Internationalizing Mormon Leadership: The Normal Pace

Hands on a globe --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Hands on a globe — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

In the Salt Lake Tribune of October 5, Jana Riess regrets that the top leadership of the Mormon church is all-white and overwhelmingly American, and that the recent apostolic callings missed the chance to reflect the church’s international diversity. Others have expressed the same disappointment. I can appreciate their concern, but I wonder how many non-American Mormons would agree. Are we certain that an apostle from Brazil or Kenya would be preferred by most Mormons in 130 other countries above a seasoned leader from Utah? Or did some of those disappointed Americans perhaps react from a “white guilt / white savior complex” by coming to the rescue of the allegedly discriminated-against international membership?

Besides, do we know how many non-Americans may have been considered to fill the vacant apostle positions, but none was found adequate yet at this time? Perhaps the one closest to being called was finally considered too rigid? Then many would probably be grateful that Elder Rasband or Elder Renlund were selected instead. Perhaps apostles are also chosen because they have, from deep-rooted experiences in the heart of Mormonism, a maturing perspective of church doctrine and history and are able to address its questions properly?

No doubt the internationalization of the higher leadership is very much on the mind of the top. But I can understand their caution and I trust their thorough acquaintance with potential nominees, also from abroad. It took the Catholic Church 1500 years before a non-Italian pope came to the helm, and then another four centuries before the second. I expect it will go faster in the Mormon Church, but in historical perspective Mormonism is still in its infancy.

However, since it may be decades before non-Americans fill the upper rank proportionally, what seems more important is that present American leaders are more open to suggestions when dealing with the international dimension of the church. From five decades of church experience in various countries, I could mention the following as examples of suggestions—without implying reform in doctrine or organization:

  • Beware of considering a foreign culture as stereotyped folklore and the “natives” as charmingly retrograde. Church magazines often contribute to that image. The “cultural celebrations” at the occasion of temple dedications reflect that touristic expectation to please the Utah visitors. Rather, the focus could be as much or more on items that highlight other countries’ equal status on the world level: famous authors or musicians, modern achievements, contemporary art…
  • Avoid talking about the “poor people who have so little” in some countries, and then add, “but they’re happy because they have the gospel.” Unwittingly it reflects a colonial attitude that implies acceptance of their condition as normal.
  • Encourage independent academic research into demographic, sociological, and religious profiles of members abroad. With proper permissions to survey members, Mormon experts could collaborate with local university centers specializing in aspects of new religions. It would promote Mormonism as a valid study topic, on par with Islamic or Jewish Studies. Results could identify areas for improvement.
  • It seems—and research could confirm this—that the vast majority of members abroad are in favor of social justice, equality, pacifism, environmentalism, and well-financed public education and public health care. Many would like some approving signs from the top to counter the church’s media image as a weird form of the American Christian right.
  • Belligerent rhetoric can be misinterpreted by members abroad, as well as by anticult and even antiterrorism watchers in some countries. That may happen when leaders polarize the church against “the world,” claiming that “we are at war” and need to “put on the armor of God.” Radical imams use similar language to target the “evil of the other.” Such rhetoric tends to isolate church members from the host society and feeds fundamentalism. President Gordon B. Hinckley did the opposite: he pointed to the good in others, asked us to reach out, be good neighbors, and be peacemakers.

All in all, the Mormon church is navigating in an increasingly complex and susceptible world. A solid grip at the top, with increasing sensitivity to international contexts and needs, but without the risk of dissonance from still immature or impatient foreign voices, seems the normal pace for many years to come. In due time, another Uchtdorf will trickle in.

40 comments for “Internationalizing Mormon Leadership: The Normal Pace

  1. I suppose rather than focusing right now on the Q12 what is needed is greater diversity and seasoning over time at the lower levels of leadership that eventually funnel into serious candidates for the Q12: SPs, MPs, AA70s, who eventually might join the 1Q of the 70 and then the Presidents of the 70.

  2. Regarding your fourth point (political views) I suspect that there are big regional differences in how populations view such matters. We should be careful not to read from European views how others view such matters. Ditto for final point. Again, look at Evangelical growth (who are typically far more political than Mormons and far more to the right) in these various regions.

    I’m not saying there isn’t some truth to those points. There is. But I’m quite skeptical its quite the deal some suggest. It seems a much bigger deal in Europe but European growth across most religions other than among immigrants is pretty much non-existent. It’s become a secular region. Which is precisely why the political counts more than the religious elements in a religion. (I think one can argue that a similar move is starting to hit Canada and the US as well although one can debate how secular it is)

  3. Very wise counsel Wilfried. Thank you.

    As usual, many members focus too much on what others outside the church will perceive instead of the needs of church members. The church just lost about 100 years of apostolic experience. That is a heavy burden to reallocate. As usual, the Lord tries faith by doing the seemingly unpopular thing (follow me, take up your cross, drink my blood, etc.). But I suspect that is probably a tangential concern of his. Of primary importance is the condition of the hearts, experience, and a desire to serve that qualify us for the work.

