Brad Wilcox, Racism, Misogyny, and the Assertion of Authority

In case you haven’t heard, Bradley R. Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men General Presidency and BYU professor, has been widely castigated for offensive remarks he made at a multi-stake youth fireside in Alpine, Utah, on February 6.

The uproar over Wilcox’s talk is so severe that I actually listened to it. You can find a playlist of the talk broken into sections here and a transcript here.

The talk is egregious, not just offensive but silly and boring, and Wilcox deserves every bit of criticism he is getting. Most everything in the talk is objectionable, but Wilcox has felt compelled to apologize for the nasty way he discusses the church’s racist approach to the priesthood: “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying ‘why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978,’ maybe what we should be asking is ‘Why did the whites, and other races, have to wait until 1829’ — one thousand, eight hundred, twenty-nine years they waited.” (Apparently he has been saying such things for quite some time.)

He also dismisses the sexism inherent in withholding the priesthood from women: “Girls, how many of you have ever entered the temple to perform ordinances? Okay, raise your hands. Raise your hands high. Do you realize that you’ve done something that no man on this earth can do? There’s not a male on this planet who can enter a temple to perform ordinances without being ordained. And yet, you just waltz right in! You walk right in. So what is it that sisters are bringing with them from the premortal life that men are trying to learn through ordination? Maybe that’s the question that ought to be keeping us up at night.”

Both of those cringe-inducing statements are in the P stands for Priesthood section of his talk. That’s also where you’ll find this gem:

How many of you used to play school? Okay, good. I’m glad to see those hands up. How many of you used to play Church? I’m glad to see a few hands go up. My kids played Church. They’d pull out the stuffed animals, they’d put them on the couch, they’d sing the song, they’d do the talk, [I] got a little nervous when my daughter started blessing the sacrament, but they played church. And I used to think, “Oh, that’s so cute. It’s so cute.”

But now I’m older, and I realized it wasn’t just cute. It’s actually what most people in the world are doing. They’re playing Church. They’re sincere, they want it to count, but they don’t have the authority. They don’t have God’s permission. So that the things they do really count on Earth and in eternity. Man, I want what I’m doing to count. And to be able to have that, we have to have the priesthood. We have to have that.

In the O stands for Only True Church section, he ridicules tolerance and people who find the church’s grandiose truth claims silly or offensive, and says that COJCOLD missionaries and representatives say “’We’re the only true Church’ in a spirit of invitation,” as if that makes anything better.

When I googled Wilcox, I learned that he was born in 1959 and has an M.Ed and a PhD in “curriculum and instruction with a focus in literacy” but is a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, which means he teaches modern interpretations of the Bible and the Book of Mormon though he has no scholarly credentials in the subject.

When it was over, I couldn’t help thinking, “That would have been so much worse if it had been delivered when I attended youth firesides.”

  • The comments about Black people would have included a smug assertion that they were “less valiant in the preexistence.”
  • The comments about women and girls would have involved telling them that they don’t need the priesthood like the brethren because they’re more righteous and also they can have babies.
  • The comments about other religions would have involved calling at least one of them “the Whore of Babylon” and calling others tools of Satan.

The problem isn’t just that some bloviating, smug, entitled 60-something white guy said offensive, insulting things from a pulpit.The problem is that the offensive, insulting things the guy said have long been part of LDS belief. The things he said are less horrible than the things he grew up hearing and believing. No wonder he thought it was OK to say what he did.

Wilcox’s real message—which is also the church’s real message—is that the church is the official bureaucracy Jesus chose to run his church. When you strip the racism and misogyny from Wilcox’s talk, what’s left is the assertion of authority (which is why he thought he could get away with the racism and misogyny). There’s next to nothing about Jesus and absolutely nothing about love or salvation or the atonement, the stuff Christianity is supposedly most concerned with.

It’s an assertion not just of authority but of power: “You have to do what we say because we are the boss’s only authorized messenger.”

My first year of college, I filled my science requirement with two semesters of astronomy. On the table on the podium at the front of the lecture hall, there was a bumper sticker telling the class to QUESTION AUTHORITY. I could easily by wrong, but I don’t think youth today need that advice the same way my generation did. They’ve seen so many authority figures reveal themselves as utterly full of shit that they are less inclined to TRUST AUTHORITY.

In fact, even though on a recent survey LDS Zoomers report higher trust in organized religion than Zoomers in other religions, they also “rank highest of all faith groups in saying they personally have been harmed by religion, faith or a religious leader.”

