Gordon B. Hinckley, an 84-year-old optimist, took the helm of the LDS Church in 1995, when most Americans knew little about it.
During Hinckley’s 13-year presidential tenure, the indefatigable Mormon leader jetted around the globe, energizing the faithful, calling for more temples, tweaking churchwide programs and bringing the Utah-based faith out of obscurity. In his first year, Hinckley scored an interview with the TV newsmagazine “60 Minutes” and won over the show’s skeptical and curmudgeonly reporter Mike Wallace.
Hinckley wanted outsiders to see, as Mormon historian Matthew Bowman says, “a modern, international institution aspiring for cosmopolitanism and normalcy.”
The tireless LDS leader died in January 2008, handing then-80-year-old Thomas S. Monson a church, says Bowman, “fully enmeshed in the American social and cultural disputes of the early 21st century — issues of gender, race and class.”
During Monson’s decade of leadership, his country and his church were rocked by such clashes. LDS leaders unveiled a number of historic (think younger missionaries) and divisive (witness the policy on same-sex couples) changes, but this folksy, orating oracle mostly floated above the fray, delivering touching sermons about service while steering clear publicly of touchy topics, until failing health slowed him down.
It was, however, also a time when Mormonism entered the American lexicon of acceptable faiths — when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney stepped onto the national stage, ushering in the so-called “Mormon Moment,” when the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign went a long way toward combating stereotypes, and when the church offered a good-natured, even playful, response to the mocking “Book of Mormon” musical.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become more open about its past and its theology, and made strides toward gender equity and acceptance of gays, while roundly condemning white supremacy.
It’s a more mature faith than it was in 2008, says LDS scholar Patrick Mason. Dealing with public exposure and internal divisions, “the church has had to grow up a lot.”
Yes, the former heart surgeon is 93 years old, but, by all accounts, he is remarkably fit, his vast intellectual abilities and memory still intact and his willingness to enter such conflicts undiminished by age.
“It will be a different experience for many Latter-day Saints to have a president whose health and inclination predispose him to action and comment,” says Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” “With the exception of Gordon B. Hinckley’s presidency and the first few years of Ezra Taft Benson’s, it’s not something that the church has seen much of for nearly 40 years.”
So what will Nelson have to grapple with in the coming years? How is the church different today than in 2008, when Monson took charge? What is waiting on the horizon?
Here’s what Mormon scholars have to say on those questions:
Matt Martinich, independent Mormon demographer in Colorado • The expansion and growth of the church in West Africa is really the biggest development under President Monson’s leadership. The number of church-reported members in the Africa West Area doubled between year-end 2007 and year-end 2016 from 146,000 to 300,000. … West African growth is more significant [than in other areas] because it is significantly less dependent on the international church to meet its leadership and missionary needs, and with much higher convert retention and member activity rates.
These years have also seen significant growth among citizens of the People’s Republic of China to the point that there are branches [congregations] and districts [groups of congregations] in many cities. And the number of full-time missionaries has grown from about 52,000 in 2008 to about 70,000 today.
But there was also a significant slowdown in LDS growth in the United States, Latin America and the Philippines. Membership and congregational growth rates have also continued to decline in most of the countries with the largest church memberships such as Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
There has been no increase in the number of convert baptisms despite more missionaries serving. Convert retention and member activity rates do not appear to have significantly changed in most areas of the world during the past decade; they remain at about 30 percent.
The international church
Matthew Bowman, Henderson State University history professor • While the bulk of the church’s cultural and intellectual leadership is American, the gravity of its financial and membership concerns is increasingly moving to the global South. … For a long time, the U.S. church has driven developments in the international church — soon this process will start reversing itself ...
The church’s financial decision-making (for instance, the City Creek development in Salt Lake City) is increasingly driven by the need of the U.S. church to subsidize the church elsewhere. I suspect more and more the church’s cultural decision-making will see this influence as well: the Mormon intellectual elite and the Mormons in the pews in Latin America or Africa likely feel differently about the cultural issues that have riven the American church for the past few years, for instance.
