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.