Since Kaimi was kind enough to link to it, I thought I’d elaborate a bit on some comments of mine which Peggy Fletcher Stack used in her excellent article summarizing the accomplishments of President Hinckley, and the opportunities and challenges facing President Monson. It would be interesting to hear more from some of the other sources she made use of in putting her piece together (Melissa Proctor, Ronan Head, etc.), but for now, here is at least a little bit the context of my remarks.
The way I see it, the church of 2008 is, in a few subtle yet key ways, both more American and less American than it was in 1995, when Elder Hinckley became President Hinckley. The ways it is “less American” now are pretty obvious, if somewhat simplistic: since the time Hinckley ascended to his position, there has been significant growth in the church’s membership (though not as much as some people back in the 1970s and 80s were predicting), most of which has come in majority non-Caucasian nations in the Southern Hemisphere. At the same time there’s been an enormous investment in time and money made in building temples all around the world to serve local saints, and another very large investment made in the Perpetual Education Fund, which is mostly dedicated to the education and improvement of members from these same poor, non-Caucasian, non-North American populations. So in terms of basic growth, budget priorities, and the building program of the church, President Hinckley’s tenure has featured a concentrated effort to “internationalize” the way members of the church think about building Zion.
But when I say the church has also become “more American,” though, I’m thinking about “being American” in a fairly specific, more complicated sense. By it, I am referring to a way of life, a way of seeing things, one that might go by a number of different names: modern, pluralistic, “liberal” (itself a loaded word), cosmopolitan, individualistic, etc. The church of 1995 was already thoroughly Americanized, of course, but still…up until then, we had always been led by men who had been born in the 19th century (yes, I’m skipping over President Hunter here), men whose formative experiences in church leadership–provided by the authorities who had trained them–came by way of people who had some connection to the immediate post-Manifesto, post-polygamy, post-Deseret world of the late 19th century and early 20th century, and more importantly all the transformations the church went through during those years. These were all the “old grey heads” that were passing their prime and passing away in the 60s and 70s, whom Hinckley paid tribute to in conference a couple of sessions ago: men with names like McKay, Clark, Woodbury, Moyle, Tanner, etc. And you can see memories and influences of that connection, I think, in the way church presidents like Lee, Kimball or Benson–all of whom had been schooled by these transitional figures–sometimes seemed discontent with the modern world in a rather profound sense. Their moral traditionalism, their political conservatism, wasn’t just a function of the clash of church doctrines with changing mores; I think you can really see in many of their talks, alongside their obvious patriotism, glimmers of frustration with an America that had become so busy, so big, so urban, so competitive, and so immoral. It was if they were thinking “we compromised on so much to fit into the American way of life, and this is what we got in return?” This attitude, I think, helps explain the famed “retrenchment” via correlation and other policies in the 60s and 70s, as was described by Armand Mauss.
Then along came Hinckley, and we suddenly had a thoroughly 20th century leader. He was at ease with the modern media world, and more importantly seemed to understand how you need to think and act in order to relate with people–whether members of the church, enemies of the church, or just curious journalists–with whom you have this weirdly impersonal yet intimate media-conveyed connection. He could be candid, he could be sly, he could be funny. He took seriously the public relations and “interest group” aspects of modern American life, and engaged with it on its own terms. When it came to relations with African-Americans, he brought the church about as close to a formal apology for our past racist doctrines as we’ll probably ever get; sat down and had dinner with representatives from the NAACP, for heaven’s sakes. On the other hand, when it came to gay marriage or other moral issues, there was a lot of the old traditionalism at work, but there was also plenty of the “new conservatism” as well: church leaders getting active, leading political and legal fights, emphasizing “religious liberty,” talking about the need to “respect differences,” etc. Hinckley himself never became heavily involved personally in any of these battles, but I think he helped set the tone: if we were going to have to fight for our rights as believing Christians and moral conservatives in today’s America, then we would learn from how the religious right has tried to do the same thing over the past 30 years. (Mitt Romney’s sometime clumsy and ultimately not entirely successful embrace of the evangelical, “new conservative,” religious right is a case in point here.)
