Re: Why Latter-day Saints Should Be Concerned With Social Justice Ideology

Rebecca Taylor got Latter-day Saints talking with an opinion piece in Meridian magazine about why members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should be concerned about social justice ideology. Her choice of words, though borrowed from a popular white anti-racist author, immediately set off some alarm bells because no one directly affected by the fight for social justice refers to their boundaries or their humanity as an “ideology”. I don’t hate racism because of my ideology and I don’t hate it because of theories — I hate it because I’m Black and not a masochist. There are overcomplicating, abstracting, demonizing, and dismissive implications of the phrase “critical social justice ideology” so I will generally avoid using this vocabulary out of respect for those closest to the pain which the fight for social justice seeks to rectify.

Being a marginalized member of the same faith, I wanted to, for the sake of other marginalized members and their allies (who definitely know someone using Taylor’s article to validate their bigotry), respond to each of Taylor’s arguments so that Taylor and those like her may know that not only is social justice compatible with Latter-day Saint beliefs, but a theological imperative. We will never be the church we’re meant to be until social justice is part of our worship and ministering experience and I’d like to go to church one day knowing that the people I worship Christ with — the same Christ who left the ninety-nine to find the one — won’t say “all sheep matter” when I go to find the one.

Let’s get to it:

It views immutable characteristics such as whiteness as shameful — a type of original sin.

This is false. Taylor fails to understand that there is a difference between being white and whiteness. The former is not a sin as it’s immutable. However, whiteness is a construct created for the purpose of establishing hierarchies based on skin color and there’s choice involved in that, as there is with any ideology. Whiteness dictates the standards of respectability for white people (but really everybody) including how you can speak, who you can associate with, what’s beautiful, and more. In fact, Mormons (and other Americans of European decent) for much of the 19th century weren’t regarded as white because they didn’t meet these standards of respectability e.g. polygamy and worshipping with Black people. Whiteness was something Mormons embraced because their access to privilege, power, and, one could argue, their survival depended on it, but that came at the expense of people of color. This is the shameful part of whiteness — it requires the otherization, dispossession, and dehumanization of those who are not white. But fortunately, and this is one of the beautiful messages of movements for Black lives, you don’t have to embrace that ideology. You can instead embrace the radical Christian and Mormon notion that “all are alike unto God”.

She cites the 2nd article of faith as well to say that people “will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression”, but this is basically irrelevant when you understand that the problem is not white skin, but whiteness. Even still, however, it must be stated that while no one alive today is to blame for the institution of white supremacy in any of its forms (e.g. slavery, jim crow, etc.) all of us are responsible for addressing it for we have inherited their legacy. Just as no one alive today is to blame for the fall, we’ve inherited the effects of it and are responsible to do our part in overcoming those effects if we are to obtain exaltation. So too have we inherited the legacy of white supremacy and do not get to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to deal with it simply because we never owned slaves. Anything less than engaging in the fight for social justice is complicity in the oppressive status quo due to willful ignorance, apathy, or enmity, all of which Christ condemns.

It promotes group identity over any other identity

Aside from being a fallacy, she doesn’t really explain why she believes this. What she does is peddle the false notion that “someone with a viewpoint that differs from her or his identity group is viewed as a traitor to her race, gender, class, or other group”. This is a gross oversimplification of the problem with group outliers. There are Africans who were enslaved who swore up and down that their masters treated them well as they were being denied personhood and also snitched on possible riots. Is that simply a difference of opinion? If I utilized their experience as evidence that slavery wasn’t that bad, would anyone take me seriously?

This is the primary reason I don’t mess with the likes of Candace Owens, the Hodge twins, John McWhorter, et al. They’re not just Black people with different opinions — they’re liars. They peddle a fictionalized version of America that non-Blacks are eager to devour that they may sit comfortably in their racism. That’s the reason Candace Owens’ 17 minute long justification of George Floyd’s death, law enforcement apologetics, and condemnation of the Black community, riddled with made-up statistics, went viral several weeks back and regrettably, among the saints. This, mere days after President Nelson condemned racism, albeit nowhere near strongly enough.

