Chris Kimball on `A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church'

Chris Kimball and his grandson

Chris Kimball and his grandson

When I wrote “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church” I had already arranged with my brother Chris that he would write a guest post as a response. I was reassured to know that any errors of fact or emphasis I made because of my increasing distance in time from being a Mormon would be corrected. Below is Chris’s response.

In my own defense vis a vis one of his themes, let me point out that I had previously written about some of the other important changes Russell Nelson has made in the Mormon Church besides those I mentioned in “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church.” See the links to other related posts at the bottom of this post.

A letter to my brother in response to “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church”

Dear Miles:

I read with interest “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church” two weeks ago. In the friendliest and most loving way (a standard opening for sharp disagreement), I have a couple of things to say.

Before diving in, let me say that this is a letter between brothers chock full of personal opinion and 50% confidence statements. Knowing you are going to publish it, but not caveating every other sentence to make this some kind of pronouncement or “truth” or careful lawyer’s brief. Just one brother talking to another. 

Now diving in, my first observation is that you increasingly write as an outsider to the Church. I think you would acknowledge that (and hopefully not take umbrage). On the flip side I am conscious of the fact that my most recent piece (generously referenced in your “Liberal Turn”) was so much an insider view that we both agreed it was unpublishable outside the Bloggernacle--the segment of the blogosphere focused on Mormon issues. 

“Outsider” means several things for my review. First, it means that you select and give attention to changes you notice, which is an interesting and revealing subset of the whole. Second, it means that your characterization of Church leaders seems more resume-based than listening based. Third, it means that your “liberal” label is an outside-looking-in label.

You highlight changes in the temple ceremony, calling an African-American General Authority, and reversing the 2015 policy on people in same-sex marriages and their children. No question these are newsworthy changes, and I have written extensively about the third so I can’t honestly downplay them. However, I will argue that they are somewhat less important than you make them out to be, and only three among many.

Less important in the following ways—

Changes in the temple ceremony occur from time to time. They are seldom talked about much, out of respect for the temple, strong secret/sacred bonds on certain parts of the ceremonies that make insiders cautious about discussing any parts, and a mystique that the ceremonies are “revealed truth” in ancient, unchanged, and unchangeable form (which is obviously not true in the strong sense, for anybody who pays attention, but is a valuable myth that many would like to preserve). In addition, the observant among us report particular instructions not to discuss these recent changes. But for all the quietness around the temple ceremony, it is relatively well known that changes do occur—and the Church said so in the context of these recent changes—and probably will continue.

With respect to the changes having to do with “sexist” language, my perspective is rather more cautious or measured than some of the excited reports in the Salt Lake Tribune. My perspective is that the changes I know about have been needed and talked about for forty years at least. They have been identified in focus group and survey results. Furthermore, the changes were only part of the work that seems needed. (All my opinion, of course.) The interesting questions to me are not “where did this come from?” but “why now?” and “why not finish the job?”

Calling an African-American General Authority is wonderful. But inevitable. From the first days after the 1978 inclusion of all men in priesthood roles and all men and women in temple activities without respect to race, there have been highly qualified African-American men available and holding responsible positions. As a practical matter (not theological or doctrinal) there is a very long “working up” ladder for high Church callings and I didn’t expect an African-American General Authority right away. However, 40+ years later the inclusion of the first African-American General Authority speaks to me of absolutely no affirmative action, no inclusive outreach, but simply business-as-usual. Notice that Elder Johnson joined the Church in 1986 at age 19. He is now 52, having spent his entire adult life in a  Church that fully recognized his value and worth. From what little I know he is highly qualified and well respected, but just like all the new General Authorities with a lifetime of experience and service in the Church. Remarkable in that select company only for his skin color. Again, the interesting questions to me are not “why Peter Johnson?” but “why now (and not sooner)?” and “why just one?”

Reversing the Exclusion Policy had to happen. It was a blot on the Church. I know very well there is a large constituency of Church members who maintain the Church never makes a mistake. However, in this case there is an unusually large contra group, who believe—without regard to the Church’s attitudes and practices regarding LGBTQ persons—that the Policy was a mistake. For myself, I believe the reversal was a 39-month exercise of internal consultation and consideration at the highest levels, from a baseline of recognizing the Policy as a mistake. What is interesting is not that the Policy was reversed, but that it was reversed relatively quickly and without doing the full job. The full job meaning to squarely address the civil marriage parity question (which I argue has only one acceptable workable outcome). For the third time, “why now?” and “why not more?”

Three among many in that the changes in the first 15 months of the Russell M. Nelson presidency are stunning in number and breadth. In addition to the three you focus on, we have seen:

·       New attention to the name of the Church. The naming conventions change from time to time, including change to the scripture that is often cited for the official name of the Church. But I thought this was reasonably settled in 1990. A 30-year type change.

