Yes, Church Leaders Make Mistakes. Sometimes Big Ones

Sigh. Yet again, someone from my church is making waves in the news for saying something stupid. This time, it’s a member of the General Young Men’s presidency, who gave a talk the other day covering a wide range of topics. The talk was Zoomed, and the Zoom recording made its way to the interwebs, and . . . it blew up from there. The part that’s receiving the most attention is when he started to try and defend why there was a priesthood ban for Black members of the church until 1978. Maybe not defend it so much as deflect the issue.

“Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978, maybe what we should be asking is, “Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?””

That . . . is problematic on a variety of levels. Part of me feels like it’s so problematic, no one should need to outline why it’s problematic. But since apparently some people don’t see it as problematic, I’ll do it anyway:

  • It’s a generally cavalier attitude to have about something that was deeply hurtful for decades and decades to a whole group of people. To dismiss that hurt in such a flippant way (and to do it in such dehumanizing terms–“the Blacks”) is appalling.
  • It’s historically inaccurate. When Joseph Smith led the church, Black members were allowed to have the priesthood. This is indisputable. It’s only when Brigham Young took over the reins that the priesthood ban grew into what lasted until 1978. So the question is actually “Why were Black members allowed to have the priesthood, and then told they couldn’t anymore?”
  • It brushes aside the real problems with that ban, saying essentially that “it wasn’t in God’s timeline” for people of all races to have the priesthood.
  • His talk goes on to touch on other hot button topics in the same manner, dismissing critiques of the church by deflecting with (attempted?) humor time and time again. Whether it’s the way women are treated in the church, or the way the church views other religions. (He says other churches are just “playing religion.” Sort of like kids play house when they’re little. How in the world someone can’t see that would be insulting to the billions of religious people across the world . . . )

I’m sure I’m missing some problems with it, but I’m also short on time, and there’s a lot I want to say. In the end, this sort of thinking isn’t unique to Wilcox. These are sentiments that have been repeated again and again throughout the church. (Not that all church members believe them, but many do.)

Now, Wilcox has apologized for his statement, and I appreciate that:

“My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to do better.”

And BYU (where Wilcox teaches religion) issued a statement around it as well:

“We are deeply concerned with the words recently used by Dr. Brad Wilcox. We appreciate his sincere apology and believe he is committed to learn from this experience. BYU remains committed to upholding President Nelson’s charge to root out racism in our institutions. We are carrying out the guiding principles outlined by President Worthen in evaluating and implementing the recommendations provided by the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging, including the creation of a new Office of Belonging.”

However, (and it’s a big however), this isn’t something Wilcox just said in an off-the-cuff remark. He’s been giving this exact talk for at least two years. There’s a YouTube video of him presenting it to the Lilburn Georgia Stake back in 2020. There’s some slight phrasing differences, but it’s the same message. It would be nice to have him recognize he’s been spreading this same thought for years, and if the thought is so concerning to BYU, one would think there would be repercussions beyond “we appreciate his sincere apology.” Can we somehow come up with something that will tell all the people who heard this talk and accepted it as doctrine that it was wrong wrong wrong?

Set all of that aside for a moment, because (believe it or not) it’s not really what I want to talk about today. What I’d like to focus on is why we as church members seem to be so fearful of admitting church leaders make mistakes. Sometimes big ones. (I mean, case in point: Brother Wilcox just made a pretty big, public mistake. Not nearly as big as denying the priesthood to an entire race for 100 years, but still damaging.)

I think somehow we’re afraid of letting our leaders be human. It’s easy for us to look back in the Bible and say prophets made mistakes. Just this week in Come Follow Me, we’re reading about Abraham going to Egypt and asking his wife not to tell anyone she’s his wife, because he was worried they’d want to kill him and take her. That’s . . . questionable, to say the least. Or we’ll read about Noah getting drunk and lying around naked, or Moses going against the word of God and being barred from entering the promised land. We’ll read about Saul persecuting the church, or Peter denying Christ three times. And we’ll come up with reasons for why those mistakes were justified, or we’ll reason them away in some other fashion.

But while we’re doing that, we’ll also talk about how we know church leaders and prophets aren’t infallible. How only one perfect person lived on earth, and that was Christ. But we seem to be very reluctant to admit church leaders could make big mistakes. There’s no way a latter-day prophet could have been racist, for example, despite being the product of a nation rife with slavery.

The church has been quite vocal recently about its desire to do away with racism, but then it’ll have incidents like this, where blatantly racist, insensitive things are not just being preached from the pulpit, they’re being preached by a BYU professor. And not just a BYU professor, but one of the main leaders for the Young Men’s organization in the church. When you have a thorny history of race relations, can you see how something like Wilcox’s speech could be more than just “he apologized, so it’s all okay now”?

I believe you can make big mistakes and still be a good person. (But that’s mainly because I think so many of us can and do make big mistakes.) “Good” is a very subjective term. You can be a founding father of America, and have been intrinsically part of the creation of a huge step forward in freedom, and yet also be a slaveholder who did very bad things. We can admire someone for the good they accomplished, while still recognizing the huge mistakes they made. Coming up with new and inventive ways of saying those mistakes weren’t actually mistakes . . . does what? How is that helpful for anyone?

I’m disappointed on a lot of different levels today. Disappointed that there’s yet another very public instance of someone in my church making a big blunder. Disappointed that the response feels so lukewarm, especially when it’s clear this wasn’t a one off event. Disappointed that so many, many members heard this same speech, and that it persisted this long in its same form. That no one thought to speak up and say, “This isn’t right.” Of course, I can understand why no one did. The church strongly frowns on its members criticizing people in leadership positions. But when those leaders are making such obvious errors, it shouldn’t take a leaked Zoom video to correct them. Not if we’re in a church that truly believes in rooting out racism.

Is Brad Wilcox racist? I have no idea. I don’t know him at all. But the attitude expressed in his talk is a very clear example of the sort of problematic approach to race many Americans (and church members) follow. It’s white privilege, plain and simple. His discussion of other religions is elitist and wrong. His dismissal of people with actual concerns about the church is actively damaging.

We make a big deal of our pioneer heritage. We celebrate it. Youth groups across the country even reenact it each summer. But at the same time we do that, we seem to want to ignore the big mistakes made by those same pioneers. To say “that was then, this is now,” as if we can sweep all of that under the rug and move on. But the more we sweep things under the rug without actively addressing it, the more those things fester, resulting in talks like the one we’re discussing today.

We want to say we’ve moved beyond it. The evidence says we definitely have not.

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