After being quoted in a Washington Post article regarding the LDS Church’s evolving positions on race, popular BYU religion professor and LDS author Randy Bott has been accused of making racist remarks while defending the LDS Church’s historical ban on blacks from the church’s priesthood. On Tuesday the story began to go viral on social networking sites, leaving many BYU students deeply divided over whether Bott’s comments were appropriate.
After suggesting that the theological underpinning of the Church’s ban was that blacks were believed to be cursed descendants of Cain, the Washington Post reports Bott to have stated the following:
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, argues Bott, the BYU theologian. … Bott compares blacks to a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood. … Bott argues that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
The comments shocked many BYU students when the story began to be shared on Facebook and Twitter, with many claiming in disbelief that Bott must have been misquoted. Other students, however, claim that Bott has taught similar ideas in his religion classes. Bott is one of BYU’s most popular professors and is the top-rated professor of any university on RateMyProfessor.com. (Update: In an e-mail on Wednesday, Bott apologized for the way the comments appeared in the article and claims his views were not “accurately reported” and that in the past he has attempted to be careful “not to perpetuate these myths.” Bott reiterated that he does not know why blacks were not given the priesthood until 1978. However, Bott wrote a blog post in 2008 where he repeated essentially the same ideas as in the WaPo article, so it is unclear exactly how he claims he was misrepresented. The blog was taken offline sometime today.)
Generally when BYU religion professors speak to the media they are required to have a summary of their statements approved by a religion department head. It is unclear whether Bott’s comments were pre-approved by the deans of the religion department or even whether this is official BYU policy.
Rumors were already swirling Tuesday that some students were planning to protest Bott’s statements, hoping to bring attention to the appropriateness of BYU professors teaching controversial or debated “doctrines” in university-required religion classes. Historically protests against the university have been met with deep disapproval by university leaders, and so it was unclear how a protest against an individual professor would be taken. (Update: I have now given details about planned student protests in a separate post. As the details change I will also post updates as I get them on my Twitter account. I would also clarify that I am simply reporting this and am not organizing or endorsing any planned student protest.)
Bott’s statements regarding the priesthood ban are not revolutionary in Mormon thought. The argument that discriminating against an entire race was for that race’s own benefit has been a popular apologetic defense since the priesthood ban was lifted by the LDS Church in 1978. Recently, however, this line of thought has become less popular as some claim it retains a racist mentality.