Two years ago, senior apostle Russell M. Nelson stared straight into a camera at Brigham Young University-Hawaii and confidently confessed to a worldwide assembly of Mormon millennials that social science research bothers him.
“I am less interested in what the experts have to say about you,” the LDS prophet-in-waiting told a Young Adult global gathering via computers and satellites, “than what the Lord has told me about you.”
Among other divine messages, Nelson said, the church’s hotly disputed November 2015 policy — declaring same-sex LDS couples “apostates” and barring their children from Mormon rituals until they are 18 or older — was a “revelation.”
It cannot be a coincidence that Nelson gave this landmark speech, and on this topic, to a gathering of 20- and 30-somethings.
The former heart surgeon, no doubt, is well aware of the statistics regarding millions of young people dropping out of organized religion, and, if the research is right, churches’ treatment of gays ranks among the biggest reasons.
With the recent death of Thomas S. Monson at age 90, Nelson is poised to become the next president of the nearly 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He is 93 and would be the second-oldest apostle to assume the Mormon presidency in history. In fact, Nelson is 13 years older than Monson was when he stepped into the role in 2008.
To millennials, that means their church still will be run by a man old enough to be their great-grandfather.
The generation gap seems to be “widening in the LDS Church,” said Mormon writer and researcher Jana Riess. “We have a younger church than most other homegrown, nonimmigrant-based religions such as Islam and Hinduism.”
The new “prophet, seer and revelator” will be “more than 70 years older than missionaries who are going out to preach Mormonism,” she said. And his views on social issues were formed in a very different America.
For several years, Riess has conducted a multigenerational survey of Mormons, including questions about temple attendance, LDS General Conference watching, activity in the church, marriage, race, gender and same-sex marriage.
Her sample size was 1,696, including 1,156 current and 540 former Mormons. Her findings will be published by Oxford University Press next year in a volume titled “The Next Mormons.”
Mormon millennials, born in the 1980s and ’90s, “are mostly married and, among those who do get married, the age of marriage has not shifted,” Riess’ survey showed, but they “grew up in smaller families and are more politically balanced than previous LDS generations.”
The LDS Church, as a whole, remains one of the most reliably Republican faith groups. But Mormon millennials are spread far more evenly across the partisan playing field, with 46 percent identifying as Republican or leaning that way, 41 percent as Democratic and 13 percent as independent.
When it comes to supporting their church financially, seven in 10 millennials pay a “full tithe,” but many donate a “tenth” of their net income rather than from their gross.
They are strong believers in God (about 90 percent) and 82 percent say they feel the presence of deity “at least once a week.”
But millennials’ views of same-sex marriage are markedly different than earlier generations.
In the 18-26 age bracket, more than 40 percent support gay marriage, double the 20 percent backing among Mormons age 52 and over.
Of the former Mormons in the Riess’ millennial cohort, LGBT issues were the third most commonly cited reason for their decision to drop out.
Overall, young adult Mormons are not as liberal as non-Mormons their age, she said, but they are “clearly more progressive than Mormons who are over 51, and even more so than Mormons over retirement age.”
The divide between aged apostles and young believers could be mitigated somewhat, the writer suggested, if the Utah-based faith took a more multigenerational approach to leadership as it did in the past.
After all, Monson was 36 when he was tapped as an apostle and Boyd K. Packer was 45.
“It would help,” Riess said, “by having younger men in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”
Follow the leaders
Nelson surely is aware of this trend — which could be why he chose the Young Adult venue to defend the gay stance and counsel his listeners to look to their leaders for answers.
He first described the process of arriving at what some have called “the exclusion policy.”
After same-sex marriage became legal in a number of countries, including the United States, Nelson explained, the LDS Church’s top 15 leaders wrestled with what to do, weighed the ramifications, fasted, prayed, met in the temple and sought God’s guidance on the issue.
Balancing their understanding of Mormon doctrine about the “plan of salvation,” which is built on male-female eternal marriage, with compassion for children of same-sex couples, he said, “we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise.”
Ultimately, then-President Monson declared that the policy reflected “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.” At that moment, Nelson said, each of the apostles “felt a spiritual confirmation.”
Nelson urged his listeners to look to Mormon authorities to help guide them in these challenging times.
“Prophets see ahead. They see the harrowing dangers the adversary has placed or will yet place in our path,” he said. “Prophets also foresee the grand possibilities and privileges awaiting those who listen with the intent to obey.”
The young people might not always understand “every declaration of a living prophet,” he added. “But when you know a prophet is a prophet, you can approach the Lord in humility and faith and ask for your own witness about whatever his prophet has proclaimed.”
He warned the audience that some might tear down their faith.
“The somber reality is that there are ‘servants of Satan’ embedded throughout society,” he said. “So be very careful about whose counsel you follow.”
Signs of progress
It is not hard for Ashleigh Allan Read, a 31-year-old BYU graduate, to heed the warnings of the future LDS prophet.
Read has seen friends leave the faith over the same-sex marriage policy, but she accepts it as revelation.
Mormon authorities’ explanation that it is “respectful of gay couples,” she said, “makes sense to me — not wanting to pit children against their parents, being taught one thing at church and another at home.”
The Provo resident also sees “good signs of progress” in her religion — with women serving in top councils, for example, and the church’s endorsement of the LoveLoud Concert in Orem to raise money for LGBTQ organizations.
These elderly apostles have been making strides, Read said, “in relating to younger people. They all have Twitter accounts and hold face-to-face online gatherings.”
Change may be slow, but she’s OK with the direction the church is moving.
Read also doesn’t mind the age difference between Nelson and the millennials in his future flock.
“Elder Nelson is a pioneering heart surgeon and a man of science, and he believes in God,” she said. ”It gives him a unique perspective and ability to relate to scientists, to non-Mormons and to skeptics because he has lived in their communities.”
The young wife has never felt anything but love from Nelson’s sermons.
He is “upbeat and fun,” Read said, “and doesn’t come across as a stuffy old dude. “
Even though, she said, “he’s older than my grandparents.”
Correction: Jan. 8, 12:30 p.m. • The photograph accompanying this story shows Mormon apostle Russell M. Nelson talking with young adults in Salt Lake City. An earlier caption misstated where the picture was taken.