How Mormonism Changes and Managing Liberal Expectations

December 6, 2012 | 95 comments
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One of the things that the Mormon interwebs do is imagine change within the Church, lament the lack of change within the Church, and (at times) agitate for change within the Church. Certainly there is historical precedent for change within the Church, the most dramatic recent example being the 1978 abandonment of the Church’s racial priesthood ban. This is an example worth thinking about.

First, the shift came relatively late if you super-impose the Mormon timeline on the civil rights timeline in the United States. The Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1950s, although it didn’t do much to actually end it. During the same period, Martin Luther King’s mass movement was getting under way. By the 1960s you had rioting and – not coincidentally – congressional action. By the early to mid-1970s segregation was thoroughly discredited and almost all of its formal structures had been dismantled. Hence, for many a Mormon – especially those of a liberal variety – the timing of the 1978 revelation is an embarrassment. The prophets, rather than moving in the vanguard of history seem to be trailing in its wake.

Second, the shift exacted virtually no ecclesiastical costs for the Church. There were no mass apostasies in 1978. There were no splinter groups that formed as a result. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the revelation among conservative rank and file Mormons was relief and joy. There was no serious challenge within the Church to the authority of President Kimball. Crucially, there was no split within the hierarchy on the matter. Not a single general authority dissented in word or practice from President Kimball’s revelation.

These two facts lead to a fairly standard narrative about change within Mormonism, one that from the liberal perspective is a bit demoralizing. First, Mormon prophets have enormous power. Enjoying virtually unlimited legitimacy among the Mormon faithful and the Mormon hierarchy, they can at any time announce virtually any change with the expectation that the change will be implemented. In effect, the prophet can dictate anything that he wishes to (or feels inspired to) on the mass of faithful and active Latter-day Saints who actually make the Church function week-to-week. These people are the automatons of the Gentile imagination, eager to do anything that they are told. Second, because the Mormon prophets are reactionary old men, they will not use this enormous power until long after society has already moved on, condemning liberal Mormons to perpetual ideological embarrassment.

I suspect that this narrative is wrong. To see why, it’s useful to compare the 1978 revelation to the end of polygamy. Unlike the announcement in 1978, the 1890 Manifesto did not cleanly and costlessly end past practice. For starters it didn’t even end polygamy in 1890. Some Mormons took it as a declaration that the Church had abandoned plural marriage in toto, but not every Mormon understood it this way. Within the hierarchy there was disagreement about what the Manifesto meant, and indeed different leaders had different opinions about its meaning at different times. It took nearly twenty years after the 1890 Manifesto for the Church’s position to stabilize around a decisive abandonment of the practice and a concerted effort to end new plural marriages by Latter-day Saints. The ecclesiastical and communal costs were very high. One member of the Quorum of the Twelve were excommunicated and another member was dropped. Numerous, high Church leaders – bishops and stake presidents – were excommunicated for opposition to the abandonment of polygamy. Numerous splinter groups formed as a result. President Joseph F. Smith was widely attacked by rank and file members, some of whom started talking about initiating procedures for his excommunication. (Yes there is a mechanism for excommunicating a sitting president of the Church.)

Once you see 1978 against the backdrop of 1890-1911, it should be obvious that there was nothing inevitable about the smoothness of the 1978 change. The abandonment of polygamy literally tore the Church apart. The end of the priesthood ban didn’t. Why? I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that it took so long for the revelation to come. By 1978, I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of members wanted the change, longed for the change, were praying for the change. This in large part was because by that point in time the Church’s position was so out of sync with social expectations that Latter-day Saints felt a palpable sense of embarrassment and moral anxiety about the ban. In effect the prophets pointed them toward someplace they already very much wanted to go, and they went in a willing, unified block. Imagine, however, that instead of coming in 1978 the end of the priesthood ban had come in 1945 or 1955. This would have placed the Church at a more ideologically pleasing point along the time line of American history. Ecclesiastically, it also probably would have been deeply destructive. In 1945, many Mormons would have been horrified by the idea of racial equality. There would have been strong opposition within the highest councils of the Church. I could imagine, for example, J. Reuben Clark and Joseph Fielding Smith being strongly opposed to such a move. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which you would have had schisms and large-scale excommunications from General Authorities down to rank and file members. This, after all, is precisely what happened when the hierarchy sought to end polygamy in the face of a membership that was far from unified in its silent discomfort with the practice.

Liberal Mormons too often talk about power without thinking about it very carefully. They assume that the Brethren are very powerful, perhaps most powerful of all when it comes to dictating to “ordinary” “true believing” Mormons. I suspect, however, that the reality is quite a bit more complicated. The Brethren are powerful because rank and file members follow them, not vice versa. This means that they are far more constrained that many people assume. For them to create massive, revolutionary change within the Church is to court disaster, something that Mormon history bears out. The fact that twentieth century Mormonism has been largely free of schism and mass opposition from among the membership is not mainly the result of mindless Mormon automatons brainwashed to “follow the prophet” without hesitation. Rather, it results from a hierarchy that has learned the lessons of 1890-1911 very, very well. The Brethren are powerful because they use their power sparingly and avoid deviating dramatically from expectations of the median active member.

If I am right about this, then change within Mormonism is likely to come in one of two ways. First, there is the 1978 model. The hierarchy simply waits until the – often unexpressed – feelings of ordinary members shift to the point where they are longing for change. In this situation the change will be eagerly embraced. The other alternative is to very gradually shift. This allows the hierarchy to push in a direction that is different than that expected or longed for by the median active members, without precipitating the kind of internal upheaval seen in the 1890-1911 period. There is always the possibility of radical change from the top in the teeth of widespread expectations among rank-and-file-members but I suspect that we are unlikely to see such shifts in the future. The costs are high, and I suspect that the hierarchy would have to be reacting to the kind of existential threat posed by the federal government in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s for the hierarchy to risk it.

This leaves Mormons – especially those strongly committed to a progressive version of history – with a spiritual quandary. If we think of prophets as the voice crying righteousness in the wilderness, then we want them to be in the vanguard of moral progress, the earliest and loudest voices for righteous social change. If what I have said about how the Church changes is true, however, then on at least some issues it is very unlikely that this is going to be the case. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve combine the roles of prophet and priest, divine messenger and caretaker of the household of God. The second of these roles places serious constraints on the sorts of things that they can do in the first of these roles. The President of the Church can be the voice crying righteousness in the wilderness if doing so does not imperil the unity of the Church, as when for example the prophets denounce the spiritual dangers of a sexually permissive society. On the other hand, they cannot fulfill this role when doing so is likely to fracture or destroy the Church. In this situation, they at best can act as patient husbandmen, slowly cultivating new attitudes among their flock.

Given this dynamic, I can offer only two bits of solace for the ideologically embarrassed and spiritually troubled liberal Mormon. First, we ought not to expect too much from our prophets. They are given enormous responsibility for a portion of God’s work, but it is only a portion of his work. The Holy Spirit works everywhere in the world and God uses many, many tools to bring about his purposes. As a faithful and covenanted Latter-day Saint, you owe the Church your loyalty, affection, and service. On the other hand, you cannot expect it to bring about all of the righteousness that you would like to see in the world. You should be anxiously engaged in a good cause.

Second, you should probably be less impressed by fervent political prophets than you are. It is easy to look at someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Susan B. Anthony and imagine that the pinnacle of moral heroism consists in being in the vanguard of history, among the brave souls who saw the light first and began the work of tearing down the structures of injustice. The problem, however, is that we pick and choose in how we see the past. The progressive narrative of history encourages us to focus only on the vanguard of the movements that we now recognize as the cause of righteousness. Most passionate voices for political and social change, however, belong to cranks. Most of these people are – blessedly – irrelevant in the sweep of history. I say blessedly because many of them are possessed of really bad ideas, ideas that were they implemented would be destructive. Finally, often the passionate hatred of injustice is simply a manifestation of a talent for passionate hatred. One also should not expect too much from these prophets, either.

95 Responses to How Mormonism Changes and Managing Liberal Expectations

  1. Snyderman on December 6, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    I have long agreed with this position, Nate. And I say that as one of those “liberal Mormons” wishing for more change. Obviously I want change to occur; but several years ago I realized that while I do want change, I don’t want a mass exodus from the Church because a change happened too quickly. Because I do believe in the Church.

