It’s already here.
We belong to a church with leaders who helped bring us the truth of eternal families and also called the Priesthood ban “doctrine.” This is true not just of Brigham Young, but also of David O. McKay and George Albert Smith. Even Spencer W. Kimball condemned racial mixing. Apostle LeGrand Richards agreed in August 1978 that President Kimball’s Proclamation on the Priesthood came in part because Brazilian members of mixed racial ancestry financed a temple they could never attend. The same Book of Mormon that preaches of Christ loving those who are “black and white, bond and free” says 20 chapters earlier that the Lamanites’ curse was their “skin of blackness.”
This is not anti-Mormon literature, it is our past. And this checkered past continues to affect our present, precisely because we largely refuse to acknowledge it ever happened.
I have always had a testimony of Joseph Smith seeing God the Father and Jesus Christ, and I would be lying to deny I have felt the Holy Ghost in meetings and ordinances. But I know there is a problem when the NFL says “Black lives matter” before The Church of Jesus Christ does.
As Latter-day Saints, we can start to improve by ending our double-talk about race. No more denouncing the officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck while also justifying the priesthood ban. No more Instagram videos about how “we’re all different” when the system’s status quo is literally killing black people. No more pretending the church isn’t inherently political when our neutrality on the Black Lives Matter movement is implicitly equivalent to saying “all lives matter.”
I have real hope that the church can change since it has done so many times before. The Relief Society was established after female members suggested such a society to Joseph Smith. Polygamy was abolished after the federal government issued a slew of anti-polygamy laws. Revelation about the status of black members in the church came after pressure from the Civil Rights Movement and the faith of Brazilian saints.
I am loath to consider leaving the church family that I love — the one that taught me I mattered from a young age. But a question mark lingers next to my level of activity the more I realize my welcoming was and is in part contingent on the color of my skin.
I don’t have the answer, and I doubt the church will change overnight. But if the best time to address the LDS church’s systemic racism was 190 years ago, the next best time is today.
Peter Johnston is a senior at the University of Utah studying political science and Spanish. He is the host of a podcast called “The Platform with Peter Johnston,” which is dedicated to elevating diverse and interesting voices. His best T-shirt is red and has a big “U” on the front.