The Mormon Church Grapples with its Global Identity and its Legacy on Race

By Max Perry Mueller | May 29, 2018

(Courtesy of the LDS Church) Missionaries in Fiji

On Friday, June 1, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will commemorate the 40th anniversary of what is colloquially known as “the Revelation on the Priesthood.” In June 1978, then LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a revelation to end the century-long bans on men of African descent from holding the priesthood and on men and women of African descent from accessing the temple, where the most sacred rituals of the faith are performed.

It’s hard to overstate how big a deal this anniversary has already proven to be for the LDS Church. Friday night’s star-studded gala will be broadcast from the church’s 21,000-seat conference center in Salt Lake City and headlined by the world’s most famous black Mormon, Gladys Knight. In the lead-up to the event, the church rolled out a multi-stage campaign intended to highlight the distance between Mormonism of the (pre-1978) past and Mormonism of today, at least when it comes to race. This campaign also included a joint news conference earlier this month between the LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and the NAACP President Derrick Johnson. The two leaders announced that the church and the NAACP would partner on a series of initiatives intended to “demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony, and mutual respect.”

The announcement was overshadowed by another statement, however. Just before the joint news conference, a fervent and detailed apology letter for the church’s “history of racism,” designed to look like an official Mormon Newsroom release, was posted online. Many Mormons celebrated the letter with joy and gratitude, declaring that it was what black Mormons in particular had been advocating their church to say since the 1978 revelation. The realization less than an hour later that the letter was a sophisticated fake—satire, according to the former Mormon who created it, meant to start a “discussion”—left many people hurt and angry. “There are black members who’ve been wanting them to say this for DECADES,” Janan Graham-Russell, a black Mormon and a doctoral student at Harvard University, wrote on Twitter. “So your brilliant plan was to throw black folks’ emotions under the bus to MAYBE get the Church to react? That is some white savior BS.”

Many Mormons, and Mormon watchers like myself, believed that if the church were to make a full-throated repudiation of its past racist policies and theologies, it would come at the priesthood revelation celebration. But whatever happens on Friday, this year has already been an historic one in the history of Mormonism. As this famously “American church” moves towards its third century, the priesthood revelation celebration is just one in a series of events that marks a new, increasingly global-centered Mormon identity.

In March, the church made history twice when it announced the replacements for recently deceased members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the second-highest level of the church’s hierarchy. For the first time, the church named an apostle from South America, the São Paulo businessman Ulisses Soares, and a U.S. apostle of Asian descent, Gerrit Gong, a Rhodes Scholar who spent most of his non-church-related career in international relations.

In April, Nelson, who became the LDS Church’s president earlier this year, conducted an eleven-day, eight-nation global tour, including stops in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The goal of the tour was to highlight the increasing international, racial, and ethnic diversity of the church. During his visit to Nairobi, Kenya, Nelson met with African Latter-day Saints. After the visit, he remarked, “We don’t look alike. That’s good. We have individual identities, spiritually and physically, but we are all His children.”

These two events are the direct fruits of the church’s changing stance on race. The 1978 revelation opened the entire globe to Mormon outreach. Before the revelation, the famously missionary-oriented church—mandated by the Book of Mormon to bring the restored gospel to “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people”—ignored large parts of Africa and the African diaspora, including black populations in South America and the Caribbean. Starting with Brigham Young in the 1850s, church leaders declared that people of African descent were ineligible for the priesthood based on racist theologies that viewed them as spiritually and intellectually inferior. Since the revelation, while Mormon growth rates in the United States have flattened, the number of Mormons in Africa and in Central and South America, have increased dramatically. Before 1978, there were just a few thousand Mormons in Africa, mostly clustered among white communities in South Africa, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and South West Africa (Namibia). Today the LDS Church reports that there are more than 578,000 Mormons in Africa. The story in Brazil is even more dramatic. Mormon membership in that nation has increased almost thirty-fold, from just under 46,000 in 1976 to more than 1.3 million in 2016. Only the U.S. and Mexico are home to more Mormons. And the church is investing for the long term outside the United States. Of the 30 temples currently under construction or announced, only four are in the United States, while there are five in Africa and eleven in Central or South America, including four in Brazil alone.

These three events—the elevation of the first two apostles who are not white Americans, the new church president’s global tour, and the celebration of the 1978 revelation—signal an unprecedented effort by the church to “reach out to the whole world,” as apostle Jeffrey R. Holland explained in April. And increasingly, Mormonism is at home in this world. Today a majority of the 16 million Mormons live outside the United States. This demographic move away from America is only likely to increase in the decades to come.

But will this demographic shift also lead to a cultural one? Will the center of Zion in Salt Lake be influenced by the increasingly diverse stakes spread across the globe? More specifically, is it possible for a faith so shaped by American historical notions of race, gender, and politics to decenter the American experience?

