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 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.