In short, President Monson is inheriting a church that, in a few subtle ways, both stylistically and substantively, has absorbed many of the perspectives of contemporary American life. We are wired, we are watching stake conferences broadcast straight from Salt Lake via satellite transmissions, we are downloading our Sunday School lessons on our Blackberries. And President Hinckley has had a not insignificant part in this change. The result is a church that is both less “American” (that is, less white, less Caucasian, less English-speaking, less North American, etc.), and more “American” (more technological, more media savvy and media dependent, more “political,” etc.).
President Monson is going to have to deal with all this, because once having begun to go down this road, I suspect the church’s membership will continue. You’ve got other forces that are pushing it along (like the globalization/”Americanization” of the economic world that employs and trains a great many of those who end up as leaders of the church), but even without that, the church’s own internal dynamics will be enough a tiger for him to ride. The big challenge facing President Monson isn’t, I think, going to be found in arguments over history or doctrine (those early 90s fights–the “September Six,” etc.–were partly the result of squabbles over retrenchment that I think the great majority of people in the church have long since grown past), but rather in the particularly American challenges of apathy and ambivalence: what will become of the youth of the church when being a Mormon is no longer really that hard of a thing to be? When, for a lot of them (and I have my own anecdotes I could share here), being Mormon (or a “Mormon-American”) is not really all that different from being, well, a gay American, an Ipod-carrying American, a Catholic American, a slacker American, a Woody-Allen-loving American, a black American: when it’s all “just” culture, lifestyle, and choice? I don’t know. Maybe the law of chastity and the Word of Wisdom and temple trips will provide plenty of empowering poles for the next generation of thoroughly modern Mormons to nonetheless stand fast around. And, of course, the basic missions of the church, the basic building blocks of conversion, won’t change, and they shouldn’t. But I suspect, as Mormons increasingly get tossed around and praised and attacked as, not members of some unique tribe, but just as oddball members of the general American (modern, global, wired) tribe, that we may see a lot of conventional American attitudes towards belonging infiltrate the church, even more so than they already have.
This is an interesting perspective on what has happened to the Mormon church since the 1960s. Since we have Apostles who serve until they pass away, we might be more resistant to change than other organizations. But I guess President Hinckley really did try. And now we have President Monson, who was recently photographed sitting on the third row at a Utah Jazz game. Maybe he’ll help us be even more normal.
I’m still searching my Church Almanac looking for a General Authority named “Woodbury”.
My other thought is: “Is Europe or Australia or Japan any less technological, less media savvy or media dependent?” I don’t believe that America has a monopoly in these areas anymore.
I also believe that if members of the priesthood follow the direction that the First Presidency gave us this evening, the divide between the lifestyle of true Latter-day Saints and the rest of the world will continue to widen.
I agree. Acceptance is a double-edged sword. In some ways being persecuted can be a positive thing.
May I meekly suggest that “Elder Hinckley”, in 1995, hadn’t been an “Elder” for a number of years, as he’d been serving in the First Presidency. I know it was an oversight, so I apologize for my pride having compelled me to offer this correction.
Back to your regular programming.
I have news for you. The “squabbles over retrenchment” and “fights in the 1990s” that you trust the “great majority of people in the church have long since grown past” are only now arriving on our shores. The people I talk to have no idea about this stuff. Friends have gone into shock on finding out about the September Six. I am preparing to relinquish my Temple Recommend when next I am asked about sympathising with other groups, etc.
I only recently heard Armand Mauss on radio (yes we do at least have the radio). I had stumbled on some of these themes for myself, but it is very hard to get anything other than “the party line” here. The magazines read like propaganda. The manuals and talks sound like a throwback to the 1960s or 70s.
Fortunately I grew up in another minority religion, as the LDS church is here, and learned to keep my mouth shut. I just have to do the same thing now. Thank you for this exposition. I would have no hope of ever getting this sort of perspective where I live.
Russell – always a pleasure to be included along with you. Alas, my comments weren’t as erudite as yours. Here’s what I said to Peggy:
None of the hot button issues you mention [e.g. gay marriage] is on the radar of most European Mormons. Their main concern is staying active in societies which think they are polygamous cultists.
Church growth in Europe has slowed to nil and retention is a continual problem. The church’s concern going forward will be to keep the current membership base active and make sure the faith stays alive in the second and third generations.
