This past Sunday, the Mormon church released an official statement expressing “sadness and deep concern” over violence surrounding white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville over the weekend. The statement was firm but vague, condemning racism and intolerance in general terms. Two days later, however, the church updated its statement with what one historian at Brigham Young University called “perhaps the most direct official statement condemning racism and white supremacy in the LDS Church’s history.”
“It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the Church is neutral toward or in support of their views,” the updated statement, which was posted to the church’s official newsroom on Tuesday, began. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” After quoting the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, it concluded:
White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a “white culture” or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.
This was rather upsetting, as it turns out, for church members who promote or pursue a “white culture” or white supremacy agenda. One Mormon who has described himself as “simpatico” with the alt-right tweeted a jab at “LDS libs” who complained about the church’s first statement and then turned around to praise the revision as “the literal Word of God,” for example. Others groused about the church “PR department” putting out statements “contrary to the doctrine of Christ’s gospel.”
But the most significant pushback has come from a Mormon blogger and YouTube personality named Ayla Stewart, a Utah mother of six who has been called the “de facto queen of the alt-right Mormons.”
Stewart has said she was scheduled to speak at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, but the violence there prevented her from appearing as planned. Her online output mixes down-home parenting anecdotes with calls to preserve “white culture,” and she has become a prominent white-nationalist voice. A long piece about the women of the alt-right in the latest issue of Harper’s describes her evolution from self-described feminist pagan to someone who hopes for the repeal of the 19th amendment. (Seriously.) She now has more than 30,000 Twitter followers.
Stewart actually seemed cheered by her church’s initial statement against racism in general, arguing that it confirmed her belief that “you cannot be anti-white and a follower of Christ.” The LDS’s stronger follow-up on Tuesday, by contrast, infuriated her. (Some observers have implied the church’s addendum may have been a response to her initial approval.) “The Church PR department, nor any member of the church I know of, has ever asked a black, Asian, Arab, etc. member of the church to renounce their culture and not promote it,” she wrote in a lengthy blog post. “So why are whites, and only whites, being singled out?”
The Mormon church infamously prohibited black men from the priesthood—a designation offered to almost all male church members—until 1978. The ban began under Brigham Young, the church’s second president, who tied the prohibition to the supposed “curse” of Cain, the Bible’s first murderer. “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane [sic] in him cannot hold the priesthood,” Young wrote in 1852. (One “traditionalist, nationalist, Mormon” lamented this weekend that “anti-whites” will soon demand the removal of statues of Brigham Young.) In the years since lifting the ban, the church has taken steps to grapple with its legacy, but the issue still haunts the modern church.
Today, just 3 percent of American Mormons are black, though that number has risen dramatically since the priesthood ban was lifted almost 40 years ago. For many black Mormons, the church’s clear condemnation of white supremacy this week was gratifying. A Mormon blogger named Tamu Smith cried tears of joy while speaking with the Salt Lake City Tribune on Tuesday. Decades ago, she was called the N-word in a Salt Lake City temple, and she has been attacked online recently by white Mormon nationalists. “For the first time, it brings us out of the margins,” she said of the church’s new statement. “We don’t have to stand alone—the church is now standing with us.” It is also standing firmly against Ayla Stewart and her allies.