This divide will continue to sharpen, particularly if leaders from the Latin American or African church join the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles]. While many Mormon intellectuals in the U.S. would cheer such a move for diversity’s sake, they may find that these hypothetical figures are not terribly sympathetic to developing American cultural norms.
The international church is going to be the biggest factor shaping Nelson’s presidency.
Melissa Inouye, global Christianity and Mormon studies professor, University of Auckland • One big problem the church faces is that the majority of people who become Mormon do not stay Mormon. So, as a church, what do we want to be? We are supposed to be building Zion, but currently our building technique is inefficient — we stack up three bricks and let two fall down.
Many of these inefficiencies, which inhibit people’s ability to permanently internalize the gospel in their own distinctive culture and way of life, are self-inflicted because we have resisted adaptation to new and changing cultures. We build Utah-style buildings with basketball courts and big parking lots in African towns, where people play soccer and don’t own cars; we draw on only 50 percent of our membership [men] for spiritual leadership and administrative expertise; we mandate only organs and pianos in cultures that prefer guitars and drums; we have allowed American politics and culture wars to dictate the agenda for the global membership residing in over 100 countries with their own distinctive, pressing political and cultural issues. All of these inefficiencies slow the vital process of acculturation: the way in which the gospel becomes internalized and comes to feel deeply authentic within a person’s heart and mind.
At the same time — and this is why church leadership has resisted widespread acculturation — there are also real dangers in being too accessible and too generic. The common denominator must be common, but also distinctive. In the global church leadership, for instance, the most common denominator is being American or being deferential to American norms. Shared cultural norms like Western-style handshakes, informality in leadership, manly hugs and slaps on the back, English-language fluency, and comfortable middle-class sensibilities make it easy for members of the central leadership to understand one another and work together.
So what makes us unique, besides the Americanism? Where is our distinctive yet universal appeal? We are not the only Christian church in the world, nor the only Christian church with a doctrine of restoration. Is it the lifestyle? The temple? Primary songs? The combination of conservative social values with a lingering affinity for economic communitarianism?
This search for a strong and distinctive yet common denominator is made even trickier by the relationship between the church’s older and newer memberships.
The areas of the church which are losing members due to cultural issues related to history, gender and sexuality are the wealthy, developed areas in the global north (including, in a very imprecise way, the British-influenced societies of Australia and New Zealand), and the areas where the church is gaining members are the poor, undeveloped areas in the global south.
The wealth and leadership resources of the northern church directly support the southern church. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, young people’s missionary service is subsidized. They spend their time as missionaries living in greater luxury than they may ever experience again. The southern church gives credence to Mormonism’s claims of global relevance. Northern missionaries serve in the south and spend their years living amongst conditions of poverty and deprivation which they may never experience again.
So the north and the south need each other, and exist in a delicate symbiotic balance. It is tricky because the membership in the global south is more patriarchal, more accepting of strict gender roles, and less accepting of sexual minorities, while the membership in the global north is moving in precisely the opposite direction…
So what will hold us together? In recent years, the central church leadership heavily emphasized “family.” But strengthening the family in certain parts of North America entails a different set of problems and solutions from strengthening the family in, say, parts of Africa or the Pacific. One set of pro-family prescriptions does not fit all.
I hope [LDS leaders] turn the emphasis to Jesus Christ, the primary object of our faith and the only truly reliable common denominator for a global church. We can worship and serve Jesus in distinctively Mormon ways — in our temples, in family home evening, in Primary songs, in missionary service — and also in ways that reflect humanity’s God-given diversity: women as well as men, drums as well as pianos, Democratic Socialists in Norway and conservative Republicans in Puerto Rico.