President Monson’s work in East Germany, where he helped build a temple behind the Iron Curtain, has earned him particular respect from European Mormons, especially on the continent. Where he directs his international attention, and whether he will travel as much as President Hinckley, remains to be seen.
He certainly has large boots to fill. Part of President Hinckley’s genius â€” and it was a genius uncontrived â€” was that he made people in diverse places feel special, despite their fleeting interaction with the Prophet and their distance from Salt Lake. English Latter-day Saints feel very proud of their history with Hinckley and mourn a true Anglophile; I imagine many others in the international church feel the same. The Latter-day Saints have every confidence that Thomas Monson will rise to the occasion.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
And now we have President Monson, who was recently photographed sitting on the third row at a Utah Jazz game. Maybe heâ€™ll help us be even more normal.
That begs a couple of questions–such as, what’s “normal,” and whether being normal is what we Mormons should want to be, or to appear to be–but you’re catching my point pretty well, I think.
Iâ€™m still searching my Church Almanac looking for a General Authority named â€œWoodburyâ€.
T. Bowring Woodbury; he was president of the British mission in the late 50s and early 60s. His was just a name I pulled out at random; I could have put down Mark Petersen, LeGrand Richards, Richard L. Evans, etc.
Is Europe or Australia or Japan any less technological, less media savvy or media dependent? I donâ€™t believe that America has a monopoly in these areas anymore.
True. But the global development of media technologies, media markets, media styles and more (advertising, entertainment, public relations, etc.) have for the most part closely followed broadly “American” (English-speaking, etc.) patterns. Hence the way scholars talk about “Americanization.”
Acceptance is a double-edged sword. In some ways being persecuted can be a positive thing.
Well-put. One thinks of that famous, oft-repeated statement of Brigham Young’s that the worst thing that could happen to the Saints would be for them to become rich, accepted, and comfortable.
It’s Not Me–thanks for the correction.
I am preparing to relinquish my Temple Recommend when next I am asked about sympathising with other groups, etc.
Where do you live? Anyway, I suppose you could be right; maybe somewhere in Europe or elsewhere local intellectual communities within the church are drawing the ire of local leaders, and they’re ready to duke it out over mentioning “Mother in Heaven” or whether or not parts of the Book of Mormon might be something other than a literal translation of ancient documents. I would hope not, though; I think it’d be terribly unfortunate to have a repeat of Utah, circa 1990-1993. Looking back on it all more than 15 years later, I think that whole tempest-in-a-teapot was a strange, overwrought waste of time, and given the way President Hinckley treated aspiring trouble-makers in the church, I suspect he felt similarly.
Ronan–great comments. Thanks for fleshing out your thoughts for us all. It’s good to be reminded of Hinckley’s very deep Anglophilia (not a particularly common feeling for men of his generation, and all the more credit to him for that reason). Will Monson feel as much attraction for any particular part of the globe? Germany and Eastern Europe, perhaps, or Canada, where he served as mission president (and where he opened up French-speaking Quebec to missionary work)? Time will tell, I suppose.
barbara, just one word of unsolicited advice from someone who has a friend who almost lost out on temple attendance for the same emotion you describe:
Don’t be rash – even if that “rashness” is the result of difficulty over an extended period of time.
Imho, from someone who has been on the other side of the interview table, it takes a pretty serious allegiance to cross the line in question during the interview. If you sympathize (or even participate) with a group that is disaffected with the Church, that is nowhere near the line. I believe it takes a type of open opposition to and fighting with the Church as an institution (“coming out in open rebellion” and “publicly opposing”) to qualify. Drawing the line at “disagreeing with” or “sympathizing with those who disagree with” something about the Church would disqualify many of the current local leaders throughout the world (and perhaps many general authorities, as well, given what we know of the vigorous discussions that have occurred over time in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles). If you are actively fighting the Church or lending support to those who are, that is one thing; merely sympathizing with them on an emotional and/or intellectual level is quite another.
what will become of the youth of the church when being a Mormon is no longer really that hard of a thing to be?
So, like in 100 years or so, right?
Because looking at my own children’s experience, it’s not particularly easier than it was when I was growing up. There are some easier aspects, yes — we live in an area of a higher concentration of LDS than my parents did — but the trials seem a bit more concentrated.
