Race and Why Christopher Hitchens is an Embarrassment to Good Atheists Everywhere

I don’t know if many of you have been following the Romney-Sharpton debacle. The strange part about this is that the comment Sharpton made about Mormons was in the context of a debate with Christopher Hitchens, author of the new book God isn’t Great. Sharpton’s comment was a rebuttal to Hitchens’ scathing remarks about Mormons and their racist past. To a certain extent, I can see where Sharpton’s explanation about his unfortunate remark is coming from, though it is obviously highly problematic. However, I want to focus on the other person in this controversy, namely Hitchens.

I have been watching Hitchens appear to promote his book on a few different programs. Every time I see him I just have to cringe. His argument against religion is about the equivalent of an 8th grader’s. I have yet to see him give a single factual statement about any of the religions that he speaks about. For instance, in a vulgar discussion of sex on one talk show he claimed that every single major God had been born from a virgin and how this is misogynistic. Uh, not only is it not true about every single god (not many, actually), but also it makes no sense how this is in any way against women. I had to chuckle when John Stewart actually called him an a**hole during their interview. There are plenty of good atheists out there who have well-thought out, sophisticated comments about religion. Hitchens is more like a joke whose arguments are so easy to knock down that as a sympathetic non-atheist, I can’t help but be embarrassed for him.

Fast forward to the most recent controversy with Mormons, specifically his Lou Dobbs interview. Hitchens claims that it is Mormons who are bigoted because they believed up until 1965 (sic) that black people were inferior to others. Sharpton has also accused Mormons of “segregation” prior to 1978. These comments have got me thinking about the nature of pre-1978 racialized policies. There is no denying that there is a generally “racist” element to the policy of “one drop” and the priesthood ban. However, it strikes me that this policy does not always easily fit into the larger discourse of racism.

First, the LDS policy was never directed against any other races except those of African descent. There was no sense of white superiority either by nature or by divine grace. In fact, Mormons were strong advocates of missionizing to all peoples, with very early missions to India, China, Polynesia, etc.

Second, Mormons never practiced segregation. To the extent that there were black members of the church, they always worshiped alongside other members. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out that today Mormon congregations are less segregated than many denominations (prorated to numbers of members of different races).

Third, while there are certainly instances of comments that were based in scientific racism (the belief that some races are innately superior and others are innately inferior on an evolutionary continuum) by church leaders, this is really not the basis of either the Hamitic doctrine or the other popular explanations of the priesthood restriction. Even still, the Hamitic doctrine in Mormonism was used substantially differently than it was used by other 19th and 20th c. Christians. There cannot be a simple understanding of the Mormon case by just looking at how other Christians invoked this doctrine. Mormons really were different in tone, if not in tune. This might be disputed, but it seems to me that the most vocal voices in this issue seemed to emphasize God’s love for all of his people and argue for an eventual lifting of the “curse.” This is much less like a belief in superiority/inferiority, but I am not entirely sure how to characterize the difference.

I think that Romney’s engagement with charges of “bigotry” have unfortunately opened up this debate in a way. No doubt many will continue hurling charges of past (and present) racism at Mormons. The question is whether any of these charges will be made carefully and responsibly, since the nature of the Mormon past with racial difference does not fit into the normal American discourse of racism. Further, I hope that the claim of persistent Mormon racism will be exposed as nothing more than senseless slander.

Believing Blood: Mormonism as a New Race

Mormons adopted the language of race and ethnicity to describe themselves from the very early days of the church. This post examines the rhetoric of race in Mormonism and compares it with that of early Christianity. It is inspired by Denise Buell’s amazing book, Why This New Race?, which looks at “ethnic reasoning” in early Christianity. In Mormonism, I see a similar dynamic, though different in some key respects, in the process of describing and creating a new people.

Up to this day, many people still see Christianity as a universalistic religion and Judaism as a particularistic religion. Christianity’s success is credited with its ability to apply to all peoples. Judaism “failed” because it was ethnically exclusivistic. What Buell did was to look at the rhetoric of race and ethnicity in early Christianity. The early Christians saw themselves as a new “race,” in the same category as Romans, Greeks, and Jews, only their citizenship was in heaven. As a claim to a “universal” race, it engaged in the same sorts of “particularistic” exclusionary practices as any other ethnicity. Her critique is that this new universal is simply another particular and that the claims to universalism always involve exclusion.