What is problematic about this section of critique is that the author aligns herself with identity politics believing that we can separate our identities to pick and choose which ones we would like to be and which ones we would like to reject. As if we were able to say, “Alright, when I walk down this suburban street in my neighborhood, I am going to leave my identity as a Black man behind and just show up as a child of God.” However, this is not true because we are always already all of our identities all the time. This means that of course we are children of God, but not just as amorphous blobs without any historicity. We are children of God as all of our identities — I am a Black, heterosexual, cis-gender male child of God. Furthermore, the author uses the scripture from 2 Nephi 26:33 about all being alike unto God “black and white, bond and free, male and female” as a way to try and show that we transcend our identities. However, I would suggest that this scripture actually works against her claim by showcasing that God does see our multiple, intersecting identities and does not strip them from us. Instead, God welcomes us into the kingdom as we are: children of God with varying races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and social classes. The phrase “all are alike unto God” does not mean we are all the same. It means that God loves all of us the same while seeing our various identities; for it was God that gave them to us.

But even if we agree with the author that our identity as children of God is more important than any other identity, then this means God’s children deserve to be treated like justly. Merely stating that we are all children of God does little to truly and actionably support God’s children as they suffer discrimination, violent racism, and bigotry in God’s kingdom on Earth.

It asserts that one’s primary focus in life should be to strive for equity.

This is yet another straw man Taylor constructs in an effort to be contrarian and she concedes more than she disputes. Taylor acknowledges that Latter-day Saints value equity, and even names it as part of the grand picture of “[coming] unto Christ and [being] perfected in him” (Mor. 10:32). What she’s doing, however, is framing equity as the supposed end of the social justice struggle as if those fighting for it, particularly Latter-day Saints, don’t have Christ in mind; as if the likes of MLK and James Cone and others who led the fight for civil rights didn’t regularly quote our sacred texts in the quest for social justice; as if the Latter-day Saint fight for social justice isn’t an effort to honor our covenants. Can we say we “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things and in all places” (Mos. 18:9) without declaring emphatically that “all are alike unto God” (2 Ne 26:33) and that everyone should “esteem [their sibling] as [themselves]” (D&C 38:24–25) when we see those celestial principles violated?

There’s no coming unto Christ without striving for equity. It’s an inescapable part of both his message and our covenants and Taylor’s efforts to demonize that effort is an affront to our covenants in favor of comfortable complicity in the dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and death of those on the margins.

It opposes agency

She claims that people who simply critique social justice movements and their tenets lose jobs, family, friends, social status, etc. but I can’t find evidence for such a claim. I literally googled it and came up empty. What I found in abundance, however, was people being socially ostracized and losing jobs for acting like bigots, which tells me that the author doesn’t understand the difference between valid critique and bigotry. This alone should make any opinion Taylor has on the place of social justice in Latter-day Saint theology suspect.

She says no one should be “forced to think and act a particular way” (alluding to the unfairness of social dispossession for acts they don’t understand to be bigoted) according to our doctrine, but then she says we’re here to exercise agency and learn from our choices. Choices have consequences, fam. You don’t get to loudly and proudly proclaim that you’re not mourning George Floyd’s death, send racist tweets, and then cry when those not cool with that dissociate from your brand. Violating someone’s boundaries is toxic and getting mad at them for enforcing their own boundaries is a form of gaslighting. Were Adam and Eve “forced to think and act a particular way” because God kicked them out of Eden? They made a choice, that choice had a less than desirable consequence, and they learned from it. Certainly, bigots are not exempt from this.

It rejects the concept of objective truth

The quotes the author pulls here are taken out of context. The very work social justice is to affirm the truth that no human is worth more or less than another because of the immutable identities they have.