It’s just one more reason that the church is hemorrhaging members: its basic message is bankrupt and unappealing to most people. Wilcox’s repeated exhortation that people who leave the church “lose everything” rings hollow when you realize that the church really just claims to be the one true bureaucracy. Most of us are happy to have one fewer bureaucracy to deal with in our lives.

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5 Responses

  1. Donna Banta says:

    Great post, Holly.

    This is one (former) sister who has no desire to “waltz” back into the temple to perform ordinances–what supposedly no male is allowed to do. The way Wilcox flips the church leadership’s misogyny and racism by making them the victims is pretty stale indeed. Especially nowadays.

    On a personal level, your reference to Wilcox’s background has a major creep factor for me. I was at BYU at the same time as he was. I probably dated him. Ew. I definitely dated his clone, or at least sat next to him in religion class. I’ve no idea if Wilcox even went to BYU but I can’t imagine him anywhere else, certainly nowhere that allowed “Question Authority” posters on campus. Anyhow, like most former BYU coeds from the ’70’s, I know the type. Of course, I had the same attack of creepiness at a recent Judy Chicago exhibit while watching film guys in wide ties and velvet jackets react to the menstruation room in the “Womanhouse.” LOL

    I think you’re right about today’s young people not being quite so eager to drink the Kool Aid. (Poor bloviating 60-something white guys.)

  2. chanson says:

    Great insights, thanks!!

    The talk is egregious, not just offensive but silly and boring

    This is one of the aspects of the modern CoJCoL-dS that is the most unbelievable to me, more than the offensiveness. It is just so smacking-you-in-the-face obvious that all of the content is completely vapid. I can’t understand how people can find any of it insightful or see the leaders as having anything valuable to say.

  3. The One True Bureaucracy! Great essay, Holly. Also loved how you pointed out that this repulsive talk was still better than previous crap we all heard in church. And how that minimal improvement was nowhere near enough.

  4. Holly says:

    I have been thinking a bit more about Wilcox’s assertion that “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying ‘why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978,’ maybe what we should be asking is ‘Why did the whites, and other races, have to wait until 1829’ — one thousand, eight hundred, twenty-nine years they waited.”

    The thing is, I did ask essentially that question–in 1986, as a missionary. I even have a recording of myself asking the question. I was making a tape to a friend of mine at home, and I said, with considerable resentment, “How long has this flippin’ gospel been gone?” referring to how Mormons see “the great apostasy,” the many, many centuries when God’s one and only truth was supposedly missing from the earth.

    My first day in the MTC, in a presentation for all missionaries newly arrived there, someone presented a pie chart documenting adherents of all world religions. There were really big wedges for Buddhism, Hinduism, an Islam, because they weren’t broken into sects; only the Christian wedge was broken into denominations, so that we could see tiny, tiny wedge that was Mormon. It was supposed to help us see how urgent it was that we get busy and baptize everyone before the second coming, but I remembered Moses 1:39: “For this is my work and my glory: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” and thought, “For someone who’s supposedly omnipotent, God sure sucks at what is supposedly his work and his glory.”

    At that point, the church was only 156 years old, and most of humanity had lived when its message wasn’t even available to them. Ten months later, when I’d been laboring to find, teach, and baptize people interested in the church, I told my friend that I thought God was behaving like a bad basketball coach: he’d put the third string in for most of a championship game, and then, late in the fourth quarter, when his team was losing by 120 points, he put in the first string and said, “Come on, team: let’s win this game!”

    It’s really a problem that Wilcox doesn’t seem to understand that
    1. people have indeed already asked why the COJCOLDS came along so late in the game
    2. asking that question doesn’t make the church’s position any stronger.

  5. Holly says:

    Thanks for commenting, everyone.

    Chanson, a real headdesk moment for me was when Wilcox told the audience that he was providing them with the material for their next sacrament meeting talk.

    One reason meetings at the COJCOLDS are so boring is that they are so circular and self-referential, and another is that they are so repetitive. Talk about an echo chamber! There is nothing edifying or uplifting about people just repeating the same simplistic ideas to each other over and over. Why bother?

    Johnny, I actually thought of another way this talk would have been worse when I was still a Mormon youth: before 1989, after Norman Hancock sued the church for $18 million and earned us all the right to command the church to remove our names from its records, no one could leave the church without undergoing a church court. I remember my seminary teacher trying to put the fear of God into us by telling us that if we left the church, our records would be forever marked by a great big red stamp saying EXCOMMUNICATED.

    Even then, when I was a devout member, I thought, “But if the person wanted to leave, why would they even care if there’s a stamp on their records?”

    Donna, my response to your comment was so long that I just made a whole nother post. 🙂 It’s here:

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