While this critique is certainly important for the study of early Christianity, in many ways it applies to Latter-day Saints( though we are more comfortable with being labeled “exclusionary”). However, Buell’s argument also tells us a lot more about Mormonism. Mormons claim lineage (literal, adoptive, symbolic, blah, blah, blah) with Israel which establishes them as a distinctive people. In some versions of this, the blood of the baptized member is said to change. In other cases, the blood of the investigator is activated and the ancient kinship bonds are rekindled when the spirit is felt, so that only those literal descendants are gathered again to the family. This diffuse blood was always seen as multi-racial biologically, but all members of the church belonged to the true family of Israel.

The rhetoric of racial unity in Mormonism has died down in recent decades, perhaps as the result of the power scientific discourses of race which may problematize Mormon theories of kinship (there is a lively critique of the biological view of race as well). The result, however, is that biological views of race become the discourse of race in the church, which means that the exclusionary language of that discourse can divide the membership. Yet, our own past exclusionary practice of denying those of African descent membership in the people of Israel reminds us that our rhetoric of universalism rings hollow. Nevertheless, as we have moved away from being a race, to being simply a religion like most others should cause us to reflect on this event. Is one model more effective than another? Should we continue to be a race of Mormons, or should we be just a religion?

Mormonism’s Greek Inheritance: Pre-existence

DMI Dave, one of my favorite bloggers, has recently added a post about how early Christianity wasn’t influenced much by Greek religion. I like Dave, but I disagree with nearly every characterization of Greek religion here, especially the comparison to “fortune cookies,” as well as the thesis that Jews and Christians didn’t participate in Greek culture like drama or the gymnasium (um…Ezekiel the Tragedian? Ps. Phocylides? Theodotus? Philo’s constant references to the gymnasium as well as Paul’s discussion of “shadow boxing” and “crowns” in athletic contests?). Ultimately the only space that he leaves for meaningful contact was in the realm of philosophy. Anyway, my protests in this regard will have to be saved for future posts. For now I want to follow up on my suggestion that Mormonism has inherited several Greek ideas. I recently argued that the Holy Ghost resembles Greek daimons. This is but one aspect.

One of the most interesting overlaps between Mormonism and Greek religio-philosophy is the pre-existence of the soul. Of all of the early Christian writers, only the Platonist Origen is known to have taught the pre-existence of the soul, and he was branded a heretic for it. The reason is that this doctrine is clearly taught by Plato, but one must strain to find evidence of it in either to Old or New Testaments. However, for Mormons we have accepted fully this Platonic doctrine as our own. How do we deal with this inheritance of Greek and not Hebrew or Christian ideas in Mormonism? Does this point to evidence of our willingness to incorporate truth wherever we see it, or does it disrupt the narrative of truth as located solely within the Judeo-Christian heritage?

The Demonic Holy Ghost

When did the Holy Ghost become a demon (aka, daimon, daemon)? By “demon” I don’t mean to refer to the malignant spirits that tempt or haunt human beings in Christian mythology. Rather, I mean to refer to the Greek and Roman meaning of the term, a mythical creature that could be either good or evil, but who whispered to the mind of its patron what they should or shouldn’t do. Our term ‘demon’ dervies from this Greek word, though Christians argued that these pagan creatures were by nature wicked since they did not come from God. The most famous daimon belonged to Socrates and told him what he should do. He claimed in his Apology that he only followed what this divine creature had told him to do.

It strikes me that for Mormons at least, the Holy Ghost functions as a sort of daimon. Testimony meetings are replete with accounts of the Holy Ghost telling someone not to go somewhere or to give someone a call. The basis of these testimonies is that they don’t know why they are doing these things other than that they heeded the call of the still small voice. Sometimes they find out why, sometimes they don’t.

But this is not the only way that the Holy Ghost has been depicted in the history of Christianity, nor is it the uniform picture of the Holy Ghost in Mormonism. Most famously, the Lectures on Faith say that the Holy Ghost is the communal mind of God and Jesus Christ. Moroni 10:5 says that the Holy Ghost bears truth to all things, but this seems a bit weightier than whether I should go to a sleepover or where my keys are. Many New Testament books don’t even mention the Holy Ghost and others speak of the Spirit as a more abstract principle. So, where does this idea that the Holy Ghost is a daimon who whispers into our ears what we should do come from?