Commentary: Most Mormons still believe the racist priesthood/temple ban was God’s will, survey shows

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, Mormon writer and editor.

This month, Mormons are celebrating the reversal of the priesthood/temple ban that was in place in the LDS Church until 1978. In the Next Mormons research, one question we endeavored to answer was how Mormons today feel about the ban.

I found the results surprising, and also rather depressing.

Just to explain this policy, until 1978 any Mormon of African descent was prohibited entrance into the church’s temples for ordinances such as sealings and endowments. This effectively barred them from entering the highest level of heaven after death (the Celestial Kingdom), which Mormons believe can only be obtained by people who have received those ordinances in the temple.

The ban also prohibited men of African descent from holding the LDS priesthood — despite historical evidence that several black men were ordained to the priesthood under Joseph Smith before Brigham Young forbade it in 1852.

The 2016 Next Mormons Survey asked whether respondents felt that the ban on members of African descent was “inspired of God and was God’s will for the church until 1978.” Respondents were given a five-point scale of possible responses, with the upshot being that nearly two-thirds of self-identified Latter-day Saints say they either know (37 percent) or believe (25.5 percent) that the ban was God’s will.

Another 17 percent think it might be true, and 22 percent say they know or believe it is false. Overall, then, a majority of Mormons still support the idea that the priesthood/temple ban was inspired by God. About one in five say they know or believe the ban to have been wrong.

One major surprise in the data was that Mormons of color were actually more likely to say they knew or believed the ban was God’s will than white Mormons were. Seventy percent of nonwhites affirmed this, compared to 61 percent of whites. That also remains true when we consider only African-American respondents in a group by themselves: 67 percent of African-Americans know or believe the priesthood/temple ban was God’s will, which is 6 percentage points higher than the rate for whites. (The margin of error is high, however, since there were only 50 African-American Mormon respondents in the study.)

Just because many nonwhite Mormons view the priesthood/temple ban as having been inspired by God does not mean they have warm feelings about it. About four in five say they are at least a little “troubled” by the ban, while one in five are “not at all troubled.” Among white Mormons, by contrast, about one in three were not at all troubled.

One final finding from the research concerned former Mormons. Recall that about one in five current Mormons say they know or believe the ban to have been wrong. Among former Mormons, that’s almost exactly reversed: One in five think the ban was right. More than 80 percent of those who have left the church do not think the ban was God’s will.

On a personal note, I’m in the minority here. I’m an active Latter-day Saint who believes the ban was the result of human error.

It was never God’s plan to deny an entire race of people entrance to the temple — and thus to eternal life — simply because of the color of their skin. We did that. Human beings did.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.