  4. I’m not sure I understand what the “seasoning”, maturity in the Gospel, etc is supposed to mean here. Some callings might call for specific skills (I’m thinking of the bishopric now), but otherwise I’m not quite sure how someone with tons of bureaucratic experience in the church is really that different from Joe Notwhite with a burning testimony and deep knowledge of Christ’s teachings when it comes to giving lots of talks about Jesus and deciding where to send missionaries. Someone with real-world experience in e.g. education might bring a lot more to certain aspects of what the Q12 does than someone who knows how to fix a heart, was taught in his youth about how blacks were fence-sitters in the pre-existence, and remembers what seminary was like in rural Utah in 1965. Is the suggestion here that someone without the Utah background will be some sort of loose canon? That they won’t have the same respect for tradition? Big deal. Bring it on. Institutional memory is important, but it isn’t like we have any deficit in that department or that the Q12 are the only source of bureaucratic continuity.

  5. Very insightful, thank you Wilfried.

    Your first bullet point is confusing — I’m not sure how a large numerous-local-participant performance is appealing simply to a Utah-tourist mentality while engaging famous/talented individuals from the area is not. What I think we want to be cautious about is that these celebrations are authentic and a genuine celebration of local culture and people as opposed to stereotyped or kitch contributions. This is a global issue, not one specific to our celebrations; and in response to global-cultural pressures many countries brand themselves in narrow, kitchy ways.

    And amen to number 3.

  6. Only the Church of England has loose canons. In our church they’re all stitched between split cowhide covers.

  7. Kevin (1), thanks for pointing to the lower levels as preparatory grounds (the abbreviations read like car models :). Yes, and these levels provide opportunities for the top to observe and assess them. One could raise one concern though: leaders on these levels, from SP on, tend to all come from strong Mormon families, married in the temple, some already being 3rd and 4th generation Mormons, whose social circle includes similar members. They mostly seem to set a tone of retrenchment. Some may not fully understand the challenges of members who often constitute the majority in foreign countries: singles, divorced, member in a part-member family, LGBT, immigrants… Of course, the same concern pertains to the highest levels of leadership. It’s just a remark about a challenge for the church..

  8. I suspect Wilfried that many raised in function nuclear parent Mormon households still have a lot of dealings with singles, divorced and so forth. The bigger issue is more likely generational. There I suspect having a few younger apostles called might make a bigger difference. But it’s been quite some time since an apostle was called at an age less than 40.

    I also wonder if making apostles emeritus will happen soon. The apostles have more and more duties as the church grows, even as they use the ever increasing Seventies for more functions. Yet at any time many of the 15 apostles are quite ill or old enough so as to not be able to do as much as the younger apostles. In the past they’ve had adjunct apostles. While revelation says the quorum can only have 12 apostles there’s nothing I can see that would preclude them from having emeritus apostles outside of the quorum. (Wasn’t Hugh B Brown the third counselor in the First Presidency to David O Mckay?)

  9. I’ll respond to each comment! Just need some time.

    Clark (2), I appreciate your comment and correction. Yes, regional differences matter.

    I realize the social and political views of members constitute a delicate point. My first reason for mentioning this aspect is PR and member feelings: the media, and I think in many countries, often continue to identify the church as a weird right-wing American church (reinforced during the Romney Mormon Moment). I could cite many examples where Mormonism is still depicted as anti-immigration, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-education, anti-Muslim, pro-Israel, pro-capital punishment, creationist, isolationist, capitalist, racist, fundamentalist, etc. It’s frustrating for members to read or hear such things in the local media. And Church PR is dramatically inefficient in Europe (on European level, some local-national PR may do well).

    So when I mentioned the wish of members to hear some approving signs from the church in favor of social justice, equality, pacifism, environmentalism… , it is, as I mentioned, “to counter the church’s media image as a weird form of the American Christian right.” I think the church is in favor of most of these values, at least to a certain extent, but it’s seldom or never mentioned (except if one digs deeper). The impression then is that the top wants to be careful with topics that are sensitive for the many Republican Mormons. At least, that’s what is rumored. I don’t think these member feelings are limited to Europe. Latin America has a long tradition of left-leaning members.

    On the other hand, I also notice that members who read English and have Utah-friends pick up some of tea-party logic and rhetoric. It’s an area that has not been studied yet, I think: the ideological interaction between members abroad and Utah Mormons.

  10. No, Hugh B. Brown became the First Counselor after the death of Henry D. Moyle in 1963 and remained in that position until Pres. McKay died.

  11. Certainly there are far left members in latin America. Heck there are in the US too. How much this affects missionary work I’d like to see quantified. My point is that while it assuredly does affect European missionary efforts, its also rather unlikely that had the Church a perception of progressivism that baptisms would increase much more in Europe.

    I do agree that the church should do more to distinguish itself from American Republican culture internationally. I’m not sure I agree that’s hurt the church. In some ways I suspect this Americanism has been attractive and led to growth in some areas. (Of course that’s the wrong reason for someone to be baptized and this may lead to higher baptisms but lower retention)

    That said exactly how the church should do this seems much more tricky. For instance you raise anti-immigrant flag, despite that being an issue the church has been quite vocal on. So long as a significant portion of members are American Republicans, there’s probably a limit on what the Church can do.