In this section, the author confuses objective Truth and truth. Objective Truth is held up to be 100% indisputable and undeniable facts, accuracy, or correctness, whereas truth is filled with goodness, light, gaining new understanding and interpreting the world in a meaningful way. Objective Truth values things that can be measured by scientific methods which “prove” that “this is the way the world is.” However, what is often missing from Objective Truth is that there is always a human being behind it making interpretations based on their experience, education, and perspective of the world.

When Taylor states that critical theory rejects objective Truth, she seems to suggest that critical ideology believes in an “anything goes” mentality where people can claim whatever they want and nothing can be proven factual. However, what she misses is the way that critical ideology is one step ahead of objective Truth because it recognizes the humanity behind it all. Critical theory does not reject the concept of objective Truth, but what it does do is question and challenge what is assumed to be “objective Truth.” Who gets to decide what is True as 100% certain and who has to suffer the consequences? Often what is defined as objective Truth stems from those who hold the power to shape culture. From here, the concept of hegemony emerges as the ideas of the dominant group often become commonsense and intuitive, so much so that the groups suffering under these ideas often uphold them as the Truth or the way things “should” be.

Finally, in both this point and the following point about “rejecting authority,” the author places more value on reason, measurement, and objective Truth which are inherently masculine and technological ways of being. That is to say, she continually encourages readers to stick to the status quo of what we already think we know about Truth, as opposed to listening to the lived experience of others on the ground level who experience dehumanization daily.

It rejects authority

This isn’t true either. She says that lived experience is viewed as the most authoritative source of information, but what does she state as more authoritative sources? “Prophets, apostles, and even scripture”. There are a couple problems with this.

First off, as a Black member of the church, I don’t have the luxury of believing the prophets and apostles can always be trusted over my own experience and learning when it comes to racism. They’ve been wrong in the past in very significant and harmful ways that we’re still feeling the effects of 42 years after the restoration of the priesthood and temple blessings to Black people. They also have not been able to name police brutality as a manifestation of racism or white supremacy. Though I sustain the church’s leaders as the Lord’s anointed, to suppose they, straight white dudes who were alive during Jim Crow, know better than Black America how to deal with racism would fly in the face of the very reason Taylor touts condescendingly throughout her piece. Even the original apostles understood this concept. When the Greek Christians complained about the neglect of their widows, the twelve appointed seven disciples to handle it. The most significant thing of note — all seven were Greek (Acts 6:1–5). The apostles delegated this task to those closest to the pain of the issues.

This brings me to the second problem with these sources of authority: Taylor’s admonition to ignore the authority of lived experience in favor of the authority of leaders is inherently biased. Since the birth of patriarchal societal structures, the only people ordained and endowed with “authority” have been men. Until 1978, this same authority, or priesthood, was denied to Black men like me. To defer to the authority of only those in leadership, especially when access to those positions have been denied to minority populations by the institution which created them, is to limit the full potential and impact of the gospel. Asking members of the church to rely on the lived experience of predominantly straight white males is not only unhelpful and ignorant, but also dangerously racist, sexist, and otherwise discriminatory. Until full equality and diversified representation in every system of power and influence is achieved (including in the church), we cannot ethically encourage members to favor authoritative voices over their own.

Further, encouraging members to abandon the wisdom of their own bodies, their own experiences, and the equally holy experiences of others to follow the authority of a leader, scripture, apostle, or prophet — even if these authority figures are appropriately diverse — is a threat Zion on three fronts; first, it invites pride; second, it undermines the proposition of freedom of speech and thought; and finally, similar to the second, it distracts from the primary goal of this human experience: to find Christ and follow him. The brethren are flawed men just as prophets of old whose exploits are written in the scriptures, a record that is as human as it is inspired. Even Peter, who was at the time the chief apostle of the church, on more than one occasion, had to be called out on his racism, once by Christ (Acts 10) and again by Paul (Gal 2:12–17). What else are the scriptures if not the documentation of the lived experience of the interactions between God, prophets, and peoples? The prophets and apostles live a human experience their entire lives; their teachings are based on lived experience and the lived experience of others, because what other authority can we truly claim? Even our personal experiences with God through priesthood power are translated from our spirits through our bodies — with minds, mouths, and hands. Our very church is founded on the lived experience, revelatory as it is, of Joseph Smith. To devalue the lived experience of others is to desecrate the body-temple in which we all, prophet and prostitute alike, move about and understand this earthly life.