    Thus, I find myself lamenting that our membership (at least within the U.S.) is so conservative. I actually think that our leaders are probably far more moderate than the membership in general. And I think they are probably more comfortable, generally speaking, with change than the members are.

    So for now, I’ve accepted that change will come when it comes. In the meantime, I try to open up the local members’ eyes to different ways of thinking about things.

  2. Brad Kramer on December 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Yeah, I pretty much agree. I think that high leadership tends to reflect the attitudes, mores, and beliefs of the general membership than it shapes them. I don’t think that liberal or activist Mormons fetishize hierarchical or prophetic power any more than orthodox or conservative Mormons do, but clinging to the myth isn’t costly or painful for conservatives in the way that it can be for liberals.

  3. Tim on December 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Surely there’s a third, more moderate option, that’s been overlooked–the leadership making changes before the status quo becomes entirely embarrassing but after a majority of the members support it. Say, had the Priesthood Revelation occurred sometime between 1965 and 1970, instead of 1978. Sure, a few members may have left the church over it–maybe even a few in leadership positions–but it wouldn’t have been a mass exodus, and the church’s embarrassment would’ve been significantly less. Not to mention how it would’ve affected black members of the church…

  4. Wm on December 6, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I agree, Nate. I will add, though, that one difference between the two policy changes is that one was an abrogation of practice and the other was an extension of practice. It’s always easier if you are giving rather than taking away.

  5. Nate Oman on December 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Wm: That is a nice insight, and is actually back up by a lot of behavior psychological research on the endowment effect. We demand more to sell our possessions than we would pay to purchase them.

  6. Nate Oman on December 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Tim: I don’t disagree. I think that there is a lot of very mushy judgement calls in the 1978 strategy, if you will, and I am not claiming that there is something inevitable about that particular year. My only point is that thinking about change requires acknowledging the constraints on prophetic power and then thinking through the theological and spiritual consequences of those constraints.

  7. Frank Pellett on December 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    We also have a few more contemporary examples of change.

    - The change in ages for missionaries was a positive example of how even a minor change can be widely accepted and create excitement for other possible future changes.

    - When the CoC (formerly RLDS) church voted to begin the ordination of women, they lost 1/3 to 1/2 of congregations, some even more.

  8. Adam G. on December 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Something like the same dilemma that the Church faces in missionary work. If its too similar, then it has nothing to offer converts. If its too different, it alienates converts.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on December 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    we ought not to expect too much from our prophets.

    Is the reverse also true?

  10. Ronan on December 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Nathan B., this is an astute description of how the church really is rather than how we might wish it to be. It won’t comfort the liberal Mormon very much, though. Here is the problem:

    >As a faithful and covenanted Latter-day Saint, you owe the Church your loyalty, affection, and service. On the other hand, you cannot expect it to bring about all of the righteousness that you would like to see in the world. You should be anxiously engaged in a good cause.

    Because that covenant demands so much in terms of time and means, the other good causes that would reach the rest of God’s children are largely neglected — one simply does not have the energy to be “anxiously engaged”. If one perceives Mormonism to be failing, it brings you down with it. That may be intolerable for the progressive.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on December 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Ronan (#10), that’s exactly the point I was gesturing at in my question. Nate has laid out an account for why liberals shouldn’t be bothered too much by a church which doesn’t progress the way they want, but by so doing, it suggests that there’s no reason why those who desire progress should be expected to give too much time or attention to the church.

  12. Wm on December 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    If the liberals stop giving too much time or attention to the Church, then does that it make it likely, under Nate’s model, for the progress to be even slower?

  13. Nate Oman on December 6, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Ronan & RAF: Fair points. I think that the answer has to be grounded in something other than one’s hope that the church will push a particular model of social justice on society or instantiate a particular model of social justice within its own order. Or rather, it may do both of those things, but it is exceedingly unlikely that it will do both of those things in sync with secular, progressive models of social justice.

    So this means that the roots of commitment to the church must lie elsewhere. Here my answers are likely to be more or less the same sorts of answers that one gets in Sunday school, perhaps minus claims that flirt with prophetic infallibility. The church does bless families. The church does promote meaningful service to others. The church does provide true and beautiful teachings about one’s relationship to God and the universe. The church does have divine authority to administer ordinances necessary for salvation. The church does do much good in the world. And so on.

    On the other hand, if you think that the struggle for a particular conception of political justice is the highest good, then I suspect that you will be always be alienated and unhappy in the church. My advice would be to find a way of downshifting the emotional and existential importance one places on certain political beliefs and actions. I think that one can still have the beliefs and engage in the actions, but they will have to occupy a different and lesser place in one’s life and identity.

  14. chris on December 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    “Indeed, the overwhelming response to the revelation among conservative rank and file Mormons was relief and joy. ”

    And the response among the far liberal members was that the prophets get some things quite dreadfully wrong, so perhaps they’ve severed themselves from receiving revelation from God and his prophets in a variety of areas. Not suggesting these members would receive “no revelation” full-stop, but that perhaps this erroneous interpretation, whose principles are consistently applied to other teachings (gay marriage, etc) is presenting them from receiving more line upon line.

    If that’s true, ironically, the lifting of the restriction has not cause problems for the conservative members, but for the liberal ones.

  15. David T on December 6, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    I have seen members that are very fervently, and strictly loyal to Orthodoxy, those that consider someone in Apostasy if they disagree with a single word of the modern Apostles, who have stated, clearly and matter of factly, that if the current leadership claims a unified revelation to extend the blessings of Eternal Marriage to homosexual couples, than that would be surefire proof of the apostasy of the leadership, and they would leave the Church in an instant.

    My favorite quote of the year is from President Uchtdorf, in the February 2012 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting:

    “Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t seek revelation or answers from the scriptures … because we think we know the answers already… as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?”

  16. Dave on December 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Nate, fine article, but I think you are misstating general Mormon opinion in 1890. Most Mormons in 1890 opposed polygamy and many viewed polygamy the same way many Mormons by the mid-70s viewed the racial doctrine — as an embarrassment. The difference was that in 1890 polygamists were running the Church, whereas in 1978 only a few in LDS leadership really liked LDS racial doctrine (and Pres. Kimball persuaded them to support the change prior to the announcement). If only a few of senior leadership had been polygamists, the change would have come long before 1890.

    So I don’t really buy the “change comes when the membership gets out in front and is good and ready for it” idea. I think it’s much more about the leadership weighing the organizational costs and benefits (nothing wrong with this — it’s what leaders of organizations are supposed to do). In 1890, change came to save Church assets and temples from government confiscation. In 1978, change came to make the LDS temple model (contribute the temple assessment, contribute your annual tithing payments, get admitted to the temple) work in Brazil. The 1978 change had very little to do with civil rights.

  17. Russell Arben Fox on December 6, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Nate (#13),

    I think that one can still have the beliefs and engage in the actions, but they will have to occupy a different and lesser place in one’s life and identity.

    Well sure–if one assumes, as Ronan puts it, “you owe the Church your loyalty, affection, and service.” But maybe the implication of your argument is that there’s no reason why a liberal Mormon (or, more carefully, a progressive liberal who also happens to be Mormon) should owe the church that much. Dial back on that, and ones commitments wouldn’t necessarily have to occupy a different place in one’s identity. (Which, of course, could just have well have been said to those early 20th-century Mormons who felt betrayed by a church which, from their point of view, was suddenly excommunicating Saints for submitting to the principle which mom and dad has lived in hiding for…and saying it probably would have had about as much affect.)

  18. Last Lemming on December 6, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Say, had the Priesthood Revelation occurred sometime between 1965 and 1970, instead of 1978. Sure, a few members may have left the church over it–maybe even a few in leadership positions–but it wouldn’t have been a mass exodus, and the church’s embarrassment would’ve been significantly less.

    Or, an opponent could have laid low and undermined the change when he became the next president of the Church.

    I don’t think Nate’s off base, but I suspect that achieving unanimity among the leadership may be a bigger concern than not alienating the membership. If they can get that unanimity, there is a whole bunch of stuff they could do that would be welcomed by the membership. But we’re in “one miracle at a time” mode.

