Earlier this month, Pres. Dallin H. Oaks was given an award by America’s Freedom Festival in Provo. The almost 90-year-old Provo native was honored for tirelessly promoting the values of God, family, freedom, and country. During his 37-year tenure as a high-ranking apostle, Oaks has made a name for himself as a staunch and near-militant defender of religious freedom and the virtues of the U.S. Constitution.
It’s certainly not uncommon for LDS prophets and apostles to celebrate the U.S. Constitution as an inspired article of freedom and prosperity—after all, they openly preach that the formation of the U.S.A was all to ensure that Joseph Smith could found their religion. But what we don’t see, and what we definitely didn’t see during Oak’s proud acceptance speech, is a sincere acknowledgement of the failings of the constitution that still impact BIPOC members under Oaks’ apostolic stewardship today.
Because Oaks’ speech perpetuates harms against his own church members, I’ve tried to parcel out the problematic rhetoric for which he was recently honored. While his words surely inspired his audience of ‘Murica-loving patriots, I don’t believe in ignoring the equally negative ramifications for BIPOC members whose pains and obstacles are so easily dismissed, and who are often pressured into believing that the very document harming them is the only thing protecting them.
To begin, I want to reiterate that Oaks was honored as a “champion of traditional American” values, as if this 245-year-old fledgling nation eclipses every civilization, philosophy, and achievement that predates it by millennia.
Why does this matter? Because every time Pres. Oaks commands LDS members around the world (over the pulpit, no less) that they should “uphold and defend the United States Constitution,” we are reminded of just how euro-centric, colonialist, and truly American this young, “global” religion is; and that calls into question the alleged universality of a God who created and esteems all His children equally.
LDS members may outwardly claim to believe in being good citizens no matter where one lives, but it’s one thing to “believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law,” and quite another to tell the world that that means honoring and obeying your law.
Especially one as flawed and embattled as the U.S. Constitution. To that end, Pres. Oaks had this to say:
“Our original Constitution, adopted in 1787, had what our distinguished [former] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself a member of our most prominent minority, called some ‘birth defects. Nevertheless, it was our best hope for freedom and self-government. It remains so. Let us be united to defend the great principles of the United States Constitution and to use our precious freedoms to further the work of our faith and to serve our fellow men.”
Okay, first things first—”prominent minority?” If there was any question as to Oaks’ elitist and colonialist perspective, this obtuse phrase should remove all doubt. If identifying minorities when their marginalization suits him and congratulating Black people for managing to become the “most prominent” racial minority doesn’t qualify Oaks as an inexcusably ignorant, white-centric American, I’m not sure what does.
Now let’s look at Oaks’ other uncomfortably revelatory remarks. I don’t think I need to explain why quoting Black women to support colonialist, white American views about the constitution is grossly insensitive. I do, however, feel compelled to express the horror I felt when Oaks agreed that slavery and misogyny were “birth defects” of an otherwise godly document.
Birth Defects? The U.S. Constitution’s failings were intentionally racist/misogynistic/homophobic laws with far-reaching, devastating consequences. They were not excusable oversights or deformities beyond anyone’s control, and to suggest otherwise not-so-subtly invites BIPOC in particular to look at their skin color as an unfortunate, unavoidable defect as well—an unnatural blemish rather than an intentional creation.
Furthermore, LDS leaders’ rhetoric reflects and influences their membership’s attitudes toward BIPOC members. If Oaks dismisses intentional racism with a smile on his face, so will other white members. If Oaks preaches that the Founding Fathers’ endorsement of slavery and misogyny were an acceptable blemish on their God-given “wisdom and courage,” white members will continue to overlook our nation’s sins as well. After all, whatever comes from God must be celebrated, not dissected at the request of even our most prominent minorities.
Even if I’m overestimating Oaks’ influence over white members, we must still consider what all this teaches BIPOC members about God and the Restoration—that His great plan for the Book of Mormon to bless white Americans had to come at their expense. Their oppression, dehumanization, and horrific deaths were Oaks’ and company’s “best hope for freedom and self-government.”
So, what does that make us? Equals in the eyes of the Lord? How? If “most prominent minority” is the highest status we can achieve after centuries of suffering, what is the dang-blasted point of trying to understand God’s love for BIPOC members through His chosen prophets on earth today?
LDS members need to understand that unconditional love for the U.S. Constitution does not make the 12 apostles effective leaders for the entire world. While I’ve never seen anyone exercise more charity than white, Christian ‘Muricans praising their flawed body of law, I’d hardly call this a Christ-like example of loving your fellow sisters and brothers.
The blinders of colonialism and white patriotism have no place on a man who speaks for God. If the LDS Church truly represents a Being who loves and values all equally, no matter their race or creed, then He needs to stop asking His prophets to expect BIPOC members and investigators worldwide to praise a document that either has no bearing on them, or created the systemic racism that hounds them to this day. To do otherwise is an act of unconscionable gaslighting that benefits colonialists, not minorities—even the more prominent ones.
In closing, I just want to say that “imperfect but resilient” is a way to describe the constitution, yes, but also cockroaches. It is neither tasteful nor honorable to willfully deny a country’s sins rather than hold its perpetrators accountable the way God would.
A member of the non-prominent AAPI community
You can read about Pres. Oaks’ award and speech here, or watch the video honoring him here.