Caleb Prusso: A Mormon’s perspective on critical race theory

Members of LDS Church should be wary of government telling people what they may think.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks, standing with other House Democrats who walked out of the House Chamber as Republicans moved to debate resolution on teaching critical race theory in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

A political backlash against critical race theory (CRT) is sweeping the nation. The Utah Legislature recently held an extraordinary session to pass a non-binding resolution banning CRT from being taught in Utah schools. The most consequential revelation from the session was the fact that Utah lawmakers don’t really know what CRT is.

CRT offers a lens to evaluate the roles that race and racism have played in the legal history of the United States. It should be clear that when Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he did not mean all men. He himself owned slaves.

When the Constitution was ratified, Black people were not counted as full citizens, nor were they given the right to vote. Neither were Native Americans or women. The rights and freedoms claimed in the Declaration of Independence, and those protected in the American Constitution, were limited in scope and reserved for the white male colonizer. That is a verifiable, documented, historical fact.

One objective of CRT is to analyze how these facts shaped and influenced the legal system and prioritized the protection of whites. By codifying their fear of CRT, conservative politicians implicitly acknowledge that their political power is entrenched in the racialized history of this country.

In Utah, this debate exposes particularly myopic tendencies of the lawmakers. Approximately 90% of Utah lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). It seems appropriate to consider how their attempt to demonize CRT relates to the history of Utah and the Mormons who settled here.

When the young Joseph Smith announced he had received revelation from God, he and his followers were promptly ostracized by religious leaders and run out of town. They were violently displaced from Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. The Missouri governor declared Mormons enemies of the state and issued the infamous Extermination Order. In Illinois, Joseph and his brother were assassinated by a mob that was all but sanctioned by political leaders in the area.

Fearing Mormon teachings as threats to their traditions, values and politics, religious and political leaders attempted to silence them, intimidate them with violence and “legal” action and, ultimately, killed Joseph Smith, while in “police” custody. After the murder of Joseph, the Saints left the tyranny of the United States and settled in what was then the Mexican territory of Alta California

The current rhetoric of conservatives — who suggest that restricting dialogue is the best approach to unity and peace — rings with an eerie echo. Political oppression is antithetical to Mormon existence. The move of the Utah Legislature, with it’s overwhelming majority of Mormons, is contradiction, hypocrisy and denial of historical facts to an almost inconceivable degree.

Citizens are welcome to reject the tenets of CRT, but should be wary of a political party that wants to make that decision for them. A party that doubts — or rather fears — the intelligence of the governed should be counted as suspect.

This trend among conservative lawmakers is disturbing. In Utah it is absurd. Smith taught the primacy of civil rights and respect for all faiths and beliefs. Trampling the rights of any group threatens the rights of all.

Joseph F. Smith (a Mormon prophet) stated that “We (Mormons) are willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come.”

The Utah Legislature, on the other hand, has attempted to reject and repress ideas its members don’t understand or consider inconvenient. The move of the Legislature should be rejected by all who honor freedom and cherish faith - and particularly by Mormons and Utahns.

Caleb Prusso

Caleb Prusso is an educator who lives in Holladay.