  19. Chris Smith on December 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    The key difference between the priesthood ban and the polygamy change wasn’t that the Church delayed the former long enough for people to be comfortable with it. Rather, it was the nature of the thing being changed. Polygamy was a total, immersive way of life. It structured participants’ closest relationships, their finances, their very subsistence. It had, moreover, been represented by the leadership as the highest ordinance and as a requirement for exaltation and leadership callings. Leaders had said things about the priesthood ban that made it difficult to give up, but nothing on the scale of polygamy. The difference between polygamy and the priesthood ban for Mormons is like the difference between slavery and racism for Southerners. Racism was easier to give up because it was less socially and religiously integral than either slavery or polygamy. What’s really remarkable about the surrender of polygamy is not that it was disruptive, but rather that it wasn’t more disruptive. It could very easily have required a minor civil war. IMO, only the top-down structure of Church culture made a relatively peaceful transition possible. The fact that the Church managed a peaceful transition in the case of polygamy tells me that they easily could have changed their race policy earlier than the 1970s, if they had received revelation instructing them to do so.

  20. Mike S on December 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    First, we ought not to expect too much from our prophets

    This is where I am. If administratively changing the age when someone can go on a mission by a year or two is what “miracles” are nowadays as described by our leaders, I don’t expect too much as far as progressive leadership. It seems we will always be reactionary to societal trends.

  21. Nate Oman on December 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Dave: I disagree with you about the place of the church in 1890. It is true that there were many, many members — especially younger members — at that point who were ready and eager for a change. But it would be wrong to suggest that polygamy and commitment to polygamy was confined to the leadership. My point is not that in 1890 there was no support among LDS for the idea of abandoning polygamy. I suspect that through out the nineteenth century there was always some support for abandoning polygamy. Rather, my point is that in 1890 there was genuine conflict within the membership on the issue.

  22. David T on December 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    So if for some reason, there’s a gay couple who has been civilly married (as is now possible in an increasing amount of states), and they are somehow converted to the LDS Church, will Church policy then require that they be civilly divorced in addition to taking vows of celibacy? What if there are legal children in the mix?

    Or will their past act of being Gay Married bar them from Baptism completely?

    This is the practical scenario that is, sadly, going to need a set normative policy very, very soon.

  23. Nate Oman on December 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    RAF: I agree that one could respond to my analysis by retaining primary allegiance to progressive politics as the key constituent of one’s identity and simply down grade one’s level of commitment to the church. This is certainly what I have seen a lot of liberals do over the years. I think it is unfortunate, but in part this is because I think that the reasons for retaining affection and commitment to the church are very strong and I think that these reasons are largely independent of progressive politics. Likewise, I am less captivated by the narrative of heroic progressive activism than are many others. These are, I think, conceptually distinct positions but they reinforce one another. Take out one of them, and the choice becomes more difficult.

  24. D. Fletcher on December 6, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    I had dinner recently with Richard Bushman (not sure where he stands, ideologically). He said something striking, and I’ll loosely quote him here “… the edges are being “softened” [his word], so that at some point in near future the Church will be as amorphous as many Protestant sects, maybe so far as Unitarian, in which anything goes.” (comment also on Facebook)

  25. Russell Arben Fox on December 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Nate (#23):

    I agree that one could respond to my analysis by retaining primary allegiance to progressive politics as the key constituent of one’s identity and simply down grade one’s level of commitment to the church. This is certainly what I have seen a lot of liberals do over the years. I think it is unfortunate, but in part this is because I think that the reasons for retaining affection and commitment to the church are very strong and I think that these reasons are largely independent of progressive politics.

    I agree. But my point, which perhaps I’m making clumsily, is that your response to liberals (again, as you define them) who long for change in the church appears to be, “stop being liberals who long for change in the church.” Which very arguably they need to be if they are ever to fully appreciate the blessings of identifying with this community, but nonetheless it seems to be to the sort of advice which is going to be about as helpful to such individuals as the advice “stop being so hung up on polygamy” was to polygamists and the children of polygamous parents in 1910. Ultimately, I wonder if all you’re doing is teasing out one more implication of what it means to identify with a church that has a uniform and authoritarian leadership structure, and how that implications rides harder on some political (or, for that matter, theological) views than others.

  26. Steve Smith on December 6, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I get the sense more and more that church leaders appear to be making changes to doctrine by simply not mentioning it anymore and taking rather “agnostic” standpoints on certain issues. This has been the tactic that they have used when addressing issues such as Book of Mormon geography, the reasons for the priesthood ban, and the inborn nature of homosexuality. The response is “we don’t know.” Occasionally there may be a subtle change here and there to try to make their policy stances more palatable. The Book of Mormon introduction was changed from “the Lamanites are the principle ancestors of the American Indians” to “among the principle ancestors.” The new leadership handbook softens its stance on gay members. The church leaders then proceeds to emphasize doctrines and policies that have widespread acceptance and agreement among leaders and the rank and file alike. The church has become significantly more public relations-oriented in recent decades. The aim appears to persuade questioning or liberal members to accept a similar position of “I don’t know for sure” and place the issue on the shelf and ultimately accept the leadership’s authority on faith.

    But I think a major problem that the church is facing is that liberal Mormons aren’t quite what they used to be. A liberal Mormon used to be someone who favored blacks holding the priesthood, women working outside the home, and an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. But nowadays liberal Mormons often favor stances that would be too difficult for the church to compromise on such as women holding the priesthood, the acceptance of gay relationships, and the view of a 19th century Book of Mormon. You insist that the liberal Mormon still “owe[s] the Church…loyalty, affection, and service” by virtue of making a covenant. The question that many liberal Mormons nowadays, though, raise is what is the point. More and more liberal Mormons are simply treating the LDS church as a cultural relic than as a necessary part of community building.

  27. Porter on December 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Nate, your version of a limp-wristed, “check which way the wind is blowing” prophet is not the type of prophet I can follow. Are you seriously suggesting that Prophets should continue to promote bigoted or homophobic agendas because that is what majority of the membership thinks or wants? I believe that God wants all of his children to be happy — including his gay children. Why wouldn’t his prophets (if they truly are communicating with Him) want the same thing?

    Put anther way, if there were groups of racist saints who would left the church in response to the revelation on blacks, that’s fine with me. Good riddance! Prophets should lead, not follow.

  28. Mark Brown on December 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Nate, the following quibbles shouldn’t distract from my general agreement.

    1. Pres. Kimball put a lot of effort and time into building consensus among the 12. Woodruff dropped the manifesto on them like it was a bomb. Surely this accounts for at least some of the way the two policy changes were received.

    2. I think your argument rests too heavily on the assumption that all liberal Mormons want from the leadership is political activism. To the extent that I am a liberal Mormon, I’d be satisfied with a church welfare system that actually worked in places besides North America.

  29. Steve Smith on December 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Porter, you’re misinterpreting Nate’s article. Nate is merely talking descriptively and not prescriptively. He is explaining how and why change happened in the LDS church, not suggesting that the prophet shouldn’t act with authority. His point is that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve derive their power not simply from speaking assertively, but from the membership itself. Without the membership, the leadership has nothing. He then says that change is a delicate and sometimes risky operation that can occur smoothly only when the both the majority of the membership and leadership are on the same board. It is one thing to say “good riddance” to a minority of dissidents on the periphery, but a whole different thing to say it to a majority of your core membership. Nate suggests that an earlier change in the policy on blacks and the priesthood could have severely shaken the core membership at the time and brought the LDS church to a state of disarray, and maybe even to near collapse.

  30. Kristine on December 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    #27–I’m not sure you can use both “limp-wristed” and “homophobic” as pejoratives in the same comment…

  31. Morris Thurston on December 6, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Nate, you may be right that extending the priesthood to blacks in the 1940s or 50s would have caused some dissension and perhaps caused some to leave the Church. But to be fair, we also have to consider how many people left the Church during the 1960s and early 70s because they couldn’t abide the racist policies that continued to be implemented. And we also have to consider how many people simply refused to listen to missionaries because they didn’t want to belong to a church they perceived as racist. And what was the opportunity cost with regard to the African-American community? How many more black members would we now have if the policy had been implemented in the 60s? Would we now have an African-American apostle?