    Likewise many of the issues you raise I’m not sure can be avoided given our history and doctrine. (For many, having a male priesthood is inherently anti-woman; believing in the significance of Israel in the last days is inherently pro-Israel; disallowing gay marriage is inherently anti-gay; etc)

    I’d think the bigger problem the Church faces, at least in Asia, is a missionary foundation that’s primarily built upon targeting existing protestants and to a lesser extend Catholics. I think that as religiosity has changed that’s proving to be a much more problematic basis. Especially in Asia. I also think we need to rethink how we share what’s important about the gospel. What worked in the “international church era” (say 1950 – 2000) probably won’t work as well in the future. Even the very meaning of things like “salvation from sin” or “church is true” or the importance of authority probably will be less and less compelling to people. I’m not saying avoid those issues, but we can’t assume they make any sense for people anymore. Whereas for Mormons we tend to assume those are self-evidently important questions.

    Whether more authorities from outside the traditional Mormon corridor would help, I’m skeptical. (Speaking as someone raised in an other country well outside the Mormon corridor) It seems the sort of thing smart people could figure out.

    The bigger issue for diversity among leadership to my eyes is more people seeing themselves in the leadership. That is for feeling more a part of things. I’m skeptical it’s really as significant in terms of an ability to pick policy.

  12. Bullet #1 enters the damned if you do, damned if you don’t territory. If they didn’t do these celebrations critics would call the church insensitive to local culture. When they do them at least one critic complains that they “reflect [a] touristic expectation to please the Utah visitors.”

    I’ve never been involved in planning something like this, but I can’t imagine SLC exporting a white, Utah male to be in charge of the content and execution. Aren’t these celebrations assigned to locals and then locally produced, created and performed, making them at least some kind of authentic expression of local culture? Do you know that not to be the case or are you just expressing your personal dislike of them?

  13. Clark Goble, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’ve really enjoyed your renewed engagement on LDS blogs. Your comments are always factual and thoughtful. And you’re a role model for polite yet pointed disagreement. I hope you continue to find the time and enthusiasm to participate in these discussions.

  14. Cameron (3), I couldn’t agree more.

    Owen (4), thanks for your straightforward remark. I wish it were that simple and any comment I make now in response will be deficient on various aspects. With “seasoned” and “mature” I was not referring to bureaucratic experience, but primarily to aspects that have been developing over past decades, and in particular the past twenty years or so. There have been important shifts in emphasis and approach as to doctrine and history, involvement of women, attitudes toward LGBT, dealing with our past racism, and the process is ongoing. That process, at the top, is based on previous developments, must involve multiple considerations, and, we may assume, compromises as to the extent and the pace of change.

    One could argue that an “outsider” (Latino of African suddenly called to the Twelve) does not have to be aware of that process and could just preach Jesus and send out missionaries. But we would be surprised to discover that such an outsider (even if previously a member of the AA or the 1Q of the 70), could still be preaching doctrine and history as he learned it in his country (which could be somewhat aberrant or obsolete), not fully aware of new emphases or of the more recent content in Gospel Topics. It could be pretty disturbing. All such considerations, and more, are probably part of the wisdom and inspiration which the Twelve use to suggest “safe” names to the prophet.

  15. In all of the posts I’ve read about the new apostles, not one has mentioned foreordination. Do people not believe in that doctrine anymore?

  16. James (5) and KLC (12) comment on the same topic — my first suggestion as to cultural celebrations. Thanks for participating in the comments!

    Let me first concede it is a minor point compared to the others. And I’ll also concede that in some countries, with strong traditions of costumed folk dancing and the like, church members may find pride and fun in performing. I also did not say these should be abolished, but that “the focus could be as much or more on items that highlight other countries’ equal status on the world level.”

    What are some concerns?
    – such costumed cultural celebrations tend to stereotype a country in a yesteryear image
    – such stereotypes tend to be adopted by Americans (dress as a Mexican, Chinese, Indian… cf. birthday or Halloween parties), which may reinforce a colonial / condescending attitude toward foreigners (cf. how American Indians feel when…)
    – many countries do not have such national costumes or they are village-specific and considered dépassé or childish
    – many church wards and stakes abroad are not “national” units anymore, but a melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities and mixed races
    – there are modern artistic ways to represent the values and dignity of local members, transcending the concept of nationality or ethnicity, and celebrating life as world citizens.

  17. Wesley (15) We can believe in foreordination but I’m not sure how that affects anything. After all we don’t know who is or isn’t foreordained. So what does the category get us?

    KLC (13) Thanks, I appreciate that. I write these quips fast so I always worry my typos get the better of me.

  18. Wilfried (17) Honest question, outside of pacific islanders are there costumed folk dancing of non-European countries amongst US Mormons? I can’t say I recall those. Certainly within US culture dressing ethnically in a stereotypical way is considered out of line. I won’t say it doesn’t still happen. Typically more with roles (ninja, sometimes geisha). Is this something you see a lot? Even here in Utah I just don’t see it much. When it is seen I usually see condemnation.

    The place of pacific island dancers is admittedly a bit trickier. (Say the polynesian center) I can see arguments on both side there.

