Recently the Black Student Union at Brigham Young University called for all of the buildings at BYU to remove the names of various people from the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, many of whom promoted pro-slavery and other racist views, and instead name the buildings after the programs and colleges they serve.
This is in response to some of the rebuttals I have received about our call.
I write this letter to respond to some of the main rebuttals I have received about our call to “unname” buildings on BYU campus, and to rename them after the programs and colleges they serve.
1. “You don’t have to attend BYU. If you don’t like it there, why don’t you just go to a different school?”
Like most of the pushback we have gotten so far, this a visceral response that dismisses our concerns without considering any of the premises in our arguments. By this logic, should President Lincoln have moved to a different country instead of running for office to end the immoral institution of slavery? Should Dr. King have moved to a different country due to the racism in America as opposed to advocating for change? And, instead of praying and asking for the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of the temple with her family, should Jane Elizabeth Manning have gone to a different church?
Would that have solved the problems they faced? Would that have made, for us, a better history? Why do we ever seek to make any institutional changes? Following this logic, we should all just walk away and leave injustices to continue unopposed. However, this is fundamentally contradictory to the teachings of the gospel. We are invited to dare to do what is right and “lift where we stand,” regardless of the consequences. Additionally, avoiding problems by trying to shut down conversations or by pretending they don’t exist does not make the problems go away.
2. “Removing the names of problematic figures is an attempt to change and or erase history, and by so doing, we risk letting history repeat itself.”
Firstly, we cannot “change” something that has already happened. Rather, we could see it in a new light as we continue to learn more information, which, I think, is part of the purpose of education—to give us a new perspective about life and history. Secondly, there are no commemorative statues or monuments of Hitler in Utah. Does this mean that the people of Utah are unaware of Hitler and his role in history? To clarify, the point is not to compare Brigham Young to Hitler but to parallel the reasoning in this argument and demonstrate the problem with its logic.
Furthermore, in this context, this argument is disingenuous because we have allowed history to repeat itself on numerous occasions despite monuments, museums, and commemorative holidays. For example, since the Holocaust, there have been at least four genocides. This goes to show that simply remembering history is not a sufficient deterrent from repeating it. Improvement requires deliberate preventative measures that both educate and protect. So, my response is simple. We learn history from books through objective research, not from monuments.
3. “These figures may have made a few mistakes but they were not all bad. Why focus on the bad things they did?”
The obvious response to this one-sided logic is simple. I, too, could easily retort that these figures were not “all good.” They may have done a few good things but they were not all good so, why focus on the “good things” they did? Thus, we see that this is a one-sided argument that completely ignores or downplays the alternative.
Moreover, the line of thinking in this rebuttal makes the foundation of white supremacy in our collective history more conspicuous. Who gets to decide which “bad” outweighs which “good” in history? For example, Hitler contributed to the technological advancement of the world. Does this mean we can say he wasn’t all bad? Similarly, should we celebrate him for the good he did and minimize the genocide for which he was responsible? Of course not! However, why do we have no problem minimizing the genocide of Native Americans to celebrate those responsible for their massacre?
It seems to me that our moral objection to evil does not rest on the evil itself but onto whom it is being done. That is, when the “least” in our society are the victims of decimation, we tend to rationalize and look for justifications but when it is done to those we esteem worthy of human dignity, then it becomes an unpardonable sin. Additionally, in the context of the church, these so-called “few mistakes” by these “not all bad” figures, completely paused the eternal progression of an entire race for decades. So, we need to carefully reconsider the motives behind this rebuttal because it assumes that there is a consensus on what is considered “minimal mistakes,” and is completely oblivious to the undertone of white supremacy in our selective recollection of history.
4. This leads me to the last and most common rebuttal — the presentism argument. This usually follows the lines of, “we cannot judge the past by today’s “standards,” or something along these lines.
If we accept this rebuttal without question or objection, it inevitably leads to the following extreme and unanticipated problems:
Defining the standard problem: How do we decide what is considered the “standard” and what isn’t? A necessary assumption in this argument is that because there is a significant number of people who generally accept a practice makes such practice the standard of the time.
For example, in the 1800s, many people supported and believed in slavery, maybe even more so then, than now, therefore, slavery was the standard of that time. However, this assumption is wrong because there were notably a good number of people on both sides of the slavery argument. This is why there was literally a civil war. Secondly, if we follow this same reasoning, then, is pro-choice considered the standard of our time, or is pro-life? If it is unfair to conclude that everybody in our time is pro-choice, then I don’t think it is fair to assume that everybody in the 1800s was pro-slavery.
Additionally, there is historical evidence that proves that since the beginning, many people knew white supremacy, slavery and racism were wrong and they denounced it. Orson Pratt, for example, openly and ferociously rebuked and rejected Brigham Young’s views of Blacks. Even Thomas Jefferson who enslaved over a hundred people unequivocally condemned slavery in his first draft of The Declaration of Independence, almost a century before Brigham Young would say he was a “firm” believer in slavery.