    I would argue that the loss of some right-wing members with entrenched racist opinions would have been more than offset by the membership retention (and perhaps even increase) that earlier adoption of the 1978 change would have had. I also think we would be better off in the exchange, but perhaps that’s just my liberal bias.

  32. Euthyphronics on December 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    1. The President of the Church can be the voice crying righteousness in the wilderness if doing so does not imperil the unity of the Church, as when for example the prophets denounce the spiritual dangers of a sexually permissive society. On the other hand, they cannot fulfill this role when doing so is likely to fracture or destroy the Church.

    Perhaps that’s a reason to doubt the wisdom of combining the role of God’s prophetic messenger to the world and that of leading the Church.

    2. So this means that the roots of commitment to the church must lie elsewhere. Here my answers are likely to be more or less the same sorts of answers that one gets in Sunday school, perhaps minus claims that flirt with prophetic infallibility. The church does bless families. The church does promote meaningful service to others. The church does provide true and beautiful teachings about one’s relationship to God and the universe. The church does have divine authority to administer ordinances necessary for salvation. The church does do much good in the world. And so on. (from 13)

    Following up on Ronan at 10 and Mark Brown at 28: it strikes me that while yes, the Church does indeed bless families and meaningfully serve others, more often than not we increase the blessings of the already reasonably well-blessed. What we don’t have as a Church is genuine Christlike outreach into our communities offering support and help to (say) battered women, drug addicts, or the homeless. One strand of liberal Mormonism is really concerned about the political front. Another is equally concerned about the ways we spend (and the ways the Church encourages us to spend) our time, talents, and energies.

  33. Howard on December 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    First, we ought not to expect too much from our prophets… Well, I don’t know. Great Prophets lead while setting the pace! Caretaking prophets follow requiring significant agitation to seek revelation for boat rocking change. If prophet = ordained and sustained to a church calling then I agree, but if prophet is actually supposed to mean speaks for God then I think there’s a problem!

  34. MC on December 6, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Re: Porter @27, just imagine if an opponent of gay marriage had described an ideological opponent as “limp-wristed.”

    Dang, just realized that Kristine @30 beat me to it, but oh well…

  35. Porter on December 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Steve, perhaps its the blatant pragmatism that offends me. I don’t see prophets in the scriptures worrying much about whether they offend members or whether they are going to lose a few adherents if they say what needs to be said. They do the right thing, even if their harsh words are offensive to many. Take another look at the book of Helaman, there’s no pragmatism there, he gets in their face regardless of the consequences.

  36. Porter on December 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Sorry about the limp-wristed comment folks, I didn’t even think of that. Should have said milk-toasty or something about backbone… :-)

  37. Bryan G. on December 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Nate, while I agree with your overall analysis, I think you left out one valuable recommendations for liberal Mormons and that’s paving the way for revelation. The difference in race perceptions among Church members from 1945 to 1978 is likely attributed to social factors external to the Church, namely the civil rights movement. I think Church members with progressive hopes and dreams would benefit by actively participating in the Church and helping change the Church by promoting their ideals in church member’s own language. That often means not criticizing Church leaders or addressing a specific policy directly. Rather, that means your talks in an 1950s Alabama congregation will emphasize that God invites all to come unto him, black and white, bond and free. This indirect but more palatably received admonition is likely to accelerate the change. Yes, the change will still be slow and uncertain. And it will likely have very small reach. But its that type of Church participation that gives way to grassroots revelation and ultimately to Church-wide changes.

    I think that recommendation is important particularly because Church experiences are some of the most salient for many Church members. If progressive members of the Church want progressive change, that’s the best way to do it. If they want immediate relief from a community that opposes their viewpoint, however, my recommendation does little.

  38. Howard on December 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    The church is lead by old politically conservative men: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/politics/55409550-90/church-lds-political-leaders.html.csp. Political conservatism means emphasizing stability and continuity and opposing change. Was Christ politically conservative? Was Joseph? Church reformers and women can make faster progress by focusing on their lack of representation at the top.

  39. Steve Smith on December 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Porter, the major difference between the LDS church leaders 1830-present and the characters in the book of Helaman is that we have all kinds of documents, records, and accounts that we can look at and compare in order to answer in a well-evidenced way the question of how collective decision-making has been made in the LDS church during the 19th and 20th centuries. There is ample evidence that LDS church leaders, especially after 1920, took into consideration the expected reactions of the high-ranking leadership and the core membership when making decisions. By contrast we have nothing to inform us of how the characters in the book of Helaman undertook collective decision-making other than a single uncorroborated text. Assuming these characters actually existed, what is to say that they did not make decisions and pronouncements without pragmatic concerns themselves?

  40. Ben H on December 6, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    This is a great analysis, Nate. Oddly enough, I would say this applies not only to the church, but to democratic organizations generally, and that if someone thinks the President of the United States, for instance, should be like Martin Luther King, that person needs to think a little more carefully about how power actually works. We have some very similar dynamics unfolding at the political level to those you are thinking about within the church. The difference is that there is very deep and dramatic disagreement built into the leadership of our democracy (and the constituencies), and substantial groups of people are actually using political mechanisms to try to enforce major changes on large swathes of their fellow-citizens. So the question is not whether we will ever make any significant changes, but whether we as a nation can survive the (thoroughly opposite) heroic aspirations of the various ideologues. We haven’t had a budget passed in three years. How long can we operate this way?

  41. Jax on December 6, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    On what basis do we say that the prophets AREN’T out in front of issues as one crying in the wildernes??? I think that the way we look at issues determines whether we think the prophets are out in front of an issue or reacting after it.

    Concerning gay-marriage I would say they were way out in front of it. Since 2000, eleven nations have begun to allow gay couples to marry. The first U.S. state to legalize it was Massachusetts in May of 2004. But in my view the Brethren were way out in front of this issue with the Proclamation to the World in 1995, a full 5 years before any country in the world started to legalize gay-marriage. They started building a mental strength among its members to resist this type of legalized immorality long before they needed it.

    If however you think allowing gay-marriage isn’t immoral, then you view the LDS leadership as being behind the times and that other political entities are leading the way for equality and tolerance, and feel that you want the church to be leading the way on this.

    My point is that a liberal Mormon might think that the prophets aren’t out leading the way, when in reality they ARE out in front of issues, and the liberal Mormon just isn’t happy with the direction of that leadership.

  42. Frank Pellett on December 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    What if all we knew about the modern Prophets came from the “Teachings of the Prophets” manuals, rather than the somewhat extensive documentation we have for the past 250 years? That’s the only way you can compare the Prophetic abilities of the Prophets now to the prophets of old. We’ve only bare information on the failures (if any) of the Prophets in the scriptures. We talk about how Nephi and Lehi had dreams and prophecies, but skim over the bits that infer they spent years at a time ignorning the Liahona.

    Christ was progressive in some ways, but very much not in others. For the most part, He worked with the system that was there – teaching in the Synagogues(sp?), calling only men to be his Apostles, enforcing the law concerning the cleanliness of the Temple (rather than allowing those selling animals to make a living the best place it made sense, closest to the Temple).

  43. Howard on December 6, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Jax,
    So they were only asleep on two issues then? Plural marriage and the ban on blacks or were they leading there too?

  44. Sonny on December 6, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Jax,

    The Supreme Court in Hawaii ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples constituted discrimination based on sex is in violation of the constitutional right to equal protection. That was in 1993. It may be that the Proclamation to the World in 1995 was, at least in part, a reaction to that ruling and a ‘reading of the tea leaves’ so to say that a movement to recognize gay marriage was already under way.

  45. Bryan G. on December 6, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    And just to support Sonny’s argument, the federal Defense of Marriage Act was being debated and passed at roughly the same time that the Proclamation came out. In other words, if we’re using 2000 as the starting date for being on notice about the push for same-sex marriage, Newt Gingrich was prophetic. (A world where that is true scares me.)

