Debates over how to approach racism continue to expose divisions across America, but some believe an unlikely alliance is providing a model for bridging those gaps.
On Monday, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints walked into a news conference linked arm-in-arm with the president of the NAACP on one side and a Black former student of Martin Luther King Jr. on the other to announce a multimillion donation to the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and other initiatives to help underprivileged Blacks and improve racial understanding.
The president of the UNCF described his organization’s new relationship with the church as jaw-dropping. He said he hoped the Latter-day Saint commitment to Black higher education would become a national story.
The groups should stand as an example to the nation, said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, who studied under King as a young man and now is the NAACP’s emeritus director of religious affairs.
“Our democratic republic is under siege, but this very partnership of the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be the saving factor to redeem the soul of the United States of America, so that we shall indeed become one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” he said.
He suggested that others would gain by learning from the way the church, NAACP and UNCF are working together.
“I thank God that God enabled me at the age of 80 to stand here for this historic moment to say to America, ‘Look at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, look at the NAACP,’ for if you take what they use of love, civility, justice and peace, you won’t lose.”
As the nation recognizes a new national holiday on Saturday, Juneteenth, established by Congress and the White House this week to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States 156 years ago, is it possible that an unlikely and arguably underreported relationship could become such a valued example?
It shouldn’t be taken for granted and it does matter, said another national observer, who pointed to the growing impact of what he said is a similarly surprising relationship that arose six years ago.
“This does remind me of the relationship-building that allowed the Utah Compromise in 2015,” said Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The Utah Compromise is a law passed by the Utah Legislature that has become an example that it’s possible to protect gay, lesbian and religious Americans at the same time. It codified religious freedom protections for religious people and churches while adding legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in housing, employment and public accommodation.
It passed after seven years of relationship-building across many groups, including LGBTQ leaders and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“The compromise could not have happened without years of building trust in an even more fraught situation, and turning a cobra-mongoose relationship into a conversation,” Rauch said. “What we learn from politics is that so much of it is about personal relationships and learning to trust the other party you’re dealing with and building goodwill and then taking that goodwill back to your community and helping people understand that maybe they can see this former adversary in a different light. So it’s very difficult but very important. And the (Latter-day Saint relationship with the NAACP and UNCF) does remind of that big compromise. And it really matters.”
Reaching the people
Latter-day Saint and NAACP leaders have been collaborating for three years, but this week’s announcement expanded the relationship to include the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and major new financial commitments — a total of $9.25 million — from the church.
Both church and NAACP leaders said their initiatives are designed to spread their collaboration downstream to their members.
The church and NAACP will identify six metro cities where they will organize people to work together in new local relationships and where the church will provide a total of $6 million in humanitarian aid over three years.
“We envision a lot of our members from the church, through our program Just Serve, which is national and encourages service, will team up with the Black sororities, the Urban League, NAACP and others and come together with resources to build a model of collaboration and cooperation to deal with some of the tough inner-city questions,” said Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church Communication Department.
Leveraging existing strengths
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said the the church and NAACP are playing to their strengths with the humanitarian aid, UNCF scholarships and a $250,000 grant to fund a 50-student trip to Ghana to study the Transatlantic slave system allow. For example, the church has worldwide experience providing vision services through Latter-day Saint Charities.
“As we continue to work with the church to figure out what are the real needs of our targeted areas through an assessment process, there are skills and competencies and other things that the church can bring to bear, to provide the necessary support,” Johnson said.
“Can you imagine a fifth grader who has yet to have an eye exam and he’s struggling in class because he can’t read not because he lacks capacity, but because he doesn’t have glasses? So we’re looking at things such as that, where the church membership can actually add value to the quality of life of targeted communities we serve. So those are three components that we have identified that keep both the church and NAACP squarely within our mission, so that we can serve and help those that we care about.”
Those components are promising, said Rauch, whose new book, “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” will be published next week.
“I would tell the cynic, you might even be right about the intentions going into this, but once this partnership develops, assuming it does, a lot of actual good could come from it,” he said. “So let’s not take for granted these first steps, even if you’re not 100% convinced of the motives, and even if this does not, in your view, begin to expunge the full record of racism in the LDS Church.”
Rauch then compared the church-NAACP relationship with what occurred this week in Nashville, where Baptist factions fought over systemic racism.
“There was a big fight at the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said, “and in a very narrow vote, a fairly moderate president won over a very right-wing culture war candidate, but it was close, and I am so struck by the different ways that Mormons versus evangelicals are reacting to cultural change, and not just hot-button issues like gay marriage but also the racial reckoning that’s happening more broadly.