As I wrote in my recent book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People, today’s church leaders, and the church leaders of tomorrow—more of whom will look like apostles Gong and Soares than Nelson and Holland—think so. They are laying the foundation for the LDS Church to become a “world religion”—an idea first predicted by the sociologist Rodney Stark who, in a 1984 article, suggested that by 2080, the church could have some 250 million members worldwide.

Let me explain a bit more about what the development of Mormonism as a world religion means, or at least what it could mean. To do so, I first need to distinguish the hotly-debated notion of “world religion” from similar, but distinct concepts.

A world religion is not the same as an international one. Almost since its very beginning, Mormonism has had a presence beyond the boundaries of the United States. In fact, just months after the founding of the church in 1830, for the first official mission in Mormon history, the faith’s founder Joseph Smith sent his most trusted lieutenants to seek out potential Native American converts in “Indian Country,” which then began at the western-most border of the state of Missouri. In early 1831, four Mormon missionaries crossed over the U.S. border to visit with a group of Delaware Indians. The mission produced no converts, but it did establish a precedent in Mormonism to venture further westward in search of indigenous peoples who might accept the Mormon gospel.

A world religion is not the same as a global one, either. Mormonism has long had a large presence outside the United States, especially in parts of Europe and the Pacific Islands. Since the 1850s when the first missionaries reached Hawaii, Mormons succeeded in bringing large Oceania communities to the faith. Tonga is the most striking example. Today the island nation has about the same per capita population of Mormons (60 percent) as Utah (63 percent). Missionaries first arrived to Tonga in 1891, and after World War II, the church invested significant resources in the country, including translating the Mormon scriptures into Tongan and building primary and secondary schools there. These schools became pipelines to the church-owned Brigham Young University with its locations in Hawaii and in Utah.

Tongans, and other Latter-day Saints with Pacific Island roots, have also played an outsized role on the rosters and in the culture of BYU football. For a span of a few years starting in 2006, the BYU football team, along with more than a few Utah high schools, performed a version of the traditional Māori “haka” dance before the start of games. The BYU team ended the tradition after critics condemned the practice as cultural appropriation, or worse. Debbie Hippolite Wright, vice president at BYU-Hawaii and a Māori, described the football dances as a “caricature” of the haka’s true origins as a sacred ritual to celebrate triumph of life over death.

The appropriation of the haka dance by the wider Mormon culture, and the realization that such appropriation is highly problematic, is a case study for this moment in Mormon history. The geographical and culture center of the LDS Church is seeking to embrace the diverse cultures on the Mormon margins, but doesn’t quite know how. Clearly, these issues have racial and national implications, too. As Mormonism has become less attached to “whiteness,” the church’s new struggle becomes shedding its “Americanness”—to create space for a diverse set of ways of being Mormon. In a new book edited by Joanna Brooks and Gina Colvin, this work is described as Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion. Brooks and Colvin, along with their diverse set of contributors from across the world, call for a fuller reckoning with the “critical questions being raised by Mormons living at the movement’s cultural and geographic margins”—like the Mormons that the new church prophet encountered on his world tour.

Even as it sees its membership numbers grow on these cultural and geographical margins, the LDS Church has continued to prohibit Mormons from incorporating local customs into their spiritual practices. It has, for instance, forbidden traditional drumming and dancing among its African congregations. The church deems these practices “not Mormon,” when really they are better described as “not American.” “Mormonism’s greatest strength is its organizational coherence,” Colvin and Brooks write. But Colvin and Brooks describe the impulse to get every Mormon across the globe to dress, sing, worship, and run church business exactly the same way—the church calls this correlation—as “American-Mormon cultural imperialism.” For an increasingly worldwide church, Colvin and Brooks see this as not only bad policy, but bad theology. As Colvin wrote in 2013 about efforts to ban the use of the Samoan language in some LDS communities in Brisbane, Australia, “the moral purpose of religion is not to compel transcendence by constituting ethnocentric norms,” but rather to invite everyone “to feast at the Lord’s table regardless of who we are, where we come from, or what language we speak.”

The flat, and perhaps declining, LDS membership in the United States means the future of Mormonism is global. This reality has both religious and political consequences. Mormons abroad will continue to develop their local and national identities, which exist at some distance from the centripetal pull of Salt Lake.

Likewise, as the church hierarchy begins to reflect this world-centered Mormon culture, the church and its members will engage more and more in the politics of the nations in which their presence and influence are growing. Mormons within these new Mormon homelands will rise to political power. The BYU-educated Yeah Samaké, who ran to be president of Mali back in 2012, just announced he’s running again. Mormonism as a world religion means that perhaps the first Mormon president won’t be American, but Malian.

Max Perry Mueller is the author of Race and the Making of the Mormon People and an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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