·       A new Sunday School curriculum, a change to the system I have been familiar with since 1986. A  30-year or 35-year change.

·       A two-hour block for Church meetings. Although meeting schedule tinkering happens from time to time, this is the biggest change since 1980. A 40-year change.

·       A collapse of adult priesthood quorums into one at the local level. The last change of this magnitude was the 1986 elimination of Stake-level 70s quorums. Another 30-35 year change.

·       Adopting a ministering program in place of home teaching and visiting teaching. “Ward teaching” was the 1912 program. “Home teaching” was the 1963 version. A 50-year change.

·       Missionaries allowed to call home weekly and on special occasions. This may seem small, but it is extraordinarily meaningful for missionaries and families of missionaries. The mission programs change regularly, but I don’t remember a time when missionaries were free to contact family like they are today. A more than 60-year change.

·       Young men can now be ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood as early as age 11, and the correlative change for young women means that 11 year-olds can now attend the temple for the first time. The prior 12-year-old schedule was set in 1908, and probably believed to be inviolable by most people alive today. A more than century change.

There are far-reaching consequences of these changes. Some are apparent already. Some will play out in the decades to come.

Why Now?

I think the most interesting question you raise is why now? I think your analysis of leadership change, policies that don’t work, and declining numbers, is reasonable but skewed by viewing through the lens of “liberalizing” practice. When I remove the “liberalizing” lens and ask myself about change more broadly, I conclude that it is all about President Nelson.

But I should explain.

There are traditional Mormons declaring that President Nelson is a visionary of a sort we haven’t seen since Joseph Smith, as though the heavens have opened and dropped revelation after revelation. Or maybe I should say “dreamer” as in “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Acts 2:17. And yes, I have heard “last days” talk. It won’t surprise you when I say this isn’t me. With all due respect to President Nelson, I look for more ordinary earth-bound explanations.

I grant that the numbers are not looking good. I assume this is a constant concern; it should be. The growth rate is down, the birth rate is down, there is reason to believe tithing receipts have declined (although there are no reliable numbers outside the Church, to my knowledge). For all that, my deepest concern would be changing numbers and attitudes in younger generations. As noted by Jana Reiss in her new book The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the Mormon Church, “Mormonism used to keep about three quarters of its adherents. Among young adults it is now retaining less than half.” With respect to same-sex marriage, an important tell-tale of attitudes by generation, Reiss shows that 58% of Mormons of our generation strongly agreed with the now-reversed policy, but only 40% of Mormon millennials strongly agreed. More telling (to my mind) former Mormons strongly disagreed with the policy in even higher numbers and with little generational difference.

I do believe President Dallin Oaks is an instrument of change himself. I know he is typecast by many as an ultra-conservative disciplinarian. But I see him as strongly inclined conservative but more importantly a deep thinker able to learn and change his mind and work effectively in a dynamic world. Persuadable, in other words.

Also, it should be noted that there are pressures from several years when former President Thomas Monson was either unwilling or unable to direct needed change, leading inevitably to an accumulation or backlog of changes and decisions and a likely spike in the number of significant changes with any new and decisive President.

All this I grant, but I still think the greatest reason for change is President Nelson himself. I think he is the key to the current dynamism in the Church. I see this in the following characteristics:

·       He is vigorous but at 94 years old it can’t last. He is in a hurry for good reason. While it may be a small additional impetus, I believe he looked up to Spencer W. Kimball who called him as an apostle in 1984, and recognizes the early years of SWK’s presidency as an example he would like to emulate, and the later years as a fear he is racing.

·       He is self-confident—he believes in himself in that he pays attention to and has confidence in the promptings and nudgings and visions and dreams, and he believes in himself in that he makes decisions.

·       I view him as a pragmatic problem solver before an ideologue. I suspect he is politically conservative, I am fairly confident his social policy views are conservative, and I hear from the pulpit conservative theology and doctrine (in a mid-20th century conservative sense). But I think he solves problems first. 

·       Most remarkably, especially for the leader of a large institution that has historically been slow to change and never apologize, he seems able and ready to experiment, to make a decision, watch it play out, and make another. If I were to choose one characteristic only, it would be this.

So why now? Because there is a need, it’s the right thing to do, and there is a man in place who is ready and able.

Love from your brother,


P.S. It occurs to me that you and I have discussed some of these changes with varying degrees of approval or dismay, and  I do have strong opinions about some of the changes. But this letter is really about the high rate of change and the reasons for that high rate of change. 

Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these other guest posts by Chris:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.