“Evangelicals are doubling down on attacking critical race theory and saying it’s ungodly, circling the wagons. A lot of evangelical pastors are calling pastors a squish or a traitor if they even want to talk about race. Not all of them are — there’s a split in the evangelical community — but that is a community that’s reacting in a very defensive, reactive way. But the Mormon reaction has been very different — just as conservative theologically, but culturally and politically much more willing to engage in a constructive way and say, ‘How can we be helpful in this situation?’ instead of, ‘How can we hunker down and resist these horrible trends?’”
Rauch said the Utah Compromise was similar: It didn’t change the church’s theology but sought to do something constructive. The church’s work with Black organizations “sounds like a parallel,” he said. “And that is not to be taken for granted. I’ve asked people why evangelicals and Mormons are reacting so differently to the cultural pressures right now. People say it’s because Mormons have living memory or recent historical memory of oppression and evangelicals don’t, so maybe that’s it, but in any case this strikes me as another very good example of the large difference in approach of these two institutions.”
The Rev. Brown of the NAACP said the national race crisis is an opportunity.
“This partnership (with the Latter-day Saints) sees this extreme situation as being the opportunity for a faith community in America to do more than just talk the talk, but walk the walk, of telling the truth, of being trusting with each other, respecting the worth and the dignity of everyone regardless of how different they may be, and remaining transparent,” he said. “That’s the reason why this partnership that Brother Wil (Colom), Brother Derrick (Johnson), President Nelson, Elder (Jack) Gerard and others of the First Presidency — that’s why it has been so fruitful, because we have been transparent, we’re trusting of each other and we are able to tell the truth in love, respect and as God would have God’s children at their best do it.”
Latter-day Saint leaders clearly laid out their approach to issues of racism last year in a joint op-ed with NAACP leaders.
“We likewise call on government, business and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all,” said the op-ed, which was signed by President Nelson, Johnson, the Rev. Brown and NAACP Chairman Leon Russell.
A simple start to solving a complex problem
They have built their still-nascent relationship on a simple premise, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in Monday’s news conference: Ask what can you do for others and come up with something that begins a process.
“It’s a complex problem,” he said, “and rather than trying to describe a complex solution, I think that the genius behind the collaboration, the cooperation between three very distinct different entities in the NAACP, United Negro College Fund and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to think of a very simple approach: Do something for others.”
NAACP officials said education-minded church leaders asked what they could do to help Black students. That led Johnson to introduce them to UNCF CEO Michael Lomax.
“I think we have made so much progress, and I think people are gonna underestimate the impact of what’s coming,” said Wil Colom, NAACP special counsel to Johnson. “This is certainly not the end. This is just the beginning. There’s much more in discussion, and there’s certainly much more to happen, and it’s going to be even more impressive.
“I think this is a wise step. Let’s do things that we can comfortably do together and where we both have skill sets that make it easy for us to make progress. That’s one reason the United Negro College Fund is involved, because of their skill set. Just Serve has a skill set. We were really talking about how you bring skill sets together. That’s the reason why I think this is a great first step. So I’m happy with what’s going on, and I’m willing to work hard.”
‘We’re on our way...’
Lomax’s wish for widespread national coverage hasn’t happened yet. The Southern Baptist Convention drew far more national media coverage. But politicians around the country are aware of the Utah Compromise today. It now is the core of a Congressional bill called the Fairness for All Act.
Congress hasn’t voted on it, isn’t likely to do so soon, and no other state legislature has passed a version of it, either, in part because of increased partisanship in the United States. A Deseret News analysis of state-level, religion-related bills proposed in 2018 showed that only 19 of 140 had bipartisan sponsorship.
But on Thursday, the nine U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on a religious freedom/LGBT case. The Alliance for Lasting Liberty, of which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a member, released the following statement:
In the last calendar year, the Supreme Court of the United States has handed major victories to religious rights (in Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia) and LGBT rights (in Bostock vs. Clayton County). Both sets of rights are important, and the Court has now established major guardrails clearly protecting them.
Still, the Court’s decision does not comprehensively address the issues covered by the Fairness for All Act and the power to do so belongs to Congress. All nine members of the Supreme Court and the vast majority of Americans clearly believe that LGBT rights and religious freedom both deserve respect and protection.
We continue to call on Congress to pass comprehensive federal legislation that protects LGBT people and the free exercise of religion.
The Rev. Brown called on the nation to watch the NAACP and the church, whose leaders also have decried racism from the podium in their international, semiannual general conferences. He said he hoped others would look at their relationship and follow their example.
“We are on our way,” the Rev. Brown said, “and we ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”