  46. J. Madson on December 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    test this again. My comment is still in moderation, anyone capable of setting it free

  47. J. Madson on December 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Jesus the pragmatist! Always weighing his words carefully lest it split up father/mother, child/parent; always quick to never offend the rich and powerful and never exalt the poor. Jesus the pragmatist! Careful not to stir the pot lest the monarchs, leaders, and power brokers torture and kill him. All hail the gospel of pragmatism! Leaders to managers – the fatal shift….

    As Terry Eagleton so eloquently said:

    ” In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety. Here is the fantasy and escapism that the hard-headed secularist pragmatist finds so distasteful. Freud saw religion as a mitigation of the harshness of the human condition; but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel’s ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger. Imitating Jesus means imitating his death as well as his life, since the two are not finally distinguishable. The death is the consummation of the life, the place where the ultimate meaning of Jesus’s self-giving is revealed. The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed. Crucifixion was reserved by the Romans for political offenses alone. The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shi# of the earth—the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition. What is at stake here is not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardist epiphany of the absolutely new—of a regime so revolutionary as to surpass all image and utterance, a reign of justice and fellowship which for the Gospel writers is even now striking into this bankrupt, dépassé, washed-up world. No middle ground is permitted here: the choice between justice and the powers of this world is stark and absolute, a matter of fundamental conflict and antithesis. What is at issue is a slashing sword, not peace, consensus, and negotiation. Jesus does not seem to be any sort of liberal… He would not make a good committee man. Neither would he go down well on Wall Street, just as he did not go down well among the money changers of the Jerusalem temple.”

  48. J Town on December 6, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    So we aren’t considering the possibility that the church is actually led by God and not “conservative old men”? Or that the 1978 proclamation happened exactly when The Lord wanted it to happen? Or that, just possibly, it’s better to seek understanding rather than to be “embarrassed” by church doctrine or policy?

    I do not understand all things, but I don’t give a flying leap what “progressive thought” in society might dictate at any given point in history. Nor will I be embarrassed of the church or of the prophets. They may be imperfect but they have a far better track record than those who are wise in their own eyes and seek glory of men. Or is faith out of fashion these days?

  49. Jax on December 6, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    It seems that not long ago (within the last year) there was a discussion about why the Apostles keep giving talks about keeping gov’t out of church affairs (if someone could confirm this with a possible link, that’d be great) and comments were made to the effect of “I don’t see anything happening that warrants these talks, are they afraid of a gov’t takeover??” Is it possible that they are out in front of a topic they know will be of major concern in the future? but that we are too blind to see it?

  50. Howard on December 6, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    J Town,
    God leads through men using a continuum of communication ranging from clear revelation that is far more God than man to inspiration is far more man than God. But in either case the influence of man exists to tint or color or even misrepresent God’s word. President Kimball went through months of work on his knees and later admitted the revelation went against what he had been taught and believed. Did God seek out President Kimball? No, President Kimball went to God for an answer. Would he have done the work he disagreed with had there been no agitation? Our leaders are men and their influence is felt in what they present to us as God’s word. None of them approach the prolific revelation of Joseph. So when we say the LDS church is led by God, how literally do we actually mean it?

  51. Sonny on December 6, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Jax,

    Yes, it definitely is possible. I only brought up the Hawaiian Supreme Court decision to indicate that gay marriage was a topic of discussion in legal (and other) circles before 1995.

  52. Jax on December 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Sonny,

    I was in middle school in ’93, so I don’t remember that. I google search gave me the dates of 2000 for worldwide legalization, and May 2004 for Massachusetts as the first state to legalize gay-marriage. They could easily be fallable. Even if Hawaii did have a Supreme Court decision, they were still out in front of major legalization of gay-marriage by about a decade.

    And am I wrong on the separation-of-church-state discussion… did my mind make it up??

  53. Kevin Barney on December 6, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    1. I had the same thought that Chris Smith expressed in no. 19.

    2. We now sit at 34 years past the 1978 revelation, but on this model the members of the Church STILL cannot handle a disavowal of the Curse of Cain dogma, and so it is not forthcoming from the leadership. If that is the calculus our leaders are working out in their minds, I think they are seriously underestimating our people, who can and will absorb such a rejection with equanimity, whenever it finally comes.

  54. Nate Oman on December 6, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    Kevin: I don’t claim that my model here explains everything. I think that we need to realize that the hierarchy is more constrained than our rhetoric often suggests. I would love a more explicit disavowal of the racist theology used to justify the priesthood ban, and I agree with you that members would take it in stride.

  55. Steve Smith on December 6, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    J. Madson, it seems that you are indirectly comparing the LDS church leaders with Jesus. That’s just not right. I wouldn’t say that Jesus was a pragmatist, nor was Joseph Smith. Brigham was a pragmatist in the sense that abandoned his vision of the state of Deseret as a result of the 1857 Utah War. The case of the changes in policy on polygamy and blacks and the priesthood reveal quite strongly that the church were pragmatists who were willing to make some compromises for the sake of surviving against external and internal pressures. I get the sense that those who claim that there is no element of pragmatism or compromise among the LDS leaders from BY to the present don’t really have a case, but just seem to be in denial and too much in love with the image of an infallible uncompromising prophet who simply carries out commands of God like an automaton.

  56. J. Madson on December 6, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Steve, I don’t think Jesus was a pragmatist either. Thus my point and sarcasm.

  57. Meldrum the Less on December 6, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    What a great discussion; the original essay and many comments are nothing short of brilliant.

    I would like to stir this pot in a different direction. From our liberal or progressive point of view the LDS church has made great strides in some areas. But I see regression and overconformity in many other areas. How many examples can you list where the 21st century church is more conservative than in the past?

    - Behavior allowed before and during missionary service. (One missionary I knew got drunk and laid his last night before going into the LTM.) Missionary tactics are far less original and more standardized.
    -Acceptable romantic expressions of affection in courtship. (Passionate kissing is now off limits; what other kind of kissing in courtship is there?)
    -Tithing nonpayment has real teeth in it now. Loss of all Mel Priesthood duties, no temple recommend, no major callings. Not so in the past.
    - Fewer word of wisdom holidays, now actually zero. (One Bishop of yesteryear used to suspend the word of wisdom for the annual deer hunt and drink beer with his counselors and sons.)
    -Sabbath compliance is 10 notches stricter since most of us left the family farm where many chores were done every day.
    -More teaching from unapproved sources was allowed especially when approved sources were scant. Today it is follow the manual closely.
    -More diversity of music in church. More diverse church building architecture in the past.
    -More folklore and story telling. More humor in the past.
    - Utah once lead the nation in education and had the highest test scores on those achievement tests. Today we are barely above average, although our youth are seeped in the mushy correlation material.
    - Once we more closely supported two political parties. Not any more. We went from a 1.8 party system to a 1.2 party system.
    -More activities and of greater variety from ward to ward in the past. Today it is lowest-common-denominator and everywhere-the same mentality.
    -Our leaders used to more closely represent the variety of the lay membership in their life experiences and ways of thinking. Today, though not exactly clones, they put up a more united front, are much more indistinguishable from each other and less interesting than in the past.

    I see the 21st century church as growing in racial diversity and geographic origin. But I see the mind of the LDS church becoming ever more homogenous, orthodox and unoriginal. J. Golden Kimball quibbed; “Some people are so narrow minded that they can look through a keyhole with both eyes open.” Those he ridiculed won the contest for the heart and soul of the LDS church.

  58. Trevor on December 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Nate, I think I agree with the general premise you lay out. However, the current official discussion on gay marriage and the decades leading up to the 1978 priesthood revelation (I’m not informed enough to know what the years leading up to OD1 were like) didn’t exactly do much to prepare the membership for potential change. Instead, we see constant insistance that doctrines don’t change, that things have always been this way, etc. Apart from the Pres. Uchtdorf statement above, which seems to be an oasis of flexibility in a seeming desert of rigidity, what the members have been hearing is definitely not preparing them for change.

  59. Cameron N on December 6, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    A few have mentioned that those we sustain as prophets should be the vanguard. Dare I submit that 1995 may have been the vanguard moment on this issue, and not some future date?

