When Russell Nelson became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I admit that I was somewhat skeptical. Up until that point, my memories of President Nelson’s style and priorities included:

  • Over the last several decades he had regularly spoken with with simplistic derision and strawman arguments about scientific ideas like evolution and the Big Bang (see here, here, and here, e.g.).
  • In 2003 he taught that God’s love for us is conditional upon our obedience, something that I do not for one second believe.
  • In 2016 he described anyone who disagreed with him on the divine origin of the handbook policy change that labeled same-sex marriage couples apostates and barred their children from baby blessings and baptism a “servant of Satan.”
  • At the short press conference that took place at the announcement of the new first presidency in 2018, he concluded his answer to a question about women and leadership in the LDS Church by saying: “In the Doctrine and Covenants there’s a verse that says: before the foundation of the world, women were created to bear and care for the sons and daughters of God, and in doing so, they glorify God. Next question.” The verse he references is D&C 132:63 that is part of Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy. Read that verse in context and consider its relevance to answering a question about gender and leadership in church governance.

I will admit that these statements (and others) did not fill me with great optimism about the extent to which President Nelson would make thoughtful or inclusive decisions as president of the LDS Church.

After one year into President Nelson’s administration, many of the decisions that the LDS Church has implemented under his watch have, contrary to my expectations, been more thoughtful and inclusive (to one extent or another) than I had anticipated. Examples include:

  • Shortening the Sunday meeting schedule to two hours and simplifying the curriculum, putting more emphasis on home-centered instruction and taking some of the burden off of families, especially those with small children.
  • Implementing changes to LDS temple liturgies to include more inclusive gender language and elevating the role of Eve in the liturgical narrative.
  • Being relatively open-minded about medical cannabis in Utah (at least, relative to expectations for a socially conservative religious organization…)
  • Releasing the new “Saints” history book that goes farther toward transparency than previous curriculum manuals. (Still a looooooong ways to go. Baby steps.)
  • Allowing sister missionaries to wear pants(!) as part of approved proselyting attire.

I’m ambivalent about changing the emphasis of the Church’s name to its full formal name (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) and deemphasizing the word “Mormon” in references to the Church. I thought it was a little ridiculous to assert that using the word “Mormon” in the name of the Church is offensive to God and a victory for Satan (I wonder what Joseph Smith would have said to that…), but in the vast scheme of things this is a small ball issue in a world with much more pressing concerns (poverty, nuclear proliferation, democratic backsliding, human rights abuses, etc.).

I continue to be very disappointed that the handbook policy change regarding same-sex couples and their children is still in effect. While I do not know for sure, I am reasonably confident that the day will someday arrive when Latter-day Saints will look back on that as a shameful black mark in their history.

All in all, however, the contrast between President Nelson’s tone and rhetorical priorities prior to becoming President and the changes that he has supervised afterwards have led me to be cautiously optimistic about what other developments may occur in the near future.

 

 

Benjamin Knoll

Benjamin Knoll is a political science professor at a liberal arts college in central Kentucky. He is a seventh-generation Mormon (on his mother's side) who finds meaningful religious and spiritual expression in a variety of traditions, practices, and contexts. He's a married father of three girls.

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