If you liked the series, you'll love the interviews. Even if you didn't like the series, you'll like the interviews. Next up: the Gregory Prince interview. Prince is the co-author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. As with my post on the Marlin K. Jensen interview, I'll provide some excerpts from the rather long interview, then add a few of my own comments. I am including extended excerpts on the priesthood ban and on the certainty issue because these issues were discussed in the comments to the post on the interview with Elder Jensen.
On McKay's role in bringing the Church into the 20th century: David O. McKay brought this church into the 20th century .... [T]he face of Mormonism becomes a clean-shaven, nonpolygamist white knight. David O. McKay frequently wore a bright white double-breasted suit. The contrast in image between that and what had preceded that for a full century could not have been more stark. ... It was scripted by central casting. He knew the importance of image before the era of professional image makers. [Second ellipsis in original; this excerpt was included in the series.]
On the priesthood ban: The ban on the ordination of blacks to Mormon priesthood has fuzzy historical annotations. It was [not] in place during the time of Joseph Smith. It did come into place by the administration of Brigham Young, but the circumstances remain fuzzy. Nonetheless, once it was in place, it became firmly entrenched and was no longer viewed simply as policy, but as doctrine and immutable. [I inserted the "not" in the second sentence: its omission must be a typo or a mistranscription, otherwise the sentence is both inaccurate and inconsistent with Prince's statements in the McKay biography.]
On McKay's attempts to change it following his visit to South Africa in 1954: When he got back to Salt Lake City, things started to happen. He organized a committee within the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and said: "Research this thing again historically. I want to know the background of it." ...
What he didn't understand, and what even McKay's closest associates didn't understand through his death, was that it was a policy, but it would require the force of revelation to change it. In those subsequent years between 1954 and his death in 1970, on several occasions that we can document, David O. McKay took it to the source, hoping, obviously, that the answer would come back, "Yes, change the policy." But he never got that response. [Ellipsis in original.]
On internal factors that changed in the 1970s: Later into the 1970s you now have a new president, Spencer Kimball, and you have new forces at work. Most of these are internal. The decision to build a temple in Brazil was welcomed by the Brazilian members, but it also had some baggage attached to it because, by definition, in order to go into the temple and have certain privileges; you, if you were a male, had to have the priesthood. Guess who that excluded? Now, having spent two years down there, I can tell you it was impossible to say who had black ancestry and who didn't. The races down there are so intermixed that it is impossible [to say], and yet this was the dilemma that now was looming, because that temple was nearing completion. There was also the injunction that had existed for decades, "Take the Gospel to all the world." There wasn't an asterisk as the end of it saying, "Oh, by the way, you can exclude black Africa." This weighed on Spencer Kimball. All of those things, I think, had a cumulative effect.
On the persistent "folklore" aspect of the priesthood ban: The folklore surrounding the ban on priesthood actually predates Mormonism. The idea that African blacks were a cursed lineage goes back centuries before Mormonism, but we certainly borrowed from it amply. Then we added to it because of our unusual doctrine of pre-mortal life, and said well, if they're cursed now, it must have been that they did something wrong or neutral where the rest of us did something right in that pre-mortal life. ...
It needs to be extracted and thrown away. It's a historical anachronism, an anomaly, and it's wrong, and we should just own up to the fact that that's what it was, brush it aside, apologize if we need to, and go on our way. Otherwise it's going to continue to drag certain people down, both inside the church and outside the church. They'll glom onto that and say, "Is this what you still think about us?" And I've heard that from members of the church who are black. And of course it isn't [what we think], but as long as it's in print, how are you going to counter that effect? You can't. You have to get rid of it. [Ellipsis in original.]
On the historicity issue: Perhaps the most prevalent viewpoint in the church is either the Book of Mormon is a literal history of the Americas before Columbus or it's wrong. There is an alternative somewhere between those two. If you look at the Bible, some of the greatest books of the Bible -- and in my mind in particular the Book of Job, which I feel to be one of the greatest books in world literature, is fictional. Its message is independent of its historicity. That's the key in dealing with the Book of Mormon. Whatever its message is, it continues to resonate with the people who encounter it.
On the "culture of certainty" in the Church (the term was used in the question posed to Prince): There is a strong thread within the church that clings to the notion that I have to be able to say in public, "I know," regardless of what the "I know" involves. Unwittingly that has created a culture that says to the other ones who can't say that in honesty, "Gee, there must be something wrong with me, because I can't say, 'I know,' if I don't know." I think that the desire to be able to go up to the pulpit and say "I know" is not unique to Mormonism. I think that pervades the entire world, and it's why fundamentalism in whatever clothing -- Christian, Judaic, Islamic -- is a dangerous thing, because it gives a false certitude to people. They think that the tough questions in life can all be reduced to one-line answers, and they can't. If you think that's where the world is and you try to live in that world, it's destructive ultimately. So we have to be able to move at some point from, "Oh, yeah, I know," to, "Listen, here's where I am. I think I know some things, and I've experienced some things, and there are a lot of things I don't know. But I'm here for the duration, so let's move forward together and help each other."
I really like how Prince was able to give sympathetic descriptions and explanations on these difficult issues, yet do so credibly. That seems like one of the less appreciated services that faithful (or even doubtful) intellectuals can render the Church.
He addressed the folklore problem directly. Now that it has a name ("the folklore problem") it will be easier to talk about, won't it? We got rid of the practice, now we just have to get rid of the folklore.
In the interview, Prince does a nice job of highlighting President McKay's role in moving the Church forward and giving it a modern image and public face. Even on the priesthood issue, McKay did more than was generally appreciated prior to the McKay biography. In the book, Prince writes that "McKay laid the foundation for the 1978 revelation." If you haven't read the McKay biography yet, you should. It is as much a history of the LDS Church in the middle third of the 20th century as it is a biography of President McKay.