One more point to be made here is that many members of the church have heard the phrase “the prophet will never lead the church astray”. Returning to Peter’s racism in Galatians 2:12–17, the only reason that wasn’t the end of the Christian church as it was known then is because Paul, a junior apostle, publicly called him out when he “saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel”. Paul very likely saved the Christian church with this act. He couldn’t be led astray — not because his leaders were inerrant, but because Christ was and he trusted the latter. The same goes for members of the church and Brigham Young of all people actually validates this thinking.

…if God should suffer Joseph Smith to lead the people astray, it would be because they ought to be led astray. …it would be because they deserved it…

“…if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction, what a pity it would be! How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray.”

Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritized group is judged

Taylor’s first sentence of this section suggests that both the dominant and minority groups seek power and dominance. However, the goal of critical social justice ideology is not to seek power or domination over other groups but rather to allow all people to bask in the glory and peace of freedom and equity. Oppressed groups are not trying to get ahead of the oppressors just so they can turn around and do what has been done to them for hundreds of years. Even more perplexing than this misunderstanding is Taylor’s second line that says “the gospel is utterly unconcerned with power in a worldly sense.” Poor interpretation of this line would suggest that the gospel doesn’t believe worldly power exists or that in their state of “unconcern” the gospel simply ignores power structures. However, a better interpretation of this line might suggest that we should not seek after power, gain, and domination over one another. Instead, we should be so unconcerned with power that we exemplify Jesus Christ as Taylor writes. In this way, not only does Taylor write herself into a corner, but critical social justice ideology agrees with what is outlined above! This ideology, as Moroni writes in Alma 60:36 “seeks not for power, but to pull it down.”

Another dangerous lie she tells in this section is that “this focus on differences inevitably prevents us from finding common ground”. No problem as big as institutional bigotry is going to go away by ignoring it. Ida B. Wells famously said, “The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth on them.” Further, we cannot “be one” if you refuse to recognize the fullness and breadth of my humanity. And who’s focusing on these differences anyway? Would the marginalized have to address them if those in power weren’t socially dispossessing them based on immutable parts of their identity? Around this time last year, a Black friend of mine was released from being an ordinance worker because he grew locs. Who was focusing on differences then? At Stonewall, was it the members of LGBTQ community or the cops who kept raiding their bars for being gay? At the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the subsequent civil rights movement, was it the Black people focusing on their race or the people that told them their race determined where they could sit?

It opposes the principle of self-reliance

The author says social justice movements “encourages people to blame problems on oppressive systems rather than building resilience…” Two things can be true and I can’t think of where I can make a better case than the Black community. As the son of two Black army veterans raised in the Jim Crow south who came of age at the height of the civil rights movement, I find this one of the more disgusting ideas in this piece. Both of my parents knew racism existed just like I do, and they, like many other Black parents of that generation, taught me, as their parents did, that I need to be twice as good to get half as far. If you repeat the first half of that phrase to any Black person over 40, they’ll be able to finish it. Why? Because the the system was so profoundly unjust and discrimination so deeply ingrained that, despite their best efforts and talent, they would too often be overlooked for the best opportunities solely based on the color of their skin. There’s no evidence that being told such a thing would make us try less hard, be less self-reliant, or be injured in any way. If anything, the opposite is true. Knowing the odds, we work even harder and are even more self-reliant because doing otherwise would all but guarantee defeat. The notion that those engaging in the work of social justice oppose self-reliance is as bigoted and ignorant as it is fallacious.

It allows little space for charity, growth, repentance, or forgiveness.

It’s all about charity, growth, repentance, and forgiveness. What’s more charitable than ensuring that a person’s value as a human is affirmed? What is stepping into that process or being called in, if not an opportunity for growth and repentance? What reconciliation occurs without forgiveness?