  60. Marcus Shepherd on December 7, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Am I alone in reading this and thinking about the possibility of a shift in how church members understand the office of the President of the Church? Maybe by 1978 the concept of General Authority Infallibility was strong enough to overcome objections to the change. I’m a youngster and wasn’t around then, but I think most of the Mormons I know today wouldn’t leave the Church if it was announced next Conference that married gays are kosher now. Prophet says jump, we ask how high.

  61. Ron Madson on December 7, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Expectations? I have only one expectation as to church hierarchy: Have Jesus place “His” hand on your head and confirm your calling and then receive His direct Word/message and THEN prophesy, seer and reveal. Without that their thoughts/opinions and policies are of very little value or interest to me personally and I am surprised that we join in their navel gazing until they can speak with real power and authority. I “sustain” the concept and hope that office intersects gifts of prophecy, seering and revealing but I see no evidence of it being the case. After seeing the street art in NYC showing drones being dropped on a family I think that Neil Simon was prescient: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…” and not by mall builders.

  62. Cynthia L. on December 7, 2012 at 2:19 am

    I think you haven’t really been listening to intra-liberal conversations if you haven’t heard repeated, almost ad nauseum, the appeals to patience due to the constraints the brethren face in terms of their power wrt the membership and not wanting to cause fracture due to too-rapid change for the slowpokes. That is to say, I agree with your analysis of power, which makes it sort of irritating that you ascribe a bunch of straw man views of power to liberals with a broad brush. (Let me add that even I grow weary of intra-liberal conversations, so I wouldn’t expect a non-participant to follow them obsessively. Heaven knows there are about 10 million better things to do with one’s time. But knowledge of something should precede loud public critique of it–(ideally) even in blogging!)

    “if you think that the struggle for a particular conception of political justice is the highest good”

    I could have picked any number of examples, but this is a nice concisely-encapsulated one: where your otherwise wise and incisive analysis takes vacations to indulge in unfortunate and inaccurate liberal-bashing. Is wanting other people to be treated with love and dignity, rather than disowned and run off to suicide, a “political” issue, or a moral one? To those who would put this as the highest good, they will feel it is a moral one, and there are not a few scriptures supporting that conclusion (though I would stop short of calling *anything* an unassailable conclusion in terms of scriptural support). Your circular reasoning dismissal of liberals is thus: (1) Only someone with out-of-whack priorities would prioritize politics over morality and loyalty to the church. (2) I label your moral issues political issues. (3) Liberals continue to prioritize their political issues. (4) Ergo liberals have out-of-whack prioriites. While (1) is true enough, (4) only comes from an uncharitable blind spot in understanding others’ views.

    While I understand the speed constraints and power constraints, I still think that in practice such analysis is too often and too heavily deployed in resisting change. For one, it completely ignores the casualties and opportunity costs on the other side, as Morris well articulated. It also becomes harder for me to hear status-quo defenders say that doing the (happens-to-be-progressive) righteous thing can’t happen if there might be the slightest negative side-effect, after I’ve witnessed such dramatic actions as mobilization of the church to support Prop 8, and the zealotry with which so many said, “So help me I will defend this position come what may, darn the torpedoes, if we run the whole church’s popularity into the ground and with it the church itself, alienate huge swaths of our own members, that will be worth it for we can never be moved from this cause of righteousness no matter what the cost!!” Where’s that kind of darn-the-torpedoes attitude when it comes to progressive change? Nowhere to be found. (That said, I actually find that darn-the-torpedoes attitude really immature and irresponsible regardless of which side displays it. My point isn’t to advocate such, but to say that there is a telling lack of balance in its application. )

  63. Cameron N on December 7, 2012 at 2:28 am

    Another simplistic thought: If God wanted to extend priesthood to blacks in ’78, then why would he impress the Prophet to promote a huge anti-black priesthood campaign i involving lots of money and volunteer hours in ’74?

    Also, the desire for the church to be popular and liked is a vain one. We may be respected by some, but scriptural patterns show us that as general wickedness increases (including those with forms of godliness), disciples will be increasingly resented and hated no matter what they do.

  64. Howard on December 7, 2012 at 6:29 am

    The church has a new website http://www.mormonsandgays.org/ it addresses SSA promoting love for one another and actually using words like gay, and lesbian: “The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

    This is softening and movement away from the hard line of the past while acknowledging parts of the liberal/reformer criticism. Is this movement the result of God leading the church through revelation or a response to agitation? I suspect the latter but either way it confirms the correctness of loving and embracing all of our brothers and sisters.

    The timing of agitation proceeding movement suggests a correlation, shall we stop agitating? Obviously not!

    Should the church wish to walk further back from their anti gay position it could be easily done by simply moving away from harsh binomial Mosaic shalts and shalt nots and toward the nuanced and loving Christian beatitudes leaving the judgement of sin to God instead of the Bishop, SP and the congregation. After all the beatitudes are more than 2,000 years old, isn’t it time we used them?

  65. Nate Oman on December 7, 2012 at 7:12 am

    Cynthia: Two points. First, I am aware that there are lots of differences of opinion among liberals and that many if them are smart nuanced folks who appreciate constraints on hierarchical power. Some are not. Second, I am not trying to set up a contrast between political beliefs and moral beliefs. I think that political beliefs are a subset of moral beliefs. My point is not that one ought to abandon such beliefs but rather think about their priority in ones own sense of identity. For what it is worth, I tend to agree with you that the church’s involvement in Prop 8 was pretty destructive.

  66. Dave K on December 7, 2012 at 8:53 am

    Nate, thank you for a very insightful post. I have a few thoughts in response.

    First, as a local church leader, I have a pretty good pulse on the members in my ward. I cannot think of any active members who would revolt if the church embraced homosexuality. I do, however, know of a number of families, and a whole lot of young singles, who currently are inactive, or less active than they otherwise would be, because of strong disagreement with the church’s position.

    I don’t believe we need to “pick” which members to cater to, but to the degree our decisions are motivated by the perceived responses of members, I would err on the side of catering to the youth rather than the elderly. The youth are the future after all. We can withstand losing some of the old vanguard. We cannot withstand losing the youth who we will count on to fill the ward council within the next decades.

    Second, I am very intrigued by Elder Oak’s statements on the new website. For one thing, I believe Elder Oaks is more involved than any of the other apostles in this issue. He is leading the discussion. I find it interesting that he would say “What we do know is that the doctrine of the church … has not changed and is not changing.” This phrasing suggests that doctrine can change. Otherwise, why not simply state “doctrine never changes; it never will”? There is a great blog post waiting for someone to write in which they analyze the evolution of Elder Oak’s views on this issue.

    Finally, does anyone know how missionaries are taught to respond to questions about homosexuality? Yes, I’m sure they know the church’s position, but are they given instruction on how to respond to “why?” or do we just let them wing it as was the case when I was a missionary?

  67. Snyderman on December 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Wow, so this discussion took off. 66 comments in one day.

    So I’ve been pondering this over the last day, and I’m starting to wonder if speculating about the actions/motivations/whatever of Church leaders at all is less than wise. Ideally, Church leaders should simply be trying to point to Christ and leave politics out of it. Obviously this is impossible here in this messy real world, but I feel like that is what we should be aiming for. This thought makes me wonder whether, in listening to and attempting to follow Church leaders, we should have anything on our mind beyond, “How can this lead me to Christ?” I think if we did that (including/especially me as far too often discontented liberal Mormon) we would all be better off.

    Now, again, this is impossible in the messiness of reality. And Church leaders sometimes say things that can only be taken as political (Elder Nelson representing the Church in defense of DOMA and the Church organizing for Prop 8 come to mind). But I worry whenever anyone (and I am certainly guilty of this) starts fretting over what somebody else says or does. Certainly the words and/or actions of Church leaders can be unwise and many may cite those words/actions as the reason for their falling away, but the only thing we can really control is what we do and how we react.

    After thinking about all of this, I have a question I’d like to pose to the extremely intelligent and diverse group here: “How can I find Christ in the words and actions of Church leaders that I disagree with?” To use a hypothetical example (that I think is incredibly unlikely), say the Brethren decided that any married woman working outside the home should be subject to Church discipline. I would have a serious problem with that. Is there still a way I could find Christ in those words, however?

    (PS-Sorry if this is a threadjack.)