  19. As an active, Latin American Mormon, I would suggest three ideas that relate to this essay.

    First, the racial looking glass through which Americans apparently see everything, including the LDS Church, is not a universally shared paradigm. Having said that, I can’t think of any active Mormon in the world (outside of the US) that wouldn’t be thrilled to see someone from their country called as an apostle. (Note: “race” and nationality are two different things. But the discussion in the blogosphere seems to largely miss this point.)

    Second, I agree that there is a natural progression toward having more non-American apostles. This, I think, is what Kevin (1) is getting at. The quorums of seventy is where the apostles generally come from. As the Church grows more outside North America (comparatively speaking), more and more General Authorities will be from places other than the US. If you look at the general authority seventies, you will find an increasing number of non-Americans. Some of them have even served in the Presidency of the Seventy, including lately Soares, Costa, González, and Uchtdorf. There will be other “Elder Uchtdorfs.” It will happen organically.

    Third, the whole discussion seems to miss an important point. The apostles are not representatives of specific groups before the Lord. Rather, they represent the Lord before the world. Their birth place (or race, take your pick) should not matter. What should matter is that they have been (unknowingly) prepared since an early age for serving the Lord in this particular fashion. Last conference, the Lord called three apostles to be his mouthpieces on earth. At future conferences, He will call others. Whatever their nationality might be, the Church will be in good hands.

  20. Clark (8), thanks for your valuable contributions to the discussion. I’ll do my best to keep up!

    “I suspect that many raised in nuclear parent Mormon households still have a lot of dealings with singles, divorced and so forth.”

    Yes, but when looking at stake presidents and area authorities (at least in my experience in Europe), the selection process is such that they come from the strongest and most stable families, often already part of “dynasties” that intermarry. It’s good for leadership stability and experience, but sometimes less for patience with the weaker or struggling segment of the membership. One notices it in stake conferences and leadership meetings when these leaders refer to their own exemplary families and the great church activities we should (and they can) do with full-Mormon families. There is a functional discrepancy that is not encouraging for a large section of members and which may contribute to inactivity in that segment. To refer to bullet 3 (research) in my post, an excellent example for research through sociological survey.

    “ The bigger issue is more likely generational. There I suspect having a few younger apostles called might make a bigger difference. But it’s been quite some time since an apostle was called at an age less than 40.”

    Yes, but much then depends on the personal style of that apostle. If it’s stern and inflexible or more compassionate and understanding… If he has a focus on inspiring doctrines or a focus on commandments and obedience. And we’ll have him for the next 40 or 50 years…

    “I also wonder if making apostles emeritus will happen soon… While revelation says the quorum can only have 12 apostles there’s nothing I can see that would preclude them from having emeritus apostles outside of the quorum. (Wasn’t Hugh B Brown the third counselor in the First Presidency to David O Mckay?)”

    The point of emeritus apostles is an interesting “technical” point to raise. The Catholic Church moved to such a procedure for its elderly cardinals. As to apostles outside the quorum, the most notable example was Alvin R. Dyer who also served as counselor in the First Presidency under David O. McKay, without being part of the Twelve. I quickly checked: more similar cases in the past, such as Brigham Young jr., John Willard Young, Joseph Angell Young (“excess of apostles” in 1864).

  21. For this old missionary from the Belgium Antwerp mission, Wilfried will always be “President Decoo” from the mission presidency. I agree with Wilfried’s points and am struck by the last sentence: “In due time, another Uchtdorf will trickle in.” Could it be that a “safer” pick for the Q12 (at least in the short term) is an experienced church leader from Europe, not South America, Africa, or Asia?

    In fact, I remember a talk by Wilfried 40+ years ago (I think it was Wilfried) telling the saints in Belgium that they were especially well prepared to serve the church beyond Belgium, and this not only because the average educated Belgian speaks three or four languages. The colonial history of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other European countries is not exactly a point of pride in these countries today, but this history does, I think, remind the citizens of these countries of connections they have with Africa, South America, Asia, and the islands of the sea.

    Is it a coincidence that Elders Didier and de Jager from the Low Countries were among the first non-North Americans called as general authorities in the 20th century? While Europe does not have the number of members of South America, Asia, or Africa, Europeans may end up being well represented in senior church counsels. Just ask Bishop Caussé and President Uchtdorf.

  22. Clark, can you expand on your below comment?

    “Even the very meaning of things like “salvation from sin” or “church is true” or the importance of authority probably will be less and less compelling to people. I’m not saying avoid those issues, but we can’t assume they make any sense for people anymore.”

    Therefore, what? How do we handle that? If not advocating avoidance of the issue, how should this be addressed? Because those things are of critical importance. I’m curious as to what you would recommend.

  23. J (23) Therefore it’s difficult. I’ve no clue how to handle it. I can appreciate the problem and be glad I’m not an apostle having to solve it. I have a lot of sympathy for the apostles on all this. We’re in a very transitionary period. Arguably even more transitionary than the late 60’s were in the west. Culture is changing fast. What to do is very non-obvious.

