At first the shift was subtle. After an age of the high profile excommunications of certain Mormon intellectuals, and when Mormon faithfulness was considered to be contained within a very narrow set of boundaries, it’s understandable there may be some who are skeptical about hoping for a more progressive and welcoming vision from the LDS Church. For decades many Mormon writers, artists, and intellectuals within the Church felt on the fringe of their religion. However, here and there, line upon line, precept upon precept, there’s been a shift. A real, noticeable, identifiable shift in how the Church is dealing with it’s more outside of the box members.
It started under the nuanced leadership of Gordon B. Hinckley (who once told some of his more zealous Brethren to, “leave the intellectuals alone!”). President Hinckley was in so many ways a more media savvy and “modern” prophet, suited to the shepherd the change from the 20th to the 21st centuries. But there have been even more noticeable shifts due to the leadership of the current First Presidency: Thomas S. Monson, Henry B. Eyring, and Dieter F. Uchtdorf. Certain things have not been explicitly stated. There has been no outright declaration. But the shift is there. The highest in Church Leadership seem to be saying: “This is a new day. You may feel out of step with some of us, but be comforted. You are welcome here.”
I know some may think that I am straining credibility here, especially with the contentious brouhaha that occurred over Proposition 8 and its aftermath. However, even in that scenario, despite the Church’s strong stand, there was a sense that the Church understood and accept those that disagreed with their actions. In one of its many press statements surrounding this conflict, the Church made a statement that I thought was significant:
Before it accepted the invitation to join broad-based coalitions for the amendments, the Church knew that some of its members would choose not to support its position. Voting choices by Latter-day Saints, like all other people, are influenced by their own unique experiences and circumstances. As we move forward from the election, Church members need to be understanding and accepting of each other and work together for a better society.
Interesting. But look at the style of leadership of President Monson and it’s not a huge surprise. And then look at the counselors he chose. My wife Anne has often told me how comforted she was when she found out who President Monson chose as his counselors. President Uchtdorf and President Eyring are both well known for their compassionate and intelligent approaches in their addresses and in their actions. They are thinking men, caring men. Anyone who has observed them over the years knows this. And their measured, thoughtful and kind leadership has been permeating a new sense into the Church as to who can be both Mormon and “faithful.”
For the Church to recognize so publicly that its members will often hold to their own belief systems, their own sense of conscience, and then to encourage cultural acceptance for that right, as in the case of Prop 8… well, to me that’s a big deal. Whether one agrees with the Church’s position on Prop 8 or not, I think most would agree that the above statements signals the Church’s acceptance of diversity of thought and opinion.
Look at the Church’s recent re-emphasis on the need for political diversity and acceptance from its members. For a Church that often moves like a conservative voting bloc, at least from its center in Utah, this was an important emphasis for the Church to make… and an important signal to its members that equating party affiliation with Church faithfulness is inappropriate and should not enter the conversation. The Church itself has even been bucking the conservative dominance in Utah by breaking away from its ultra conservative stereotype and advocating a more tolerant, moderate and humane way of dealing with immigration.
Look at the Church’s recent approach with its history. The Joseph Smith Papers have been an excellent indication of the Church’s recent shift in desiring a more transparent history. They’re displaying all the available documents from Joseph Smith– no correlation, no misleading ellipses– they’re placing the documents out there for public consumption.
And then the Church has been very warm and friendly and encouraging of the historians within its ranks to write honest, forthright history. Whether it was the recent book written about the Mountain Meadows Massacre which, as I understand it, was written with the Church’s blessing, or Richard Bushman’s significant biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling which, unlike other painfully honest Mormon biographies that came out in past decades, seems to have found a welcome place at the table. It’s telling that the Church has certainly championed this book on the shelves of the Church owned Deseret Book. And anyone who has read the book knows that, although Richard Bushman is a faithful Mormon who takes Joseph Smith prophetic claims seriously, it’s certainly not a sanitized version of Joseph Smith’s life. Bushman tries to tell the truth, even when it’s hard, and subscribes to the Savior’s admonition that the “truth will set you free.” It’s very encouraging that current Church leadership, despite certain attitudes about history from some in the past, is very much in alignment with this freeing attitude concerning its history.
Look at Mormon.org and the “I’m a Mormon Campaign.” Church Leadership is obviously trying to diversify and to signal both to the world (and, I suspect, its members) that it wants to be known for being more than a white, American, cookie cutter Church. It’s trying to smash the stereotype. Church Leadership wants to show that its members can be from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of cultural systems, all sorts of personalities… you don’t have to look like the Cleaver family, you don’t have to conform to a certain preconception. All sorts of people are declaring, “I’m a Mormon.”
Look at the recent controversy about BYU Religion Professor’s Randy Bott’s comments to the Washington Post about the Mormons and race and the Church’s swift and immediate reaction to distance itself from those sort of offensive mythologies. The Church is making great strides in race relations and certain leaders are opening up to the possibility that something may have been perpetuated that was wrong and not in keeping with Christ’s Gospel. One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. For example, look at this striking statement about the old priesthood ban on black men from LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland during his interview for the PBS The Mormons documentary, “I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.” It’s for comments like this that Elder Holland is one of my heroes. Leaders like him and the First Presidency are prime examples of what I’m calling the New Mormon Faithful.
I don’t think there’s been this kind of message from the Church since the late 1970s when President Spencer W. Kimball Priesthood received the revelation that did away with the policy that denied blacks the priesthood. There’s a message of change, of acceptance, of what a faithful Mormon is. You can certainly belong to the old mold, if that’s your preference, but it seems the Church continues to broaden its tent and encourage those who may have felt distant before to come closer to the campfire and enjoy the full fellowship that is being offered. It’s certainly not universal yet, there’s still certain groups and subcategories that may feel on the outside. However, it’s a promising sign to those who may have felt that the Church didn’t have a place for them. Rather the Church seems to be echoing 2 Nephi 26 in the Book of Mormon:
25 Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.
26 Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
27 Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.
28 Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden…
33 For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
I do not believe that these shifts in policy, position and attitude in the Church are coincidental. Church Leadership is responding to a powerful spirit that seems to be pervasive among them, taking directions on charting a new course for the good ship Zion. And I throw in my hat with many others of the New Mormon Faithful, saying, “I’m a Mormon.”