Johnny Townsend: Train up a child in the bias he should know

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this Oct. 5, 2019, photo, members of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square look on during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' twice-annual church conference, in Salt Lake City.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Proverbs 22:6.

That’s as true for the biases we learn as well as for our religious worldview.

Bias is a learned, automatic reaction, either positive or negative. When I was a Mormon missionary in Italy, my companion and I rented “Fiddler on the Roof” to show local members. We wanted to help those still struggling with Catholic backgrounds understand it was possible to break free of “Tradition!” The flip side was working with members whose children were no longer interested in the LDS Church.

I recently joined a Facebook group for missionaries who served under my mission president and was shocked to see that several formerly rebellious colleagues were now stalwart members. One elder had earned money for his mission by selling drugs. Another had worked as a loan shark. Serving was to fulfill family expectations. If they believed, it was only nominally. I was surprised they’d even completed their missions, much less remained in the church for decades.

I left the church only a few years after returning home and have also remained close to Mormonism. My former companions will say it’s because “the Spirit” is trying to call me to repentance, that I can never really deny “the truth” I’d once testified of every day. But the facts are that ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses feel the same ties to their past. So do ex-Catholics and ex-Sunnis and ex-Lubavitchers.

I’m 59 and have never drunk an alcoholic beverage. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, never taken any illicit drugs. And while I no longer believe drinking coffee is a sin, some mornings when I prepare a pot for my husband, I experience a brief, “Oh my heck, what am I doing?”

An atheist now, I still find myself wanting to pray, “in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Most Mormons reading this just gasped at the word “atheist.” Or frowned. Or felt pity. And your upbringing led you to experience it. Automatically.

I watch “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” or “Snowpiercer” or “Space Force” and realize I’m interpreting a certain line or situation through Mormon eyes. I can’t hear a news report about Navajos with COVID or missing Native women or contested pipelines on Native land without thinking, at least for a moment, about their “Lamanite” ancestors.

So when my Mormon friends and family tell me they resent being accused of bias against Blacks or others, I realize it’s simply because they don’t understand how implicit bias works. It’s unconscious, part of the culture we grow up in, not something we choose. In the case of Mormons, we were taught (not very long ago) that Black people were cursed because they weren’t vigilant in the Pre-Existence. Lamanites were cursed because of their wickedness.

An LDS leader can’t snap his fingers, say the church doesn’t teach racism anymore, and expect that to erase years of direct and subliminal messages. American Mormons are part of the national culture as well, which has also engrained biases into our subconscious.

Learning what we’ve been taught doesn’t make us bad people. The bias is inevitable. But refusing to acknowledge it exists, when we have so much evidence it does, is morally unacceptable.

If I’m still influenced decades later by my short time in the church, do we expect that just because we mean well, we’re somehow immune to learning, to influence, to culture we’ve experienced our entire lives?

I only lived in Italy two years, and yet 40 years after I first stepped off the plane in Rome, I can’t help but turn up my nose at inauthentic Italian food. I listen to the news about growing fascism in Italy differently than those who didn’t visit the ruins of Mussolini’s house personally. One of the local missionaries was anti-Reagan, a believer in socialist principles, a woman who remained committed to the church the rest of her life.

Did you just experience another knee-jerk reaction?

It’s not a sin to be biased. It’s inescapable. The pressing choice before us today is what to do about injustice caused by racial bias.

My Mormon background still tells me that we must make amends for the harm we’ve caused and from here on out do what is right and let the consequence follow.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of, among other works, “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”