Jana Riess: LDS leader Brad Wilcox’s apology for racist remarks does not go far enough

The fact that he kept referring to “the priesthood ban” leaves women out of the equation entirely, as if they were unaffected by the church’s racist policies.

(Screenshot) Latter-day Saint leader Brad Wilcox, with wife Deborah, addresses youths in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sunday, Feb. 13. 2022.

Last week, while I was on vacation, a Utah reader emailed me to express her disappointment and frustration with a fireside that Brad Wilcox, a counselor in the Young Men general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had just given for youths in her area.

She wasn’t alone in this response. Thousands have expressed concern, including administrators at Brigham Young University, where Wilcox is a religion professor. This outcry resulted in his apology on social media the night after his talk and a second apology three days ago at another youth fireside.

After listening to the talk, I think his apologies barely scratched the surface, especially since they didn’t identify what was wrong about what he said about race.

In the Feb. 6 fireside, Wilcox began his remarks on priesthood by saying he did not wish to oversimplify a complex issue before he proceeded to oversimplify a complex issue. He adopted a mocking tone for an unnamed interlocutor who questioned why people of African descent were subject to a racial ban for most of the history of the church:

“’How come the Blacks didn’t get the priesthood until 1978? What’s up with that, Brother Wilcox? Brigham Young was a jerk. Members of the church were prejudiced.’

“Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying, ‘Why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978?’ maybe what we should be asking is, ‘Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?’ One thousand eight hundred and twenty-nine years they waited. …

“When you look at it like that, then instead of trying to feel like you have to figure out God’s timeline, we can just be grateful! Grateful right down to our socks that the Blacks received the priesthood in ‘78. Grateful right down to our socks that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had the priesthood restored to them in 1829.”

By his logic, it doesn’t matter that Black people were oppressed for so many decades. They have the priesthood now, don’t they? Why are people still bellyaching about that? What really matters is white men! We had to go without the priesthood for 18 centuries, which is way worse.

Wilcox’s comment about not questioning “God’s timeline” reveals that he believes the priesthood/temple ban was the result of a decision God made. That God is a racist, essentially, doling out punishments and restrictions to people based on no other reason than the color of their skin.

This is idolatry, this willingness to blame God for the morally wrong choices of humans. The church’s priesthood/temple ban arose because of white Mormons’ racism, and it was perpetrated and justified for decades because of white Mormons’ racism. That includes the white supremacist ideology sometimes preached by prophets and apostles.

Rather than naming that racism and trying to understand how deeply it damaged many members, many white Latter-day Saints today want to ascribe this evil to God and claim it was his will. (Statistically, Wilcox is not alone in this willingness to throw God under the bus.)

There’s more. The fact that Wilcox kept referring to it as “the priesthood ban” leaves women out of the equation entirely, as if women were unaffected by the church’s racist policies.

So let’s remember this was never just about priesthood. All Black members were denied access to the temple.

Denied the privilege of having their families sealed together for eternity.

Denied the endowment ritual that Latter-day Saints believe is a prerequisite for reaching the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom.

Condemned, in other words, to second-class status forever.

This was thoroughly wrong. And humans did it to each other. A small group of white men who erroneously believed they were acting in God’s name inflicted their own racism upon fellow humans solely because they did not physically resemble the men making the decision.

Racism and sexism go hand in hand in the priesthood section of Wilcox’s fireside. His tone is disdainful toward women, or at least toward women who dare to ask why women still don’t hold the priesthood in the LDS Church. The mocking tone continued as he adopted the stance of another unnamed interlocutor:

“’Yeah, but Brother Wilcox, how come the girls don’t have the priesthood? … What’s up with that?’

“Girls, you’re going to hear a lot of people say a lot of things and many of them say them with very angry voices. But just because somebody’s angry doesn’t necessarily make him or her right. Just because somebody’s loud doesn’t necessarily make him or her right.”

He then recounted a story about being at a professional conference wearing a BYU badge and being confronted by a female attendee:

“Some lady walked up to me that I didn’t even know, sees my nametag, and she’s like, (mumbles) ‘Brigham Young University … ' (shouts) ‘WHY DON’T YOU GIVE WOMEN THE PRIESTHOOD?!’

“Just like that! And I said, ‘Good to meet you, too.’

“And then I asked, ‘What’s the priesthood?’

“And she said, ‘Well, uh, I don’t know, but I think the women should have it.’

“Seriously? ‘I don’t know, but the women should have it?’ What’s malaria? ‘I don’t know, but the women should have it?’

“I mean, I’m going to let her voice that’s very shallow drown out my testimony, just cause she’s loud? No way.”

Ah, yes, the trope of the loud and angry feminist. How dare this woman ask him to explain why women in his denomination are denied access to decision-making or leadership opportunities. The nerve of her.

Never fear, though: Wilcox is the self-nominated hero of this story, and he makes it clear that he put her in her place. He sure showed her, exposing her total ignorance of what priesthood really entails. There was “no way” that her “very shallow” voice was going to have any impact on him, “just cause she’s loud.”

If there’s a thread that runs through the entire talk, it’s this scornful attitude toward anyone Wilcox perceives as marginal in some way.

For example, he mocks a student who once came to him to confess that he didn’t believe in Joseph Smith anymore but still believed in God and Jesus. He mocks a former employee who was disappointed in her Protestant church’s wedding vows (“as long as we both shall live,” Wilcox parrots disdainfully) but impressed with what Wilcox told her about Latter-day Saint marriages for time and all eternity. Wilcox was horrified by the way she then rewrote her ceremony to include language from Latter-day Saint sealings, because her church did not have the authority to seal anyone — in his words, they “just didn’t have permission” from God.

The scorn extends to practitioners of other branches of Christianity, whether he’s claiming that the pastor who performed that woman’s wedding demanded extra payment when she changed the ceremony (somehow I have a hard time believing this happened) or he’s describing how he one-upped a different Protestant pastor at an evangelical-Latter-day Saint dialogue. That “poor guy” just didn’t understand about the need for prophets, bless his misguided little Protestant heart.

Other Christians, Wilcox surmises, are merely “playing church,” the way his kids used to do with their stuffed animals when they were little. (He approved of these adorable pretend sacrament meetings, though he acknowledges he “got a little nervous” when his daughter started trying to bless the sacrament.) In his view, non-Latter-day Saint Christians are sincere but confused, lacking the authority to do anything but “play” at their faith.

Here’s a hot tip I learned at one of those useless Protestant divinity schools where they are only playing at Christianity: Don’t ridicule your congregants’ doubts or questions. When people in your congregation hear you caricature legitimate questions in a disparaging and condescending way, the result is usually not the one you are hoping for — that they will miraculously overcome their false beliefs and embrace your superior point of view. Rather, what they will learn is that church is not a safe place for them, with the result being they will either a) stick around but hide who they truly are or b) make for the doors.

Also, don’t cast yourself as the hero of every story, the noble winner of every argument. This fireside is filled with stories of Wilcox correcting those he sees as wrong, which appears to be everyone who is not over him in the Latter-day Saint hierarchy. His student is wrong, the feminist at the conference is wrong, the Protestant pastors are wrong, the woman who rewrote her vows is wrong, the people who point out the church’s racist history are wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The talk contains tale after tale of him either correcting these imbeciles to their faces or scoffing at them behind their backs.

What the talk does not contain is a single story of him listening deeply to people’s pain, asking where that pain might be coming from, or trying to understand what it might feel like to be a person who is not a white Latter-day Saint American male.

That’s some serious privilege right there. Undoing it is going to require a lot more soul-searching than his two carefully worded not-quite-apologies suggest he’s undertaking.

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