  68. Howard on December 7, 2012 at 9:41 am

    And Jesus said unto the adulteress: Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more

  69. Blake on December 7, 2012 at 9:44 am

    #66 – “I find it interesting that he would say “What we do know is that the doctrine of the church … has not changed and is not changing.” This phrasing suggests that doctrine can change. Otherwise, why not simply state “doctrine never changes; it never will”?”

    This made me laugh because it reminded me of the line in Dumb and Dumber – “so you’re saying that there’s a chance?”

  70. eljee on December 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

    With regards to polygamy, I think one of the main reasons that there was such backlash about the Manifesto has to do with the TREMENDOUS personal cost involved in both living polygamy and then abandoning it. My great-great grandmother was a plural wife at the time that the Manifesto came out, and she writes poignantly about her experiences and feelings surrounding it. Prior to the Manifesto, her husband had spent time in prison for being a polygamist. Then they spent months traveling great distances by wagon in formidible, desolate country to hide from federal marshals, living under assumed names and at times apart from one another. It was while traveling back to Utah after being in hiding that they were informed of the Manifesto. She describes how unbelievable it all seemed, how she wanted to just crawl into a hole and die, feeling completely abandoned by God and her Church leaders. Imagine someone telling you that your marriage, your most intimate relationship, was now null and void, your family dissolved, just like that, you’re on your own. How devastating that would be! I think there was a lot of messy stuff to sort through because you had actual families that were torn apart. It makes perfect sense that it took a number of years for the abandonment of polygamy to become complete and permanent. In my great-great-grandmother’s case, she was counseled by local church leaders to continue being “married” to her husband (she went on to bear a few more children with him), but they had to live apart, he could only visit under cover, she was ostracized by members of the community, he eventually pretty much abandoned her and her children because it was just too hard. There were no easy answers, I don’t think it’s really fair for anyone to pass judgment on what was an incredibly painful situation.

  71. Dave K on December 7, 2012 at 9:51 am

    I love that movie, Blake. I hadn’t thought of it in this context, but I guess it makes sense. As time goes towards infinity, even a 1 in a million chance becomes guaranteed.

  72. Steve Smith on December 7, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Snyderman, “How can this lead me to Christ?” and “How can I find Christ in the words and actions of Church leaders that I disagree with?”

    This sort of begs the questions, is everything that the church leaders say and do inherently supposed to lead to Christ? I strongly believe that the leaders are fallible and can make bad decisions (JS made a bad and un-Christlike decision with polygamy and BY did with blacks and the priesthood). I also believe that each member has boundaries with regard to the LDS church; it is not devotion at all costs, even with the hardline conservative LDS. I believe that many would undoubtedly discontinue there participation over the discipline of working women. But the leadership knows that, and factors it into their collective decision-making. The fact that leaders hedge their bets when making decisions also doesn’t make them weak. In fact if they get the right combo of making decisions that lead to stronger adherence and increasing conversion and activity, then they actually appear to be quite strong.

  73. Snyderman on December 7, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Steve, I’m not sure finding Christ necessarily entails believing that every word coming from the Brethren is revelation direct from God. Sorry if I seemed to imply that. Mostly I’m wondering if there is a way to use another’s words and/or actions to find Christ while still disagreeing with them. Is there a way they can still point to Christ?

  74. Howard on December 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

    #73 I don’t know, Christ brought New Testament change. Old Testament enforcement doesn’t point to Christ, it’s pre-Christ which is where a lot of Mormon thinking remains stuck!

  75. Trevor on December 7, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Another spare thought: is the reason that general church membership might react negatively to a change in doctrine on homosexuality because they have an aversion to homosexuality, or is it because they’ve been led to believe that the doctrine would never change?

    It depends on the person, of course, but I suspect that any strong, visceral reaction against change would have much more to do with the latter than the former, and the latter is very much within the hands of church leadership.

  76. Howard on December 7, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    I experienced the strong visceral reaction of revulsion the first time I saw two men embrace. The reaction went away after I got to know some gay and lesbian couples. Studies show that conservatives experience a more disgust than others but I suspect they’ll get over it as the church demonstrates love and affection for all people.

  77. Emily U on December 7, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    I accept the first bit of solace but not the second.

    The problem with admiring “fervent political prophets” is not that we pick and choose how we see the past (although picking and choosing certainly happens). I don’t think the reason certain people are remembered as prophet-heroes is because they were simply on the right side of history with their timing. That’s pretty dismissive, if that’s what you are saying. The primary reason they are revered, in my opinion, is that the spoke the truth, and spoke it bravely. And I mean Truth with a capital T, not just passing political correctness. Granted, their circumstances with respect to the time and place of their lives allowed them to see truth and be in a position to speak it, but they are indeed to be admired for their insight and bravery.

    I also take exception with the statement “often the passionate hatred of injustice is simply a manifestation of a talent for passionate hatred.” There are a great many counter-examples to that statement, and again I think you are being quite dismissive. Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK, and many passionate but less famous people were and are not full of hatred.

  78. Cynthia L. on December 7, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    “Imagine someone telling you that your marriage, your most intimate relationship, was now null and void, your family dissolved, just like that, you’re on your own.”

    Er, like we did to gays and lesbians with Prop 8? (granted, the court subsequently decided that it would not void existing marriages)

  79. Markey Fingers on December 7, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    I’m so glad we have all you liberal thinkers to tell God how to run the church.

  80. palerobber on December 8, 2012 at 12:34 am

    The abandonment of polygamy literally tore the Church apart. The end of the priesthood ban didn’t. Why?

    because polygamy was a central tenet of the church which had from its inception been declared essential to salvation, whereas excluding blacks wasn’t.

  81. palerobber on December 8, 2012 at 12:53 am

    Most passionate voices for political and social change, however, belong to cranks.

    hmm, and what of the passionate voices of reaction and retrenchment?

    in any case, what a bizzare rationalization for moral cowardice your final paragraph is. we shouldn’t honor too much those with the courage and foresight to be in the vanguard of a just cause just because some cranks may have marched along side them?

    and what a diminishing view of the first presidency your entire post puts forward. i can’t imagine the faithful here are very happy with this.

  82. Ken on December 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Mike S.: “This is where I am. If administratively changing the age when someone can go on a mission by a year or two is what “miracles” are nowadays as described by our leaders, I don’t expect too much as far as progressive leadership. It seems we will always be reactionary to societal trends.”

    If what I’ve heard is true, the age change itself isn’t the miracle. Rather, it’s what the age change has done to the number of prospective missionaries. I’ve heard that the Church now receives as many missionary applications in a day as it used to receive in a week. You may not consider that to be miraculous, but to each, his own.

  83. JudyT on December 9, 2012 at 7:22 am

    The comment about miracles came originally from Elder Oaks, who when asked in a press conference re the age discrepancy, replied “One miracle at. A time.” His comment had nothing to do with numbers or increases in applications.

  84. fbisti on December 9, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    I have read through all the comments above and I agree with the pragmatic approach usually taken by SLC. But I would like to take things a little closer to the “jugular,” so to speak.

    Having served in numerous bishoprics and stake presidencies (usually as the clerk) I have been privy to hundreds of discussions and decision-making processes. A very few of them actually involved inspiration or revelation beyond the well-meaning and thoughtful men in the room sincerely counseling together. I was once verbally attacked when I pointed out my observation in a discussion in HP class about “inspiration.” This “brother” was adamant that everything done by a bishop or SP is inspired by God–either initially or by confirmation.

    The aforementioned jugular (or, put another way, the elephant in the room) is the never-ceasing claim by Apostles and other general and local authorities that the Prophet speaks to God (and vice versa), that the Church and it’s leaders–even the highly inconsistent, local SPs and bishops–are inspired by God in ALL that they do regarding their callings. This drumbeat of propaganda (or call it hyperbole, if you prefer) is repeated constantly in general conference, Ensign articles, talks given in local meetings, and in testimonies on Fast Sunday.

    There are many beliefs, doctrines, practices, and procedures in the present, the near past, and the distant past that can (if one is looking objectively) be seen as wrong or at least sub-optimal. Are we supposed to believe that all those are from the close guidance of our church leaders by God? If so, it would seem that “truth” is not defined by God as “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” It is rather something like “a version of the truth that accomplishes the objective.” Think about all the soaring, inspirational scriptures and quotes about “the one true church” and the value of the truth, further light and knowledge, etc.