Furthermore, Brigham Young lived during the days of Frederick Douglass; and while Douglass was condemning slavery and white supremacy in New York, Young was passionately defending slavery and white supremacy in Utah. So, the conclusion that these figures supported injustices and immoralities because they couldn’t have known better is categorically wrong and historically untrue.
The moral relativism problem: Another problem with this argument is that it sets us on a slippery slope because it assumes that there are no definite facts about justice or morality, which makes morality relative to time, place, culture, idiosyncrasies, and systems.
While this approach to morality is often plausible in some case-by-case scenarios, it grossly undermines a fundamental premise for the Restored Gospel — to learn eternal truths as they were, as they are, and as they will always be. This argument makes every single action unquestionable because it is all relative to time, place, culture, situation, etc. Based on this reasoning, is it presentism to condemn slavery today, seeing that it happened at a different time?
Should we condemn the Holocaust, seeing that the perpetrators may have convinced themselves that their gross immoralities were somehow justified? Why do we condemn the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack seeing that our culture is different from theirs? Do these atrocities become less heinous because they happened at a different time or were perpetrated by people who have different cultures and belief systems? These are all irrefutable conclusions that deductively follow when we make “presentism” our copout.
The role of Prophets problem: Furthermore, let us say, for the sake of argument that nobody knew racism was wrong in 1875 because of the standards of the time. However, what do the social standards of the time have to do with the doctrines of the church as taught by the prophet? Is not the whole purpose of having a living prophet to guide the church aright despite political norms or social standards of any time?
For example, many faithful pioneers were martyred for the practice of polygamy but despite their persecutions, didn’t the church persevere in the practice regardless of the standards of the time? Why didn’t Brigham Young just jump on the “bandwagon” since polygamy, during his time, was a disgusting practice? Why was he willing to follow the standards of his time when it came to slavery but wasn’t when it came to polygamy?
Unless, of course, we think God is the racist who told him to teach white supremacy. However, this argument also fails quickly considering that President Russell M. Nelson, the living prophet of our time, has repeatedly condemned all racism — past and present — as a sin, and the church has “disavowed” Brigham Young’s racist teachings. Thus, we see that the presentism argument, crippled with emotions and biases, is baseless, and fundamentally questions the role of all prophets of all times.
I know that like all of us, Brigham Young was a fallible man. This is not an attempt to undermine his role as a prophet or to reduce him to one thing and one thing only — a racist. However, and counterintuitively, when we vehemently refuse to discuss the wrongs he did, we reduce him to one thing and one thing only — a prophet, and this is an unfair and inaccurate representation of history.
Brigham Young was all of these things — a prophet, the governor of Utah and a racist. I know he was a prophet because I have a testimony that he was. I know he was the governor because there is historical evidence for such a claim. I know he was a racist because he overtly taught that people of African descent, like myself, are “cursed” and of an “inferior” race. By definition, this is racism.
To not be racist, it is necessary but not sufficient that one believes in the equality of all the races, and sadly, Brigham Young did not. So, it would be a false dichotomy fallacy to conclude that if Brigham Young was a racist, he could not have been a prophet, because he was.
So, this is not an effort to change history but to complete it. For three centuries, we have only talked about his role as a prophet and I think as a church, we have many things to be grateful to him for. However, it is about time we begin to discuss some of his fallibilities, too. This is the only way we can truly address the issues of racism in our church today which are, in part, ramifications of his actions.
In the end, it is my impression that the pushback we are getting is more about members feeling uneasy with the idea of questioning “moral authorities” than it is about actual legitimate concerns or convictions. If President Nelson comes out today and decides to change the names of these buildings, many members rebuking this movement would immediately change their position and begin to claim that they knew it was wrong all along. We saw this with the priesthood ban when many saints claimed that the day the ban was lifted, they “jumped” for joy. However, what were they doing the day before the announcement was made? Many were supporting the racist policy while others, like today, were condemning those who were brave enough to speak out against it. It was not until after the ban was lifted, that many members had the epiphany that the ban was, all of a sudden, wrong.
Nevertheless, it is a sad realization for me that as members of the church, we worry more about following the prophet than we do about following God, and the fact that some members cannot even tell the difference is evidence for this claim. However, I am hopeful because I am part of a new generation of saints who refuse to be silent but rather, see dissent as an opportunity to reaffirm or reassess our culture’s alignment with the gospel.
We will continue to have these conversations. We will continue to question the status quo until the fine line between pure doctrines and the cultures of men becomes completely salient and distinguishable.
Don Izekor is a 2020 graduate of Brigham Young University and a law student at Cornell University.