The New Mormon Faithful

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.”

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a national award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri is currently attending graduate school in ASU's Dramatic Writing program. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, Zion Theatre Company, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, Arizona State University's Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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10 Responses to The New Mormon Faithful

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Beautifully stated, Mahonri. The Church is what it claims to be.

  2. Really well done. Thank you.

  3. D. Michael Martindale says:

    You haven’t seen the documentary “8: the Mormon Proposition,” have you?

    The fiasco with Randy Botts demonstrates that, with0ut a clear statement, it doesn’t matter if the leaders are trying to steer things in a new direction. The old attitudes will remain for a longtime, and change will be glacial.

    I’ll be impressed when the church come straight out with unambiguous and frank statements, instead of trying to sneak in change under the radar. We should be able to hear it straight from their mouths, not have to infer it from tentative statements.

    • “I’ll be impressed when the church come straight out with unambiguous and frank statements, instead of trying to sneak in change under the radar. We should be able to hear it straight from their mouths, not have to infer it from tentative statements.”

      D. Mike, although I understand this impulse (and would love to see some more authoritative statements on certain issues, as you suggest), I totally understand that the Church is careful about what is chooses to say strongly. When leaders have aired strong opinion laden statements willy nilly, say, like Brigham Young or Bruce R. McConkie or Joseph Fielding Smith did, it sometimes comes back to haunt them. So the “boiling the frog” approach may not always be a bad idea. I’m glad the Church is careful about what it states, especially as certain members sometimes clinch every word as perceived doctrine. As it is, though, I think the Church has actually made some pretty brave statements concerning immigration and the Randy Bott debacle. However, I like many others, often pick and choose which strong statements I like. It’s kind of hypocritical of me to wish they had spoken up on one issue, but had kept quiet on another issue. In the end, I think they must follow their own counsel, spiritual promptings, consciences and best judgement.

  4. Scott Hales says:

    Good post, Mahonri.

    Incidentally, I touch on similar things in a post today on Modern Mormon Men (http://www.modernmormonmen.com/2012/03/bad-press-and-conversations-were-not.html). Like you, I feel the Church is moving in the right direction when it comes to steering members towards a more compassionate approach to dealing with themselves and others. I also think the “I’m a Mormon” campaign and the Church’s willingness to go forward in projects like the Joseph Smith papers are wonderful.

    At the same time, however, I think we members tend to approach the changes more cautiously. I think there is still a tendency to take an “all is well in Zion” approach to being Mormon on a daily basis, which can slow down positive changes like those you describe in your post. In other words, I think we members still tend to shy away from talking about big issues and how we feel about them in a church setting–maybe because we want to avoid the possibility of contention. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–I mean, I think we have good intentions–but I feel our tendency to talk around sticky issues–especially in non-Bloggernacle settings–can lead to misunderstandings and the continuance of beliefs like those expressed by Randy Bott. (I wonder, for example, if the Randy Bott incident would have happened, for example, if there had been more conversations in Bott’s ward and elsewhere about the ethics of those old ideas.)

    So, yes, there is likely a new Mormon faithful–but I wonder how many people know that.

    • Katya says:

      (I wonder, for example, if the Randy Bott incident would have happened, for example, if there had been more conversations in Bott’s ward and elsewhere about the ethics of those old ideas.)

      In that particular case, I’m fairly pessimistic. It’s too easy for “high ranking” Mormons to privilege their own opinions and beliefs over those of the people they “outrank” (and Bott had high Mormon social standing as both a BYU religion professor and as a former stake presidency counselor).

      • Scott Hales says:

        Possibly…but as Mahonri correctly points out, the positive changes are often coming from the top down. From what I understand of the Bott incident, it’s a matter of an individual not keeping in step with what was being stated frankly and publicly by Jeffery R. Holland and others.

        It’s a complicated dynamic, and it’s one I think Mormon literature ought to explore more. The trouble is we too often shy away from overtly “political” literature because we don’t want to be perceived as being anti or subversive. I’d like to think, however, that there’s a way to advocate diversity and intellectual investigation through literature without being negative or inappropriately (or annoyingly) critical. (I’m thinking, for example, of the work of Margaret Young…)

  5. Dan says:

    I too welcome these changes, there are many times I have wanted to , in some way, reconnect with the church that was such a pivotal part of my upbringing. Each time I have attempted even the slightest rapprochement, I was immediately turned of by the monolithic and overwhelming political conservatism and anti-intellectualism. I have said many times that if the church was as welcoming to the part-timers and doubters as the catholics I would probably still call myself a mormon, so maybe this article gives me a little hope, but quite frankly I have been out for so long that my fondness for my LDS past fades a little more each day.

    • Thanks for this comment, Dan. I don’t know your personal set of circumstances or experiences, and some of these things are gradual but, again, I think there’s something important happening here that Mormon or Mormon related intellectuals, academics, artists, writers and thinkers need to take note of. I think this shift is very real and very important.

  6. Jonathan Langford says:

    As moderator, I feel the need to act proactively here.

    Technically, debate over whether the Church is or isn’t being more open to diversity and intellectualism probably doesn’t fall within the AML blog’s bailiwick. So long as people are sharing personal perspectives and treating each other’s contributions respectfully, I’ll allow it as part of the larger discussion of the setting for Mormon literature. Just be aware and tread cautiously, okay?

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