    I don’t think we can have it both ways. If as claimed and continues to be taught, God is in charge of his “one true church,” how do we explain EVER being out of step with truth—as discovered (certainly NOT revealed) later. If the argument is that such delays in progress and allowance of missteps (withholding the priesthood, polygamy) were for our own good, then let’s start admitting THAT instead of being handed changes, new procedures, new social equality enlightenment, etc. as if they came directly from God.

    Lastly, related to our leaders’ ability to “prepare” us for change. If the First Presidency and the Apostles were to spend just one General Conference, and at the most two, convincing the church of the need for some “change” the vast majority would soon get their heads around it. They move much too slowly for fear of us “flying apart like glass.” For example, the announcement of the use of the new Gospel Principles manual in the adult priesthood and RS classes for two years–though it was extremely puerile and basic–was quickly hailed (by many, many individuals I spoke to) as great, best for all the many new converts in a worldwide church, etc. In my experience, and I have never lived in Utah, the vast majority of my brothers and sisters have very little critical thinking ability (pejoratively that can be termed “sheep-like”).

  85. nat kelly on December 10, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I have not read the comments, but I have to say that one part of your piece here, Nate, distracted me so much that it was hard to focus on what else you might be saying.

    Your premise for why people seek change is incredibly faulty. You posit liberal Mormons as people who are “embarrassed” or “morally anxious” about the church’s shortcoming. How about the folks who are actively harmed by those shortcomings? You think black members wanted the priesthood ban lifted because it was an embarrassment? You think gay members and those who love them want an end to anti-gay sentiment because it’s embarrassing? I want it to end because I don’t want any more suicides. Or that women want the church to catch up with the feminist movement so that our feminist BFFs at Jezebel will accept us at their table? Nope. I want the church to change its teachings and practices about women because those teachings and practices hurt me deeply.

    If you, with good intent, really do believe that “embarrassment” is the big emotion going on in these issues, that explains a lot about how “liberal” Mormons are received by our brothers and sisters in the church. If folks really do think it’s just trite embarrassment, I can’t blame them for writing us off. That would be silly. I hope more people can compassionately understand the deep-running emotions behind these concerns.

  86. Roger on December 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I’m all for slow change, but the advance of progress is accelerating. We may not always have decades to make decisions, and a better decision-making model will be needed. It’s great to try and understand the historic decision-making models, but they will not serve us well in the future.

    For example, right now the LDS Church is bifurcated between those with a literal belief in Genesis and those with a belief in evolution, etc. Approximately, 50 percent of the membership is unwilling to look at the “theory” of evolution objectively. I think this skepticism has caused “conversative” members to be generally suspicious of science in general, beit global warming, sexual orientation, etc.

    Yet Mormons have historically placed a high priority on education. What happens when bright university students are faced with ample facts that call into question literal interpretations of the OT? Rumor has it that the LDS Church is losing its hold on its youth. We may be losing our best and our brightest. I would argue that someone needs to confront the issues related to Adam and Eve, no death before the Fall, Noah’s flood, Jonah and the big fish, the Tower of Babel, Lot and his wife, etc.

    How necessary are these beliefs to Mormonism? It would seem that Mormonism is uniquely positioned to argue for the compatibility between science and religion. By making the case for science, issues like OT literalism and sexual orientation will resolve themselves. But I woud argue that this case needs to start being made sooner than later.

  87. Randy B. on December 10, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    I don’t mean to go all Fawn Brodie or anything, but I think Nate’s post tell us more about Nate than just anything else. After all, by most standards (certainly by the median-member or median-GA standards), Nate is a liberal Mormon.

  88. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    The Manifesto announced an end to the performance of new plural marriages, NOT the dissolution of existing plural marriages. The Federal government backed off its enforcement of the anti-polygamy laws, and existing polygamous couples could continue to live as families.

    Heber J. Grant was a polygamist and continued to be so during his service as mission president in Japan in 1901-1903 and then in the European Mission. The grandfather of President Eyring was a polygamist and continued to live as such into the early decades of the 20th Century.

  89. Jamie S on December 10, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Re #86 Roger:

    How does the church effectively change position on such things? As a young person who left the church over conflicts between “doctrine” and truth, I don’t think matching the doctrine up with scientific fact is going to make me join again. How will they resolve a prophet’s literal belief in Genesis with the claim that this is the “one true” church, led by direct revelation from God?

    Yes, I know, the church is led by imperfect men. But the more that rationale is used to explain away the problematic past, the more I realize that the church is just a man-made organization. All the good things in the church: service, family, morality, health, etc. can be found elsewhere, without all the racist, sexist, homophobic garbage. If the church does not have any actual access to truth or power, then why does anyone stay in it?

  90. Cameron N on December 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Jamie,

    For me, there is one tangible thing the church has that can’t be found elsewhere: the gift of the Holy Ghost. I remain an active participant because of the Holy Ghost. My regular communion with the Spirit enables me to ignore things that I don’t understand. It is nearly impossible to discern between past mortal flaws and inspiration sometimes. Therefore, I don’t worry about it, and try to live worthy to feel the Spirit more strongly by following church leades’ teachings that people of all races, genders, and orientations are equal before God, and that whoever obeys him is favored.

  91. Roger on December 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Jamie, I’m a great fan of John A. Widtsoe, the great Mormon apostle and scientist who died in 1954. He understood that OT literalism doesn’t fly. With his death JFS, BRM, et al. lead the Church in a very reactionary mode. They were able to do this because of the ailing health of DOM. It has taken a long time to overcome this setback.

    Hopefully today we are moving back toward a more realistic accomodation between Mormonism and science. If we don’t get there we will become just another conservative Christian religion, which is something several of the religion teachers at BYU seem to be advocating.

    But Mormonism at its heart meshes well with science. But this will obvious take a reappraisal of the LDS Church attitude toward the OT. Hopefully this reconsideration will happen soon, in a timely manner, and with authority so we don’t loose too many of our bright young scholars.

  92. Adam Ford on December 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Maybe this has already been discussed (I don’t have time to go through all the comments):

    1. Nate has some great points and he gets this nearly all right. Especially his point that current church leaders are managers and not leaders; priests and not prophets and therefore cannot lead the people but must follow as they need the financial support and unity to maintain a strong organization.

    2. But avoiding a schism by a shocked segment of the population has a cost too–maybe a higher cost. Right now there is a steady stream of people leaving the Church because they don’t understand how we are among the last to receive the “further light and knowledge” (to quote McConkie after the temple ban for Blacks was rescinded) on so many subjects. Why are we so sexist in our policies, even when it has nothing to do with priesthood? Why are we so hot-to-trot to deny civil marriage rights to homosexuals when there is no harm to us if they file joint tax returns and have probate rights? Why is the only counsel we are given when we are confronted with troubling historical data that we should repent (see Elder Cook in Oct 12 Conf)? We are bleeding right now in a major way due to a lack of leadership on these issues. Basicly, it seems that they would rather loose those now leaving than the old conservative guard that would be disgruntled by progressive change. I wonder who pays more tithing (three guesses and the first two don’t count).

    So the conservative and satisfied stay while the progressive and passionate leave. This does not make for a healthy organization–as Clayton Christensen will tell you. I fear for the future of my church.

  93. Adam G. on December 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Ecclesiastial organizations catering to the “progressive and passionate,” have lacked verisimilitude in their imitation of healthy organizations.

  94. Brent Allsop on December 15, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    So, what is this “mechanism for excommunicating a sitting president of the Church”? Could you provide a reference and/or some additional information?

    I Googled a bit for this, but found absolutely nothing, so am wondering if this could really be true?

  95. X2 Dora on December 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I agree with Nate’s analysis of the ability of leaders to act, but not with the characterizations of liberal latter-day saints. My question is,if leaders can’t or won’t take their congregations where the majority aren’t perceived as wanting to go, where does that leave the congregation? Wandering in the wilderness for forty years, until a new generation is raised? Or like the Japanese military leaders near the close of WWII, knowingly rushing headlong toward disaster, in order to meet their subordinates’ expectations?

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