    We like to think that there’s some solution that’ll shift us back to the way things were in the 70’s and 80’s. I’m skeptical we’ll ever go back to that sort of growth. We should remember that growth isn’t the only way the church behaves. Sometimes it’s crying in the wilderness as we shrink. (Remember Lehi, Jeremiah, and others) I have faith that the Lord will handle things over the next few decades.

    It’s also not at all clear what’s developing in the US. I’m skeptical of the common view that we’re following Europe’s path only more slowly and later. It seems like something unique is going on and it’s not at all clear where society will end up. I’m very anxious to see the next ARIS religious self-identification study at the very least. But there are a lot of be upheavals going on in the US. Right now there’s the signs of a split over moral questions in the Evangelical society for instance. How will that develop? Will conservative Christians start to emphasize care for the poor more than the issues they’ve focused on the last 40 years?

    I’ve no clue.

    Wilfried (21) Growing up in such circumstances might make one more sympathetic. I’m not sure that’s the way it works though. I can see why you would think that. I’ve just seen far too many people brought up under such circumstances with far less patience for such matters. Likewise I think loved ones of people in those circumstances can come to appreciate the difficulties. More or less I’m not saying your wrong, just that I don’t think I have reason to say you’re right. I’d love to have hard data on this.

    Regarding personal style, one odd things I’ve noticed about many church leaders is they don’t have a single style. Many leaders who are most stern and hard over the pulpit are most lenient and understanding in private. I’ve seen the opposite too. Those who are most understanding and perhaps verging on excusing behavior over the pulpit are much sterner judges in person. So style will matter, but it’ll most likely be quite complex.

    My own guess is that if the Lord lets Elder Oaks become President we’ll see some big changes under him. (Although we’ll see what happens — ditto with Elder Holland) We’ll see though. Elder Oaks is already 83. Even Elder Holland is 74 which is just young relative to everyone else. Even if he becomes President he may not be such for long. Beyond them I just don’t see any of the newer apostles having quite the same experiences and personality that they do. And of course, remembering Pres. Benson, I’ve a firm testimony that the Lord directs people in ways you might not expect. The mantle is different from their personal views.

  24. Clark, your comments (11) raise several interesting points. I will not comment on each, but I see that other commenters could carry on on some items.

    So, just this: as to the relation between church and politics and its effect on conversions, it’s difficult to discern trends because, indeed, we do not know for sure why there were periods with more or fewer baptisms. One could imagine that during a time of favorable views on America (for example after WWII), it would lead to more baptisms, and, conversely, during a time of unfavorable views (for example toward the end of the Vietnam war), there would be fewer baptisms. But other factors may play a bigger role, such as a period of aggressive missionary techniques (the baseball baptisms of the early 1960s) or the success years of a Mormon rock group (hundreds of Osmond baptisms in the 1970s). But even with “higher numbers”, the number of conversions has always been very low compared to other proselytizing groups.

    When being taught by missionaries, people are not aware of political viewpoints of Utah Mormons. Awareness comes later and may or may not affect feelings, depending on specific experiences. For the rest, thanks to internet, it seems that members abroad who read English now tend to adopt similar identities as in the U.S., either more liberal or more conservative. It leads to the same tensions between members too. All stuff for fascinating and I think helpful research.

  25. Wesley (15), interesting question on foreordination. If we accept it, plus that an apostle is called by revelation, basically confirming the foreordination, there is little to say, as Clark (18) remarked. For those who like to speculate on who the next apostle will be, they can shift to the question who is foreordained. Some parents with dreams for their son can start questioning early :)

    Clark (19), back to the folklore: you asked “outside of pacific islanders are there costumed folk dancing of non-European countries amongst US Mormons?” I’m not sure how to understand the question. Among US Mormons? Like the BYU Folk Dancers? “The BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble presents a 90-minute voyage of dance and music through the heartbeat of the world’s cultures. Featuring Irish hard shoe, American clogging, Ukrainian Hopak, exotic dances from India, and many more.” One thing to notice, is that only a limited number of countries are known for a “national” folk dancing style. A few European countries are classics.

    The Church Polynesian Center is certainly an interesting case which elicited critical academic interest:
    – Balme, Christopher B. “Staging the Pacific: Framing Authenticity in Performances for Tourists at the Polynesian Cultural Center.” Theatre Journal 50, no. 1 (1998): 53-70.
    – Webb, Terry D. “Highly Structured Tourist Art: Form and Meaning of the Polynesian Cultural Center.” The Contemporary Pacific (1994): 59-86. (Webb did his dissertation on the topic and also wrote other articles on the issues)
    – Wilke, Sabine. “Staging Culture–Staging Nature: Polynesian Performance as Nature and Nature as Performance in Hawaii.” Critical Studies 33, no. 1 (2010): 131-140.
    Would lead us too far to summarize now.

  26. Wilfried (26) I didn’t know the folk dancing team was doing non-European dancing. Last time I’d seen them it was very Euro-centric (including American variations).

    However does that fit your criteria? I’m not sure clogging is necessarily a problem. Perhaps when you get a moment you could comment? I took you to be talking more about church organized pageants and centers rather than BYU dance competition teams. I’m largely ignorant of all that goes on the various pageants and was wondering if there was something beyond the Polynesian center.

