Monday, January 18, 2010

How The LDS Second Article Of Faith Obviates The Need For "White Guilt"...Or Any Other Type Of Collective Guilt

I've been looking for an excuse to expound upon the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Second Article of Faith for quite a while, and a post on the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog has provided the justification.

The post in question is entitled "So it turns out you’re white, but let’s not talk about that...". In this post, Lisa grabs on to one of the third rails of American politics - race - and advocates that we talk about it rather than ignore it. She deftly sums up the two prevailing positions in American society regarding race:

...Most of us liberal white types feel a healthy dose of white guilt, so sorry I am for all the privileges of my whiteness, so so sorry that my gg-grandpa owned your gg-grandpa, and so so so sorry about the unfortunate oppressiveitude of my very white existence.

And most of the conservative white types (my former Republican self included) feel a nice healthy dose of white defensiveness, after all it’s not like I owned slaves or forced anyone to drink from a colored drinking fountain. I should be able to feel proud of my pioneer ancestors and my Irish heritage. I’m not a racist, so why should I feel guilty? eh? eh?

Yes, that's a good summation of the predominant positions, but let's stop right there. Did you notice her use of the phrase "healthy dose of white guilt"?

The fact is, there is no such thing as a "healthy" dose of white guilt, because any form of collective guilt over sins you did not personally commit is unhealthy. This applies in particular to so-called "historical guilt". Note that guilt itself in the broader sense is not an unhealthy emotion when it is resultant from reflection upon your own actions or words, but how can you hold yourself guilty for the sins committed by people you not only never knew, but who may have long since been dead?

Fortunately, we in the LDS Church have an escape clause from collective guilt. It's called the Second Article of Faith, which states, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression". Of course, the primary purpose is doctrinal; it's designed to show that we as Mormons reject the traditional Christian notion of "original sin", which portrays the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden as an act of perfidy by the First Couple rather than as a carefully-orchestrated act designed to unlock the key to mortality for billions of spirits who chose to keep their First Estate and to accept the Father's plan for eternal progression rather than follow Lucifer into outright rebellion and eternal exile. In LDS purview, Adam and Eve are heroes rather than goats.

But there's a broader, more implicit message delivered by the Second Article of Faith. It also implies that we are not responsible for any sins except those which we personally commit, or those committed by others over who we have direct control. An example of the latter: In civil society, parents are held liable for the actions of their kids because kids are not considered emancipated citizens, but are wards of the state under the command and control of responsible adults. Another example: In paramilitary organizations, commanders and supervisors are held accountable for the actions of subordinates.

But nowhere is there the implication that we can be held responsible for the sins of those with whom we had no contact. Consequently, we need not feel or accept guilt for the sins of those with whom we had no contact. This effectively rebuts the notion of "white guilt" or any other form of collective guilt. Likewise, we as Latter-day Saints need not feel guilt over the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the prolonged denial of Priesthood membership to black men who were otherwise qualified. Our responsibility is limited to ensuring the truth gets out without fear or favor, and, in the case of the 1978 revelation extending Priesthood membership to all worthy males, to ensure it is enforced in spirit as well as to the letter.

And finally, a comment posted to the FMH post proved additionally disturbing.

  1. One other comment–my reading in feminism and the intersection of sex, gender, culture, and race has been very helpful in opening my eyes to why, as a member of the powerful white majority in my culture, I’m not really the one who gets to say that we’re now post-racial and the bad days are over. Privilege is pretty much invisible to the ones who have it. That doesn’t mean others aren’t hurt by it.

    Comment by psychedaisy — January 18, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

First, Psychedaisy's First Amendment right to say we're post-racial is guaranteed regardless of whether or not she wants to exercise it. Second, the argument the so-called "white privilege" is invisible is designed to throttle discussion, because how does one claim something is not invisible? It shows intellectual dishonesty on her part.

But intellectual dishonesty is part and parcel of anti-racist discourse. Anti-racists talk a good game of tolerance, but restrict it to only those with whom they agree. Visit the anti-racist One People's Project forum and you'll see that they tolerate no contrasting opinions. On the other hand, if you visit the racist Vanguard News Network Forum, you will see that they not only tolerate contrasting discourse, but have even set up an Opposition Forum to encourage it. Ironic that those who are labeled "intolerant" are actually more tolerant than those who proclaim themselves to be tolerant, isn't it?

In the final analysis, it is the anti-racists, the same ones who preach white guilt and white privilege and endlessly denigrate our history, who are really preventing us from becoming "post-racial". I suggest that anti-racism is just as much out of harmony with the Gospel as racism.


Dennis said...

I think that someone can talk about "white privilege" (I'll leave guilt aside) and how it's inherited from past generations of abuse, without saying we're punished for other sins.

The Book of Mormon talks over and over again about being profoundly affected by the sins of generations. The fact is that those in positions of historical privilege really have benefited from past abuses (generally speaking). This can be emphasized while saying nothing about what the 2nd Article of Faith actually says: that you won't be punished for others' sins. That's all.

Jack Mormon said...

But to assume that all whites have equally benefited would seem ludicrous. There are many whites who are just as poverty-stricken or economically disadvantaged as those of other races.

As both the Book of Mormon and the Bible point out, sins can indeed affect future generations if they remain unrequited. We took a big step in mitigating "historical sin" when we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and took down the infrastructural support for forced segregation. The question: Is it sufficient to merely end the sin, or must also one take extraordinary measures to compensate for its effects?

Ending forced segregation was one thing. Implementing affirmative actions and quotas to make up for past discrimination is another. The latter has created backlash and obstructs society's efforts to become post-racial.

Anonymous said...

Great post --- I would like to repost it on Mormon Matters if your interested