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.