    This of course gets into the whole cultural appropriation debate which can be fairly tricky. I think that gets even more tricky with traditional dance done by people not of that community. I know there is a large upswell seeing any appropriation as inherently bad. With appropriation counting as anyone not of an ethnic community doing the dance regardless of context.

    Regarding the Polynesian center it’s tricky and views among Polynesians vary as well. Again there’s a tendency among a certain group of the left (not meaning you) to see any appropriation as problematic. I think in practice things are much more complex. However I agree that the status of the Polynesian center is at a minimum open to debate. I’m not sure I’d call it appropriation but the way it targets white tourists with a narrow view of the cultures can be problematic.

    Wilfried (25) I think you raise an important point. Teasing out causes when there are many going into particular baptism numbers is difficult at the best of times. As you suggest I suspect other more accidental effects may dwarf such effects. That said some things can be measured. I’m very curious how the Church’s experiment in lowering the age of missionaries pans out. I rather suspect it’ll make missionaries less effective and not have the other effects they hope for. This may be a temporary change much like the switch to shorter missions was.

  27. Gordon B. Hinckley apparently used the word “armor” in General Conference more than anyone else except N. Eldon Tanner. He quoted Ephesians 6:11 in October 1975, October 1992, and October 1994; D&C 27:14 in October 1986; and 2 Nephi 1:23 in October 2006. In October 1997, he said “You must put on the whole armor of God”. In October 1998, he said “May we make a renewed effort to put on the whole armor of God”. In April 1999, he said “Altogether, you are men and boys who have taken on the whole armor of God”.

  28. Gabriel (20), I appreciate it very much that you as Latin American participate in the discussion. Thanks! We would need much more input from other perspectives. I agree with the three points you mention: the problem of looking through the racial looking glass, the natural progression toward more non-American apostles, and the fact that apostles should not represent specific groups.

    I would, however, make one small reservation when you mention: “I can’t think of any active Mormon in the world (outside of the US) that wouldn’t be thrilled to see someone from their country called as an apostle.” I am not so sure that would always be the case or be desirable. First, because, given the level of maturity of the membership, to see someone close or personally known called to a high leadership position, often triggers envy and critical considerations. Second, because any “national pride” should rather be avoided in such case, precisely for the third reason you mention. Third, because it could reinforce the feeling that a country moves up a stage when they have an apostle from their own, hence expectations from others when it will be their turn. It could lead to the exact situation that was the reason for my post: the aspiration, almost petition, to have an apostle from a certain area.

  29. Jim (22), what a surprise to meet you again here. Indeed, some forty years ago in the mission field.

    Your comment is particularly interesting, and my response is coming right after my previous comment. Indeed striking, and a little embarrassing in view of what Gabriel mentioned as to being thrilled about the national origin of apostles (extended to GA’s in general): yes, Europeans (and then even concentrated in four adjacent countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany) have been “privileged” to deliver the first non-American GA’s, first apostle, and first Presiding Bishop. I don’t know how to explain it for sure. One reason could be that their church experience started in the 1950s (Caussé, born in 1963 grew up in the church), that each of these men was educated, multilingual and had broad professional and international experience, plus, of course, their faith and dedication.

    But, we cannot deny it, the church, even if viewed as “American,” has a genetic European basis and therefore a historic European bias: not only were nearly all early American Mormons of English ancestry, but immigration brought tens of thousands of European converts to Zion. In 1890, two-thirds of Utah’s population consisted of white European immigrants and their children. New waves of European immigrants followed after each world war. Genetic studies illustrate the ancestry of Utah’s white Mormon residents: 61% British, 31% Scandinavian, with Swiss and German for most of the remainder. So, perhaps one should honestly admit that it takes time to view other origins as equal, even if it’s subconscious. Since 1978 I think some of us, perhaps many in the white layer, are still in that process.

  30. J (23) and Clark (24), the question of what is compelling to people in missionary work is indeed complex. A few thoughts:
    – People are extremely diverse in their needs and interests, so a simplified one-for-all message, such as Preach My Gospel proposes, is very limiting toward a large segment of potential converts. For many the message “salvation from sin” and “the church is true” will still work, for others it may not be enough to reach a conviction of those statements.
    – The lack of “intellectual substance in preaching” (as decried by Armand Mauss in Feelings, Faith, and Folkways) is a major problem for those who need a cognitive foundation for accepting the gospel (even if a spiritual testimony must still confirm it). If what is offered is “only” the principles of the gospel, people can find those in various other Christian denominations, at a much lower cost.
    – As the past shows, more intellectual substance brings in more educated converts, with leader abilities, who are often urgently needed in units in the mission field.
    – “Secularization” (here meant as “less religiosity” among the population) is an all too easy excuse to explain low conversions; religiosity is probably as high as in the past (it’s part of human nature), but organized religion lost much of its appeal (and Mormonism is certainly over-organized); so an interesting (but rhetoric) question is how Mormonism could adapt organizationally in order to be appealing to that mass of “nones”, but still believers.
    – The social factor (feeling at home in the community, feeling appreciated, having friends) remains important for conversion; but the cost of maintaining that level of community is heavy and falls on the same willing people. Hence weak fellowshipping, certainly in understaffed branches & wards. Also here de-organization would free time for sustaining a better conversion process.