Armand Mauss, retired LDS sociologist in Southern California • The future of the church in this century is going to depend ultimately on the ability of its leaders, policies and teachings to cultivate loyalty to the church as an institution. Such loyalty, in turn, will depend on how each member makes the “cost-benefit” assessment of his or her membership. …
In the 19th century, the LDS Church commanded the kind of loyalty that would cause people to leave their families (or even nations) in the process of their religious conversion. In the 21st century, people with gay loved ones are more likely to leave the church than to turn on their children. …
In the modern world, neither entering nor leaving the LDS Church involves the cost that it once did. Converts are often baptized after only a few weeks of proselytizing and showing but little evidence of durable compliance with expected changes in behavior. The result is a high dropout rate in most areas of the world. Leaving the church also entails much less cost than it did a couple of generations ago, even in Utah, to say nothing of nationally and internationally. … In many ways LDS Church membership and self-identification now occur almost on a kind of “easy come, easy go” basis. … Minimizing this kind of mobility, and maintaining a solid, loyal core of active members, will tax the skill and inspiration of LDS leaders as probably never before.
Stuart Reid, a former Utah lawmaker and Army chaplain who previously managed interfaith relations for the LDS Church • Starting in the 1960s, as Western Christianity faced numerical decline, it reacted by making its churches more progressive, permissive and less demanding, expecting it would be more appealing to greater numbers of investigators and adherents alike. [In fact, that] exacerbated the problem and resulted in further and more rapid decline.
Some 30 years later, the LDS Church began experiencing similar trends. Addressing those trends will be one of the greatest challenges the new prophet and his counselors will face during their administration.
LaShawn Williams, Utah Valley University professor of social work, studying black Mormon experiences • The church is continually at the crossroads of history and hope. It will continue its humanitarian work in times of need. We will continue to focus on the actions that help us model and honor the savior. We will continue to be a place of hope in times of darkness and disaster for others where the answer involves service.
Yet it is also a church that excluded black men from its all-male priesthood and black women from its temples for more than a century. And, even four decades after the ban was lifted in 1978, its members continue to face slurs and bigoted treatment at the hands of fellow believers.
A question for President Nelson’s leadership going forward is how the church will confront, embrace and integrate that history of racial exclusion into its efforts to be a bold type of hope in the name of the teachings and actions and lived experiences of Christ? Will we be the hope for our members who face significant challenges around race, immigration, family structure and other life experiences? President Monson was the last apostle who was present for the “priesthood restoration” announcement 40 years ago this June. President Nelson inherits a church that denounced racism and white supremacy in August 2017, yet, according to Gallup, aligns as one of the largest groups supporting a U.S. president who actively advocates exclusion in words and in deeds.
My prayers are that the gift of discernment rests with President Nelson and his advisers and each of us.
Rosalynde Welch, independent scholar and writer in St. Louis • The church has moved ahead incrementally in the past 10 years to increase women’s collaboration and authority at local levels, and to widen the circle of inclusion for unmarried, professional, and otherwise nontraditional women.
The missionary age change, the leadership of women like [general] Relief Society counselor Sharon Eubank, and gradual (and sometimes uneven) widening of official discourse at lds.org and in General Conference all contribute. My daughter will be entering adulthood at the beginning of President Nelson’s tenure, and, all things considered, I think the church today has a better chance of retaining her than it would if it looked like it did in 2008.
Rough waters, though, are likely in cultural Mormonism as millennials enter their 30s. If they continue to rewrite typical patterns of family formation, as they have so far, then the church will have to cope with big demographic shifts, like fewer missionaries, stagnating membership numbers, fewer suburban families. President Nelson will have to make institutional decisions that either guide the church further away from mainstream culture to become a kind of ethnic enclave — which would be hard on missionary efforts — or that find ways to assimilate without jeopardizing the core distinctiveness of the Mormon revelation.
When it comes to Mormon feminism, the landscape in 2018 looks depressingly similar to 2008, due to the unfortunate events of [Ordain Women co-founder] Kate Kelly’s excommunication, which seemed to repeat the pattern of past decades: the institutional church and feminist activists locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of suspicion, culminating in an excommunication that becomes a badge of honor in one camp and a scarlet letter in another.