What’s the author’s case though? She cries presentism — that it’s not right to hold folks in the past to standards of the present, even though there were always people in both marginalized and privileged classes who knew better. That people — none of whom she specifies — don’t get chances to change and grow. But this is false too. The previously alluded to CrossFit CEO had a chance to change and grow and he chose to do neither. After his insensitivity in the face of heightened racial tension, he defended his actions with a non-apology. Jimmy Kimmel, on the other hand, had donned blackface on an explicitly misogynistic television show in the late 90s early 2000s before he landed his own late night show. As an able-bodied cis gendered straight white male, there is probably no coming back from that, according to the author. However, when taken to task over his past by right-wing media about a year ago, no one really cared. Why? Because not only did he apologize for his various gaffes, but he also had since developed a track record of using his platform to draw attention to racial injustices as well as other injustices. He has long since demonstrated a commitment to becoming a better person than he was 20 years ago.

Taylor goes on to say that intent doesn’t seem to matter. When compared to impact, there are a couple of reasons intent matters little. 1. Intent doesn’t change the impact. Whether or not Pahoran intended to neglect Captain Moroni’s armies didn’t change the fact that the Nephites lost many cities and men (Alma 60). Whether I shoot you purposely or accidentally, you still got a wound. 2. Offenders in a social justice context often don’t understand their own intent. For example, remember Amy Cooper? The white woman who called the cops on a Black Man and lied on him? The very next day, she fixed her lips to say that she is not racist and didn’t intend to harm Christian Cooper even after deliberately and repeatedly weaponizing her whiteness against him. Most of the racist people I know have sworn up and down they don’t have a racist bone in their body or that they don’t see color or that they can’t be racist because they have a ::insert non-white color:: ::insert relationship::. I’d bet everything I got that Taylor doesn’t believe she wrote her piece with bigoted intent. But again, intent is both irrelevant and unreliable in this context. Impact is what matters. And these words, in their attempts to diminish movements with the goal of recognizing the full humanity of marginalized individuals and separate such goals from our faith and theology, encourage bigotry and stunt the power of the church’s ministry.

It leads to confusion, chaos, and destruction

This idea that the fight for social justice leads to these things has a lot of nuanced racism in it and while we could unpack it, it may suffice to say this much: for every protest that has turned violent, there have been hundreds of peaceful protests across the globe. Further, to condemn the looting and rioting and other violence by an unnamed decentralized few at these protests without condemning in stronger terms the federally and state sanctioned violence perpetrated against the Black body for four hundred years or acknowledging that the protests, let alone the violence at them, wouldn’t exist if we acknowledged police brutality in the first place, is hypocritical, disingenuous, dishonest, historically illiterate, and frankly, racist. This confusion, chaos, and destruction wouldn’t exist if white people didn’t tell Black people for 400 years that their melanin made them inferior and then used violence to enforce that thinking that entire time. Frederick Douglass once said “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” Stonewall doesn’t happen without straight supremacy, neither do the current protests or the opportunities for violence and looting happen without white supremacy.

For all of Taylor’s attempts to intellectually exorcise social justice from Latter-day Saint culture, practice, or theology, her arguments don’t stand up to very much scrutiny. The gospel of Jesus Christ and, subsequently, our beliefs are inseparable from social justice. Jesus himself not only taught about equity, love, and more, but he also lived it. He spent most of his ministry in the margins. He broke the law to minister to the marginalized. Several miracles he performed gave people not just a healed body, but also access to worship experiences that were kept from them because of their maladies. Christ was crucified because he was a threat to an unjust and corrupt political system and Paul would later write of him, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich”. If Latter-day Saints embracing the cause of social justice are social justice warriors, their leader is General Jesus H. Christ.

Co-authored with Elise Poll and Channing Parker of The Faithful Feminists podcast

Co-Host of the Beyond The Block podcast, Creative Entrepreneur, Blerd, Mormon, Slytherin, Fire Bender