Washington Post article on black priesthood ban spurs concern, outrage

By on February 29, 2012.

A BYU spokeswoman said Professor Randy  Bott did not have approval from the dean of religious instruction or university communications when he spoke to a Washington Post reporter about blacks and LDS doctrine.

Spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Bott’s discussion of this topic is being handled as an internal matter.

“Our media policy is that we ask members of our campus community not to speak for the university or the Church,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins comments came as The  Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU campus and  the LDS community strongly repudiated the statements attributed to Bott.

“The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the Church said in a news release issued Wednesday (see inset). “We do not tolerate racism in any form.”

BYU University Communications also released a statement yesterday.

“The comments attributed to Professor Bott do not reflect the teachings in the classroom at Brigham Young University,” said Dean of Religious Education Terry Ball.

The reactions spring from comments attributed to Bott in a Tuesday Washington Post article by Jason Horowitz, titled “The Genesis of a church’s stance on race.” Bott is quoted in the article as saying:

“In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, ‘were black.’ One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

“ ‘God has always been discriminatory’ when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood,” says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people ‘all that he seeth fit.’ Bott compares blacks with 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.

“ ‘What is discrimination?’ Bott asks. ‘I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?’ Bott says 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.’ ”

Professor Bott told The Daily Universe he was not available for comment, but released a statement saying he fully endorsed the Church’s statement regarding the article in the Washington Post.

While Bott did not respond to emails or phone calls from The Daily Universe aside from endorsing the Church’s statement, his students said he discussed the interview in class and said he felt he was misrepresented.

“He said they had a nice long interview, like two hours long,” said Quinn Rice, a freshman in Bott’s mission prep course. “He said that he was misquoted, and misrepresented. He’s such a great and spiritual professor. He wouldn’t go against the Church’s principles.”

When asked about his article and the circumstances of Bott’s quotations, Washington Post author Horowitz said, “I prefer not to add to the story other than to say that the story speaks for itself.”

Carri Jenkins said that Horowitz came on campus that he made no attempt to contact the University Communications office.

“We were aware when [Horowitz] came. He did not make any contact through our office,” Jenkins said. “He did not contact us before he came. We were made aware through members of our campus community, but he did not work through our office. I know that in some cases he simply appeared in people’s offices.”

The article and its portrayal of the LDS Church provoked a reactionmong students, the LDS community and online. Bott is one of the most popular professors on campus, rated 4.8 overall out of 5 based on more than 300 ratings on Rate My Professor.com. The Daily Universe has received several opinion letters on the subject already, and some students said they are planning a campus protest later this week.

“[The quotes] were not true,” said Professor Margaret Young of the BYU English Department. Young recently co-produced a documentary titled “Nobody Knows: the Untold Story of Black Mormons.”  “They did not represent Church doctrine in any way, they were extremely patronizing. In order to have that kind of position, you have to view blacks as a group according to stereotypes that are deeply offensive to our sensibilities now.”

Professor Daniel C. Peterson of BYU religious education posted a blog entry on the subject. “We just don’t know,” Peterson said of the reason for the black priesthood ban. “And if we ever learn the reason, that knowledge will come through the Lord’s chosen prophets and apostles, not through BYU professors like me.”

“Whether you like him or not, I don’t think [Bott’s quotes are] correct,” said Daylin Farias, president of the BYU Black Student Union. “Commenting on something we aren’t for sure about, something so sensitive, can be considered offensive.”

Joseph Stuart, a senior in American studies, said the quotes were unfortunate, but pointed out that Bott, nearing retirement, has helped prepare tens of thousands of students to serve full-time missions.

“Hopefully he’ll be remembered for the good that he’s done,” Stuart said. “Hopefully his comments will provoke a dialogue within Mormonism on this difficult topic.”

Kate Bennion

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