This Mormon Matters episode hosted by Dan Wotherspoon examines the status of the claim that the Book of Mormon teaches that dark skin is a curse from God, that because of their wickedness God cursed a group of people and actually brought about a miraculous change in their skin color so as to make them seem “loathsome” and not enticing to a more righteous group with whom they were in conflict. This claim relies upon a literal reading of various passages in the Book of Mormon that seem to draw this conclusion, as well as an extremely strong view about prophetic and scriptural inerrancy.
But is this the best way to read the text, and the only real plausible conclusion to draw concerning God’s use of skin color as a marker of either displeasure or favor? Brian Dalton, the creator and star of the videocast series Mr. Deity, thinks so, and it has led him recently to create a new episode of one of his side projects, The Way of the Mister, that he titled “Mormonism is Racism.” In that episode, Dalton spells out the ways in which he believes Latter-day Saints are forced to hold to such contemptible racist beliefs because they can neither jettison the Book of Mormon nor the idea in it about skin color being connected to righteousness. Through this episode and the logic he employs in it—that this conclusion about God and skin color is “so essential to the Book of Mormon story that to get rid of it would be to undermine the entire Book of Mormon and thus the entire Mormon faith,” that Joseph Smith suggested the Book of Mormon could only be read literally, that because of the LDS teaching that its leaders speak directly with and for God, “you’re either all in you’re all out”—Dalton urges people everywhere to confront this vile message by exposing its centrality in Mormonism. He claims that because it’s a religious belief, “Mormons have gotten a pass,” but he is adamant this kind of religious cover for blatant racism should not be allowed to stand any longer. “Mormons have to be held accountable—even those running for high public office.”
In this two-part Mormon Matters episode, Brian Dalton joins Charley Harrell and host Dan Wotherspoon in a lively discussion of the Way of the Mister episode and its claims, whether there are fair readings of the Book of Mormon passages and sensibilities in question that might complicate the straight lines that Dalton draws about the message or its centrality to (or consistency within) the Book of Mormon’s story, as well as quite a bit about the value or harm that religion as a whole adds to this world. Parts of the discussion get a bit feisty, yet even amid some chaos (you’ll discover some “on-air” producing going on in efforts to re-orient and make new plans when the discussion takes unexpected turns) it presents important and clear contrasts in worldviews, especially related to definitions of God, scripture, what “revelation” or something being “inspired” might mean, the promise of science and if secularism is leading to a better world and more fulfilled lives than religion does (or can), and much more.
Part Two presents a continued conversation between Harrell and Wotherspoon that presents looks at two perspectives that the conversation with Dalton left nearly untouched: (1) alternate possible readings of the Book of Mormon if it were to be examined it on its own terms, and from the perspective that it is a thousand-year abridged history of actual, ancient people and what this might yield in terms of a different framing about racism present in the passages in dispute, and also what the implications would be for Mormons today in terms of their being forced by logic to believe in the skin color claim; and (2) how these passages and their centrality to the Mormon faith might look from a perspective that admits nineteenth-century origins for the Book of Mormon, either as the sole creation of Joseph Smith’s imagination or through some kind of “revelation” that involves both divine and human influence on the text that resulted. And, if any of this is admitted, how might this new perspective on prophetic production affect statements such as Smith’s declaration that the Book of Mormon was translated by “the gift and power of God,” and that it is “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”?
Both parts are longer than what we typically aim for at Mormon Matters, but we think you will enjoy these discussions and find them to represent well important currents for how to best frame religion in general, and Mormonism and its holy scriptures and sensibilities about prophets and revelation, in particular. We hope you will listen carefully and then contribute to a lively discussion in the comments section below.
Links to media and articles mentioned in podcast or relevant to the topic:
“Mormonism is Racism,” Way of the Mister videocast, 10 October 2012
Mormon Stories Interview with Brian Dalton, 20 October 2010
Mormon Stories Interview with Charley Harrell, 25 January 2012
Mormon Matters episode, “How Can We Truly Confront Racism within Mormon Thought and Culture?” 9 March 2012
Utah Lighthouse Ministry list: Racial Statements in LDS Scripture
Matthew Roper, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations,” FARMS Review15, no. 2 (2003)
Blake T. Ostler, “DNA Strands in the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone, May 2005
Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon As a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20, no. 1 (Spring 1987)
Scott C. Dunn, “Spirit Writing: Another Look at the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone, June 1985
C. Jess Groesbeck, “The Book of Mormon as a Symbolic History: A New Perspective on Its Place in History and Religion,” Sunstone, March 2004
“White and Delightsome: Racism in the Book of Mormon” by Michael Barker (post at Rational Faiths blog)