While another cycle will probably not mature during President Nelson’s tenure, he has the chance now to begin reaching out to a new wave of Mormon feminist leaders and interlocutors with whom the church can work more productively in the future. That would be prophetic indeed.
Emily Jensen, Salt Lake City LDS writer and co-editor of “A Book of Mormons: Latter-day Saints on a Modern Zion” • President Nelson’s words toward women are empowering and yet his public actions have shown him to be indifferent to feminist concerns. Maybe that will change as he ascends to the head and can put actions to his words. It will also be interesting to see if … being sealed in marriage to two women in the eternities, he will consider the discrepancies in divorce and sealing practices between men and women in the church.
The place of gay Mormons
Erika Munson, co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges, which seeks to strengthen ties between the LDS and LGBTQ communities • It’s interesting to think that President Monson’s tenure was bookended by church responses to the central LGBTQ issue of this period: same-sex marriage. In 2008, Proposition 8 came in California — [with the church] openly mobilizing local LDS leaders and the membership to defeat same-sex marriage for a time until it was overturned in the courts. Then there was the policy change in 2015 [which declared same-sex Mormon couples as “apostates” and barred their children from church rituals until they were 18] that could be interpreted as the logical LDS doctrine-based response to the church’s failure to keep gay marriage illegal.
Yet between these two events, which were deeply dissonant for gay and trans Mormons, there were amazing examples of progress. It started with the 2009 Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinance that the church supported. … This led to the statewide statute in 2015 [protecting gay and transgender individuals from housing and employment discrimination while safeguarding some religious liberties]. There was the release of the church website: first mormonsandgays.org, then, with the drop of an “s,” the new and improved mormonandgay.org website actually brought gay Mormons into the fold. This resource clarified the church’s teaching that being gay was neither a choice nor a sin.
In 2012, Mormons started to question the shunning of gay and trans members, children began coming out to their parents earlier. It felt right for believers to show love and acceptance for all their brothers and sisters regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Faithful Mormons began marching in pride parades, devoted LDS moms told their stories of support for their gay kids, the horrors of reparative therapy came to light. And, for the most part, none of these activities was explicitly criticized by church leadership.
In January 2016, though, when President Nelson reframed the [edict on same-sex couples] as prophetic revelation, a painful and shocking policy became even harder to bear for LGBTQ Mormons and their loved ones. Even as the prophetic mantle passes to him, President Nelson may remain the symbol of ecclesiastical exclusion for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints far into the future.
It is my hope that, in the next 10 years, the engagement of leadership and the rank-and-file membership will result in forward motion as we work to make a place for everyone at church.
Era of doubt
Emily Jensen • In the 10 years since 2008, there are so many more members who have questions about church policies, doctrines and history and, while not willing to out themselves at church, they need outlets online to discuss if there is a place for them at church.
I do think the church has become more open with its history and that will now never not be the case. I don’t think the church could do another Joseph Smith [curriculum] manual, for instance, without it being compared to the Joseph Smith Papers.
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University • In the long run, the church’s move toward greater transparency will strengthen the institution by giving those members who remain greater maturity in their faith. The church and its teachings will be more confident and resilient, less defensive and brittle. In the short term, of course, that transparency has been both a reaction to and in some cases a cause of disaffection. No one knows the exact numbers, of course; I believe there are far more people who struggle with their faith but remain inside the church than those who leave.
Rosalynde Welch • The church in 2018 seems to be facing a real crisis of trust in prophetic authority, which has been building over the past 10 years or so.
Familiar ways of talking about prophetic authority as quasi-infallible moral leadership don’t seem to be convincing or interesting to some members anymore, so we see, for instance, a new prophetic movement breaking off [such as excommunicated Mormon Denver Snuffer’s Remnant movement] and a much larger segment who just drift away.
As an apostle, President Nelson seemed to dwell on the quasi-infallible authority aspect of prophethood. It will be interesting to see whether he reaches for new ways of teaching his flock about the work of prophets as he himself steps into the office.