While the church maintains its patriarchy and excludes women from the priesthood and full participation it will remain a 19th century institution regardless of how active a public relations agenda it has.
I enjoyed “Free Radicals,” Alice.
What rowish said. Anyone listen to Top 40 radio (Justin Timberlake: “Why don’t you sit down on top of me;” Usher: “I wanna make love in this club”) or walk through the halls of a public high school lately? In the 1920s Church members were as “American” in terms of technological adaptation and information intake as they are today (anyone remember cautions against reading novels? Stories about kids sneaking off to buy blue jeans?) Automobiles and iPods and satellite television are only cultural in the short-term, unless you decide to actively oppose them.
And I really don’t think being a Mormon is nearly on the same level as being gay in modern culture: it’s easier to be Mormon than gay inside the church, but I really don’t think the same can be said outside — at best they’re both equally threatened. And being Catholic or Jewish is okay now, unless you’re one of the creepily rules-following types: Mormons are considered creepily rules-following by default (by those who don’t see us as polygamous cult members) outside of Utah/California/etc.
In response to #5, I agree that the quibbles over history and doctrine are just beginning. I think the Internet is a moving force among the youth who will be growing up in the Church and the young adults who will be taking missionary discussions in the upcoming years. Vast realms of information are readily available to us today online and those who are adept at using the Internet for school, work, etc., learn quickly to judge accurate online reporting from biased propaganda. (Or more importantly, think they have, and therefore internalize the information and trust it beyond what a Mormon Missionary, or a proselyting Jehovah’s Witness might tell them.)
I do not visit a lot of Christian denominations. But I have visited a few. In my area, some Churches consist of young people, some of old people, and some mixed. Unfortunately, the LDS wards here consist mostly of old people. That tells me, in a very rough and approximate way, that the LDS are not captivating or retaining the young generation the way they could be.
It is my opinion that stuffy old protestant-influenced and post-Polygamy conservatism is the reason for this. If the Church would embrace the more hermetic-flavored ideas which it should have claim to, like deification, Adam-God, Heavenly Mother, an eternal existence (uncreated universe, eternal round, etc…), superiority of modern prophecy above written scripture, working out our own salvation, and polygamy, it would appeal more to today’s younger generations who really don’t want the same old thing over again. If they want the same old bible thumping, they will just go to the rock ‘n roll Jesus Church down the street with all their friends.
This may be a tough thing to consider, but this is how I see it. The issues of doctrine and history are just beginning to get dredged up, and for good reason.
I agree with most comments above that doctrinal and historical debate is just beginning — and I welcome it!
I do not agree that the church is becoming more \”liberal\” or progressive. I think the bloggernacle tends to implicate hierarchy as participating in their views too often. I certainly do not see the alleged progression on my monthly flip through of the Ensign or in the 10 hours of conference I just sat through. The change may be moving across members but I don\’t think leadership is responding. And I doubt the new choices in leadership will be any different.
You’re scaring me, Russell F.
Jeff Day, Re-embracing polygamy will attract youth? Even if I agreed, that just sounds creepy, especially in light of what’s going on with the FLDS right now.
Hermetic polygamy, Ray. All the cool kids are doing it.
Ray, I think the IDEA of polygamy could be re-factored into a more acceptable, and less damaging practice than what the FLDS are doing. It is coupled with the idea of sealing —- and celestial polygamy naturally comes to mind when one seeks consolation of what happens when a spouse passes away and one re-marries to another.
Adam, you made me laugh out loud so much that it took me three tries to read your response aloud to my wife. ~Jeff
You think polygamy could be popular in the face of modern feminism?
Get a clue, buddy.
Regarding Feminism, I said nothing of Polygyny. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?
I also wasn’t necessarily implying marital or sexual relations (but, I wasn’t ruling this out either.) I was actually pondering, particularly, the idea that a person could be sealed together with multiple people whom they love, to be with them for eternity. Not to make it sound trivial, but its like BFF’s insured by the Holy Spirit of Promise. I think this was the underlying motivation of the adoptive sealings of the 19th century. ~Jeff
Youâ€™re scaring me, Russell F.
