When I was a pre-teen, I remember overhearing a conversation between adults about the ERA, the political push for women to have equal rights in society and in the workplace. I was proud to think that while others of my friends belonged to churches that led by fallible men, we had God at the helm, and since God is no respecter of persons, the church would obviously be pro-ERA. I was crushed and confused to find that not only did the church oppose the ERA, but that a woman in the church was excommunicated for vocally supporting it. I naively had assumed that the church would come out in vocal support of her right to free speech and that the principles of equality that she was backing were consistent with the gospel and the worth of souls.
In my youthful quest for answers, I asked trusted leaders and parents how the church could oppose equal rights for women, and I was given a few answers that were at least partly satisfactory at the time (in addition to several answers that were completely unacceptable which I won’t list here):
- Although God does support equality for women, there were hidden, sinister agendas associated with that specific movement that were damaging to the faithful. (I suspect abortion was the unstated culprit as Roe vs. Wade was still in its unsteady infancy).
- Change takes time. Moving too quickly leaves people behind, unintended victims like children and families.
I can’t say I was totally mollified by this, but I could see the practical difficulties of organizational change, even when the change was obviously morally and ethically right and even when the status quo had its own victims. Between the known evil and the unknown evil, conservatives tend to stick with the devil they know.
Liberal vs. Conservative Change Narrative
In Nate Oman’s excellent OP on managing liberal expectations for change in the church and the ensuing discussion, two examples of wide scale change in the church are discussed: the 1890 repeal of polygamy, and the 1978 priesthood ban being lifted. I’ll return to these two examples in a moment. First, my own recap of how liberals and conservatives see change happening in the church:
Liberal Narrative: “In the world . . .”
The church lags behind society and eventually has to catch up. Society is more enlightened and evolved than our aging leaders and most conservative members are capable of being, although they are good, well-intentioned men. All people are a byproduct of their culture and society. It is difficult to be visionary with the constraints of cultural assumptions. It is an embarrassment for a church claiming revelation to be less enlightened than the average well-informed (progressive) citizen.
When change happens, it is usually too little too late, and it is brought about through external pressure. The church never apologizes to the victims of its retrograde policies, but probably should.
Conservative Narrative: “. . . but not of the world”
God’s ways are not our ways. This is His church. The world wants us to change to be like the world, but God wants us to live according to His plans, not the world’s. Leaders and members can’t second guess God’s timing and need to be patient. God sometimes waits for His people (the faithful inside His church) to catch up so that He doesn’t lose their precious souls through rapid change.
When change happens, it comes from God through his prophets, and the faithful need to follow.
Clearly the conservative narrative sounds more faithful. But is it an accurate depiction of how change happens?
What Drives Change
Where does change originate and how does that affect organizational change?
- Society at large. The church is pressured from external sources to keep up with the times. Because we are in a gerontocracy, this type of pressure sometimes puts statements of sitting leaders in an embarrassing light as they are viewed as out of touch. They are forced to figure out where the crowd is headed and find some way to get out in front of changes they may not fully believe in.
- Membership. This source is the grass-roots change, members who encounter practical problems in living the gospel and who either clamor for change (at the progressive end) or request policy clarification (at the conservative end).
- Leaders. The leaders seek to clarify a policy that they see is impractical, misunderstood, or inconsistent. Often these changes are published in the Church Handbook of Instruction. Sometimes these policy clarifications are a retrenchment rather than a change. A call to action read over the pulpit can also be this kind of change.
- Revelation. The president of the church states that he has received revelation from God on a doctrinal matter.
In looking at the conservative narrative, change starts with revelation and goes down the chain from God to leaders, to members, and eventually to society at large. It’s a pretty idealistic version of events, and many conservative members have added a caveat differentiating policy changes from doctrinal changes. Only doctrinal changes need to come from God. Policy changes can originate with man, even leaders in response to members or society. The result is that most changes really originate with the leaders, and there are some conservative members who consider any criticism of “the brethren” as equating to apostasy.