  31. Interesting post and comments Wilfried.
    #25 “thanks to internet, it seems that members abroad who read English now tend to adopt similar identities as in the U.S., either more liberal or more conservative. It leads to the same tensions between members too.”
    This is certainly being seen in my extended family, among my siblings and myself, with the same tensions.

  32. Apologies for all my comments in a row – while America slept, I could catch up from Belgium. Not finished yet!

    Clark (27), about folklore and cultural presentations: my initial remark in the post was only to express concern about the way the church tends to present “foreign countries” and the “natives” as touristic objects in an idyllic past. Such an approach may imply some colonial or condescending attitude, while I plead for more efforts to present “the other” as an equal on world level. The “cultural celebration” at temple dedications was only an example of that attitude, and I mentioned some drawbacks in a previous comment (17). It has nothing to do with the BYU Folk Dancers (which I mentioned because you asked “are there costumed folk dancing of non-European countries amongst US Mormons?”). Folk dancing groups and international folk dancing Festivals are cultural events in their own right and with their own purpose, pertaining to a limited number of countries (or rather regions) with such tradition. Church PR can greatly profit from BYU performing groups as they perform abroad (inasmuch as they mention their church affiliation, which is not always the case).

    You also remarked in comment (27):

    “I’m very curious how the Church’s experiment in lowering the age of missionaries pans out. I rather suspect it’ll make missionaries less effective and not have the other effects they hope for. This may be a temporary change much like the switch to shorter missions was.”

    I realize my post invites to go into all kinds of directions, and this topic is certainly a valid one as part of considerations pertaining to the international church. We don’t know yet what the long-range effect will be of the younger age, but I’ll admit I felt unsure when it was announced. I saw it as a critical move to help stop the hemorrhaging of young adults, but feared the detrimental effect on the ability to teach the kind of converts our units need foremost. I also feared much more counseling work for mission presidents, not only toward the missionaries, but also to their moms… At least that part is certain. I’m sure the research department of the church has been obtaining answers to some of these questions by now, but there is little chance reports will be released.

  33. Wilfried (33) The difficulty of presenting others as themselves is of course tricky. You present what is unique and there’s the danger of stereotypes or appropriation. You present what’s the same and you’re seen as culturally imperialist. In some ways it’s a no-win situation as no matter what you do will offend someone. This tends to be more of an issue when there’s power imbalances and insecurities. For instance Americans don’t get offended at cowboy stereotypes. Admittedly a few Canadians get upset at classic mounty uniforms, but not many. I think letting locals organize such things is ideal but again that context switching means people often will attribute it to stereotyping even when locals do it. (Think of say Olympic opening ceremonies – fine when done by the host country, if done by someone else it’d be offensive stereotyping usually)

    BTW, and this speaks to my ignorance, what cultural presentations are done at temple dedications? I’ve never seen anything like that in Canadian or US temples.

    Wilfried (31) Again I’d be cautious here on intellectual vs. feeling. Evangelicals seem to be the most successful Christian group in the US and they push that non-intellectual religious engagement far, far more than Mormons do in my experience. I think what’s unique about Mormonism is that there’s that sense of figuring it out on your own. Again that might be a remnant of the rugged individualistic mythos in America within which Mormonism developed. I don’t know enough about the current lessons to say much. In the late 80’s they were simple but I thought touched on a lot of things that bothered people. I’m just not sure they fit for the changing culture. Authority and baptism for the dead fit some intellectual questions in Christianity I think. I suspect (but don’t know) that we got a lot of protestants who were unsatisfied by protestant answers there (priesthood of all believers, ordinances don’t matter). I’m just not sure that translates as well elsewhere or even here with the shifting way Americans view religion.

    Regarding young adults, I just don’t think statistics show we’re hemorrhaging young adults. At least in the US. Europe may be different. Further the people most apt to go on missions are those who will have better retention. I’m not sure of the reason, but I suspect it might be tied to issues in going to college. Honestly I was pretty shocked by the change. I know I wouldn’t have been ready at 18. (Heck I was barely ready at 19) I think they’ll run into the problem that people develop at different rates and a lot of boys aren’t really mature enough at 18.

    Honestly I think missionary work would be far more effective if it was done more by people over 25. But there are obvious practical problems with that. I would like to see a bigger drive for regular stake missionaries who have one evening a week to go on splits. I’d think that, if solid members are called, would have a bigger effect.

  34. N. W. Clerk (28), thanks for looking up all those Hinckley-armor references. Point well taken. I apologize for not having been more clear. It pertains to the 5th bullet of the suggestions in my post:

    “Belligerent rhetoric can be misinterpreted by members abroad, as well as by anticult and even antiterrorism watchers in some countries. That may happen when leaders polarize the church against “the world,” claiming that “we are at war” and need to “put on the armor of God.” Radical imams use similar language to target the “evil of the other.” Such rhetoric tends to isolate church members from the host society and feeds fundamentalism. President Gordon B. Hinckley did the opposite: he pointed to the good in others, asked us to reach out, be good neighbors, and be peacemakers.”