Why, Adam G.?
T. Bowring Woodbury of baseball baptism fame? You had to pick him???
Why not? He fits the profile. But if complaints persist, feel free to replace “Woodbury” in my list with “McConkie” (as in Oscar W.), “Dyer” (Alvin R.), “Brown” (Hugh B.), “Sill” (Sterling W.), or any one of dozens of other late-19th-early-20th-century-born career church people who made their mark in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
Why, Adam G.?
1. Everything from because once having begun to go down this road on is dead accurate and
2. everything from that point on scares me.
I look at the world and how my ward and stake match up to it, and I want to scream – “I don’t WANT to BELONG! I don’t want to be a NORMAL American! I want to be a MORMON!” In other words, I want to be a saint. I have had enough of being normal and fitting in. I would rather be right before my Maker.
Yeah, T Bowring W may fit the pattern, but he wasn’t a “church leader” in the sense that the others were–especially after the mess in the British mission.
On the other hand, how many others could boast a wife whose nickname was “Bubbles”?
Contrary to Russell’s hypothesis, Latter-day Saints are becoming MORE out of synch with American/European social values as the latter move more and more toward accepting gay marriage, casual sex without emotional commitment, euthanasia–all sorts of personal legal autonomy from any enforced rules of morality–while at the same time condemning and punishing anyone who insists that there are objective standards of sexual morality that would restrict abortion, gay relationships, etc.
The recent changes to law in California would justify firing a Mormon teacher who spoke in praise of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman as the most beneficial to society, or who objected to someone who claimed to be an incipient “transsexual” genetic male going into the girls restroom or locker room. The one thing that “modern” society cannot tolerate is anyone who does not embrace “anything goes” sexual behavior. They are very puritanical about it p;unishing anyone who thinks there is such a thing as “immoral sexula behavior.” Real sanctions using real government power–up to, potentially, the kinds of disincorporation sanctions that were used in the Edmunds-Tucker Act to destroy the Church–are on the horizon.
So I disagree about the Church becoming “more American.” While there are certainly plenty of Mormons who think Oprah Winfrey is on a par with Thomas Monson as a source of advice, it is becoming harder and harder to be a Mormon and Homecoming Queen, especially outside of Mormon-dominant areas. I see more and more Mormons fleeing public schools for home schooling, because of the subversive anti-morality being taught by public schools, and which are being reinforced by tyrannical decisions like the one by the California Court of Appeals that it is the teachers and administrators of public schools, not parents, who have control over the morality of the things students are taught, no matter what the Yoder decision of the Supreme Court said about the right of parents to control the education of their own minor children. We are moving toward more specific and direct confrontation with the world around us, one that is adopting more and more the “ethics” of the Brave New World, and considers those who insist on objective morality involving self-restraint as repressive, anti-intellectual and primitive.
I was saddened by the failure of the educational vouchers program in Utah, based on the prevalence of the false doctrine that educational funding is the property of public schools, and not of the children who are to be educated, administered by parents as trustees. I would devote all funding for education, local, state and Federal, into vouchers that are used by parents to select the appropriate schools for their children. Public schools as they exist now are institutions that serve primarily the interests of their employees, and secondarily of the unions. They are the precise equivalent of established churches funded through taxation. They are non-responsive to parental desires, but rather assert unique expertise and authority in educational matters–what should be taught and in what manner–that leads to orthodoxy that is enforced against students and parents. We do not allow ourselves to be taxed to support churches we dissagree with; we should no more be taxed to support schools that seek to indoctrinate our children with doctrines we disagree with. The teacher unions operate as an arm of the national Democratic Party, and teachers are seen by the Pasrty as having a duty to inculcate the values that are embraced by the Party, including particular views on sexual morality, the armed forces, free market capitalism, the environment, and religion.
Once parents have the power to contribute or not to a particular school, that school will become more responsive to parental desires. We will not need national standardized tests to measure school performance; parents will vote with their feet to impoverish schools that oppose parental teachings on morality, or that fail to equip students with useful skills. Evaluation services will spring up to assist parents in choosing schools. Any public school that clings to traditional morality and provides education value will be rewarded.
