For the first time, Dallin H. Oaks, next in line for the presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Black lives matter an “eternal truth all reasonable people should support.”
That does not mean everything that is done under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement — including “abolishing the police or seriously reducing their effectiveness or changing our constitutional government” — commands universal backing, Oaks said Tuesday in a virtual speech to students at Brigham Young University. “All these are appropriate subjects for advocacy, but not under what we hope to be the universally acceptable message: Black lives matter.”
In his speech, the 88-year-old Oaks, first counselor in the Utah-based faith’s governing First Presidency, returned to the theme he addressed at this month’s General Conference, in which he said that racism must be “rooted out.”
On Tuesday, the former Utah Supreme Court justice pointed to the “shocking police-produced death of George Floyd in Minnesota” and emphasized the words of church President Russell M. Nelson’s speech at the same conference, saying that God does not value one race over another and that “favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and his commandments, and not the color of your skin.”
He reiterated Nelson’s directive to Latter-day Saints to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice toward any group of God’s children.”
When it comes to taking the names of slaveholders off buildings on university campuses, including at BYU, however, Oaks said they may “accomplish nothing but a bow to the cause of political correctness.”
He may have been referring to an effort by some BYU students to remove the name of Abraham O. Smoot, a 19th-century slaveholder, from the church-owned Provo school’s administration building.
Oaks — addressing a small, physically distanced and mask-wearing crowd permitted inside the Marriott Center and a much larger audience online — said he could not “condone our now erasing all mention and honor of prominent leaders like George Washington, who established our nation and gave us our Constitution, because they lived at a time with legal approvals and traditions that condoned slavery.”
Quoting Winston Churchill, the Latter-day Saint leader said: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”
“The predecessors of many Americans of different backgrounds made great sacrifices to establish this nation,” Oaks added. “Whatever those sacrifices — of freedom, property or even life — let us now honor them for what they have done for us and forgo quarreling over the past. Ours is the duty to unite and improve the future we will share.”
Oaks never mentioned the church’s own centurylong priesthood/temple ban on Blacks, which ended in 1978, but he did talk about how some religious people defended their racist views by pointing to the Bible.
In the Old Testament, for example, only members from the tribe of Levi among the 12 tribes “were accepted for service in the temple,” he said. “The Israelites were forbidden to marry the Canaanites and…[Jews were told] not to associate with Samaritans … because of their partial descent from non-Israelite peoples.”
Under current definitions, “some might call such divine actions and prophet-taught principles racist, but God, who is the loving father of all nations, tribes and ethnicities, cannot be branded as racist for his dealings with his children,” he said. “Often the reasons for his plan are not known or understandable to mortals.”
Oaks cited many examples of racism in U.S. history, including “police brutality and other systemic discrimination in employment and housing publicized recently” specifically aimed at Blacks. But there also has been racism “in official and personal treatment of Latinos and Native Americans.”
In the past, discrimination and hostility targeted Asians, which “began with Chinese immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad,” Oaks said. "It was not until a century ago that Native Americans were considered U.S. citizens and Asians were allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship.
He pointed to two international examples: The Holocaust, in which German Nazis sought to exterminate Jews, and the Hutu tribal majority in Rwanda murdering about 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority.
“Let us all heed our prophet’s call to repent, to change, and to improve,” Oaks concluded. “Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can unite and bring peace to people of all races and nationalities.”
In the devotional, which also discussed anxiety associated with COVID-19, Oaks said he recognized how the pandemic has affected the students' “programs, classes and social activities.”
But he implored them to “do your part,” Oaks said. “And remember, that some of the burdensome restrictions, including even the wearing of masks, are not only for your immediate protection but also for the well-being of those around you.”