    We’re talking post 9/11, and especially since ISIS, where “radicalization” in relation to religion has become a major issue in many countries (also in Belgium in view of many boys who left for ISIS). We know to what horrors religious radicalization in its extreme endpoint can lead. That is not a problem in Mormonism, of course. Anyone well-acquainted with Mormons and Mormonism will easily be convinced that the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints does not pose threats to security. The church itself insists that it operates openly and legally. Still, in quite a few countries, the Mormon church is on a governmental list of cults to be watched (also in Belgium), and it is even more on the websites of anticult vigilantes.

    Analysts usually assess the risks of a religion (or of a particular preacher) on the basis of publications or sermons. They will find signs of alarm if texts proclaim the Kingdom of God as the form of government that will abolish earthly governments; texts that prophecy the religion’s final triumph; texts that stress the exceptionalism of its adherents (a chosen generation, a select people, a kingdom of Priests); texts that polarize us versus them (Zion versus Babylon; the faithful versus the infidels); texts that require strict obedience; texts that extol and idolize the leader(s)… If, in the context of religious radicalization, texts also proclaim that “we are at war” and the armor must be put on, I think it is good to be aware of the potential misinterpretation by outsiders in the present political context. The least conclusion is that a religion with the above characteristics is a potentially harmful cult — indeed the definition the Belgian Parliament gave to the Mormons.

    But also for the insiders, our own members, a too one-sided focus on the aspects just mentioned can lead to isolation from society, to fear of others (Mormon parents who forbid their children to play with non-member neighbors, …), to obsession with commandments, to fundamentalism, even to tragedy (google Kip Eliason). Members who grew up in an overall normal Mormon multigenerational environment or in a balanced family will relativize with common sense, but readers here can no doubt point at other situations. I witness fundamentalization among members in Belgium.

    So I think the suggestion I made is justified, with all needed nuances to be taken into account in order not to overdramatize either.

  35. Hedgehog (32), always good to read a comment that confirms a previous statement. Thanks – even if this news of brewing contention is not so good. When church leaders encouraged us to use the internet to advance the work, it was unavoidable that even good and active church members would also spread personal views and that those views would reach other members wide and far. I see Belgian church members adopt Utah-based posters and slogans (on modesty, for one) that they would never have thought of from their background. It’s starting to polarize people on Facebook. I hear Mormons say of other Mormons in Facebookspeak: “I blocked her”, “I threw him off.” Sad to see such a rift develop. The fundamentalization I talked about in the previous comment contributes to it.

  36. Wilfried (35) I think a lot of those lists were as much due to established religions using government against their opponents in the war of ideas as anything. I also find a lot of the “analysis” on radicalization to be a bit problematic in general. I think it’s a big part of the overreaction and stupidity that many governments engaged in after 911. There’s huge incentives for easy but dumb fixes/claims that placate the public. I’ll avoid that tangent here though.

    As for martial metaphors, the reality is that such terms are part and parcel of most movements. Then opponents to such movements use the rhetoric against them, usually in a hypocritical way. (i.e. typically they themselves use the same language) This is especially common in politics. Again a whole tangent is possible here I’ll avoid.

    Regarding parents forbidding playing with non-members. Again yet an other tangent but I’ll go down this one a little. I don’t want to deny it happens. However I think it’s overstated. My experience is that often what happens is some kids are engaging in behavior parents don’t like and then that gets interpreted by non-remembers as “don’t play with non-members.” I can think of several examples on my own street.

    Wilfried (36) a lot of that language is due to the internet services and not Mormonism. While it would be nice to have people look past such things, the reality is that this is a polarization affecting all sorts of ideologies. Sadly. It’s very hard to have civil discussion because subgroups create taboos that often other subgroups don’t even know are there. There’s then human tendency to “police” moral boundaries that’s just part of human cognition. It’s worse on the internet I think simply because one’s able to join more diverse subgroups whereas in the past the physical subgroups tended to dominate. (With far more push for conformity on whatever markers the subgroup had)

  37. Clark (34), again, I did not suggest to abolish cultural presentations that focus on folklore, but I wanted to make sure that the modern, contemporary part of a country is also shown. That’s all. As to your question “what cultural presentations are done at temple dedications?” google LDS + “temple dedication” + cultural + event + celebration. You’ll find plenty of articles. You can also select “images” to get a quick visual idea. Yes, great events! But celebration of a country’s “culture” can deserve something more for those unfamiliar with the country. I would like to close this topic here. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not the most important item of this post.

  38. Thanks for the search suggestion. I didn’t mean to imply you thought we should abolish such matters. Just that I think they are frought with problems at the best of times. I’ll drop that tangent though.

  39. Just one coment, I repeat we are talking about America the continent or USA, when we talk about the church presidency and the apostles they are citizens of the United States of America, not America the Continet that encases from Tierra de cien Fuegos in Chile, to Alaska.
    On the other hand I as an LDS just know that the church is true and God chooses its leaders, if we only accept his will and follow the prophet instad of trying to make a case of something that do not exist, please if you are not happy or agree with God’s decisions, I sugest you go and pray and put this questions to him directly, for sure you will ge the right answer, if you ask in faith.

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