#27: Relax. 99% of what is taught in a public school. is just cold, boring, and lacks any kind of moral directing. The teacher adds little to the Culture of the class. Most of it comes in with the students. I would fear the TV more than the teacher. The closest thing to passing on a moral value is :”Stop kicking her!”.
Latter-day Saints are becoming MORE out of synch with American/European social values as the latter move more and more toward accepting gay marriage, casual sex without emotional commitment, euthanasiaâ€“all sorts of personal legal autonomy from any enforced rules of moralityâ€“while at the same time condemning and punishing anyone who insists that there are objective standards of sexual morality that would restrict abortion, gay relationships, etc.
You’re making a good point here, Raymond–obviously a great variety of issues pertaining to sexuality, the value of life, etc., involve a separation of Mormon doctrine and practice from increasingly common American and European norms. However, I think on the whole you’re wrong, or at least you have a narrow view of things. What are “American/European social values” anyway? Surely they are not restricted to how/when/with whom one has sex, or how/to whom one marries, or how/when one dies. There are dozens–if not hundreds–of everyday matters that are relevant here. Do you shop on Sundays? How late do you work? How many children do you have? What TV shows do you watch? Who do you associate with? And so on and so forth. Adding all of this together, looking at basic home economies, basic educational priorities, basic marriage and childbearing patterns, basic work expectations, I see Mormons becoming more and more American/European/Western/modern/what-have-you in the broadest sense. Yes, they are a “moral minority” within the larger modern liberal Western world. But those moral issues which identify them as a minority are hardly always or for all people living in modern Western liberal democratices relevant markers of how such people identify themselves; most of the time, what matters is if you’ve seen these movies or read these books or logged onto these websites or traveled to these places or sent your kids to these schools, etc., etc., etc. And when it comes to those matters, I am simply unaware of any truly significant group of Mormons anywhere who are consciously dropping out of and/or avoiding the modern economic marketplace–or the marketplace of ideas, for that matter. The Amish we ain’t.
While there are certainly plenty of Mormons who think Oprah Winfrey is on a par with Thomas Monson as a source of advice, it is becoming harder and harder to be a Mormon and Homecoming Queen, especially outside of Mormon-dominant areas. I see more and more Mormons fleeing public schools for home schooling, because of the subversive anti-morality being taught by public schools, and which are being reinforced by tyrannical decisions like the one by the California Court of Appeals that it is the teachers and administrators of public schools, not parents, who have control over the morality of the things students are taught, no matter what the Yoder decision of the Supreme Court said about the right of parents to control the education of their own minor children.
I think you’re simply wrong about the homecoming queen crack; if you’re not living in some hotbed of Protestant evangelicalism and in an environment where the Mormons have defined themselves in opposition to those same Protestants–in other words, if you’re like millions of Mormons who live in American suburbs from coast to coast–than, simply put, hardly anyone gives a damn. (Typical high school conversation these days, in my observation: You’re a virgin and don’t drink coffee? Huh, weird. Me, I’m a vegan and only drink mineral water.) But that’s not to say you’re incorrect about the home school thing; it is becoming more common, and I could easily see it becoming an important distinction in the lives of many American Mormons. But home schooling American Mormons have a great distance to go if they want their approach to–their rejection of–certain aspects of American (and European?) socialization to become anything like a majority characteristic amongst their fellow believers…not the least reason for which being that, like their Mormon and European counterparts, most upper- and middle-class Mormon families (which are the ones which get to set these trends) are two-income families, for whom the public school system that will watch the kids, along with all the athletic and cultural and social and academic activities it provides for, is a godsend.
“Typical high school conversation these days, in my observation: Youâ€™re a virgin and donâ€™t drink coffee? Huh, weird. Me, Iâ€™m a vegan and only drink mineral water.”
Not here in small-town America. Alcohol abuse is extremely prevalent, sex is common, and if you say no, it can be pretty lonely — i.e. the phone rarely rings. My children are working their way through this, and one good friend can make such a difference!
Not here in small-town America.
No doubt. But what percentage of norm-shaping, leadership-pool-producing, middle-class Mormons live in small town America? A smaller and smaller percentage all the time. (And this is to say nothing of Europe, where the small Mormon population is for the most part even more urban, multicultural, and cosmopolitan than in the U.S.).