In looking at the liberal narrative, change starts with society at large or within the membership. Members who are more directly affected by the lack of change (the unintended victims of status quo) should agitate to make their needs known so that leaders can empathize and make progressive changes. They believe in the wisdom of crowds, but they rely on leaders to use their power to enact changes (or criticize leaders who don’t use their power for progressive good). As Nate put it:
Liberal Mormons too often talk about power without thinking about it very carefully. They assume that the Brethren are very powerful, perhaps most powerful of all when it comes to dictating to “ordinary” “true believing” Mormons. I suspect, however, that the reality is quite a bit more complicated. The Brethren are powerful because rank and file members follow them, not vice versa. This means that they are far more constrained that many people assume.
Case Studies: Polygamy vs. Priesthood Ban
Let’s get back to the example of polygamy and the priesthood ban. When polygamy was repealed, the change was sudden and had significant blowback. Many faithful members didn’t believe it. They believed leaders were speaking to them in code, merely pretending to support society’s anti-polygamy stance while winking to them secretly to continue the practice. Schisms formed that plague the church to this day. Some of the faithful even agitated to remove the prophet from his office.
These things didn’t happen when the priesthood ban was repealed. There are two factors that existed in the repeal of polygamy that didn’t exist in the repeal of the priesthood ban:
- Leaders disagreed about the change. Although most members were in favor of both changes, leaders at the highest levels of the church were participants in polygamy at the time it was repealed. By contrast, by 1978, leaders were relieved to repeal the priesthood ban. It allowed them to quit justifying the unjustifiable.
- The change created direct negative pragmatic consequences for the faithful. In the case of polygamy, families were separated. Wives had to be turned out of the house. There were socio-economic impacts. Those not participating in it rejoiced to be able to avoid it, but those who were in it had to deal with practical issues. With the repeal of the priesthood ban, it was simply allowing people blessings that had previously been denied to some. Nobody lost anything. Those whose blessings had been delayed rejoiced that their sacrifice had now ended.
From a practical standpoint, this also means that when it comes to change, the church often protects its own faithful at the expense of missionary work. But it also means that status quo victims (including the faithful) who at least theoretically have coping mechanisms, are only considered insofar as societal pressures apply or members make their hurts known. This is why it seems so much of our change comes from external forces rather than from God himself. I’m forced to conclude, as does TT of FPR:
If Oman’s analysis of power and change is correct, then it suggests that Mormons should be even more active in advocating for change. If church leadership is the tail that follows the membership, rather than the other way around, then the membership should seek more progressive policies. This provides the leaders with the incentives to change as well as the needed shift in attitudes among the membership as the prerequisite to change.
Precious little change requires direct revelation; doctrine can shift with emphasis in curriculum, public statements, or a few General Conference talks. The role of leaders is primarily to nudge and clarify. Policy changes should and do come from societal pressure, especially through members who bridge the language barrier between the faithful insiders and society at large. These members who speak both languages are vital to progress, inclusion and missionary work.
Yesterday vs. Tomorrow
Generation gaps are usually at the heart of change. Even Jesus said, in Luke 12:53:
“The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”
These are generational dividing lines, not based on class, occupation, education, or religious factions. Jesus doesn’t specify which side is right, just that they will be at odds. But it’s interesting to note that our revolutionary leaders (Jesus and Joseph Smith) were also our youngest.
As commenter Dave K. put it:
I cannot think of any active members who would revolt if the church embraced homosexuality. I do, however, know of a number of families, and a whole lot of young singles, who currently are inactive, or less active than they otherwise would be, because of strong disagreement with the church’s position.
I don’t believe we need to “pick” which members to cater to, but to the degree our decisions are motivated by the perceived responses of members, I would err on the side of catering to the youth rather than the elderly. The youth are the future after all. We can withstand losing some of the old vanguard. We cannot withstand losing the youth who we will count on to fill the ward council within the next decades.
Coasting without Applying the Brakes
The real risk is not in slow progress, but in regressive policies that alienate the young, pit the church against the world (its missionary audience), and limit human potential by repressing, disenfranchizing or antagonizing groups of faithful members. It’s this kind of retrenchment that makes change harder, even when the change is ultimately inevitable. If leaders are waiting for members to catch up before introducing change, they should be extremely careful about retrograde policies and statements that make change harder to embrace.
As for the ERA, it seems to me that there’s been progress, but given the vociferousness of the regressive statements against it, the church can’t really embrace these changes without sounding inconsistent. I suspect the church would still use the same two arguments I heard 30 years ago: the movement was tainted by association with sinister hidden motives, and change takes time.