Beliefs Institutions Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Naming of 3 new Mormon apostles raises questions about race, international diversity

Elder Dale G. Renlund (left) and Elder Gary E. Stevenson (center) and Elder Ronald A. Rasband were named as the three newest apostles to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the afternoon session of general conference, Saturday, October 3, 2015 © 2015 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved .

“Disappointed but not disaffected.”

That was the Twitter reaction on Saturday from the wonderful, zingy live-tweeting of @SistasinZion, after hearing that all three of the new LDS apostles would once again be white and Utah-born.

Disappointed but not disaffected sums it up for me too. I will sustain these apostles, and all three of them seem perfectly qualified to fill their new posts. I enjoyed hearing them talk over the weekend. Yesterday’s sermon by Elder Dale G. Renlund in particular affected me. It was beautiful and powerful.

But I was also sad for what could have been, for a missed opportunity. I wrote on this blog on Friday that in filling the spots for three apostles, Mormonism had the chance “to demonstrate that this is a global church that happened to begin in America, and not an American church.”

Three days later, we are still an almost entirely American-led Church.

 Elder Dale G. Renlund (left) and Elder Gary E. Stevenson (center) and Elder Ronald A. Rasband were named as the three newest apostles to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the afternoon session of general conference, Saturday, October 3, 2015 © 2015 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved .

Elder Dale G. Renlund (left) and Elder Gary E. Stevenson (center) and Elder Ronald A. Rasband were named as the three newest apostles to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the afternoon session of general conference, Saturday, October 3, 2015 © 2015 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved .

Consider the numbers. The LDS Church had 15,372,337 members as of April 2015.

Nearly 1.3 million of them are in Brazil alone, and more than 1.3 million live in Mexico. Other nations with LDS populations exceeding half a million include Peru, the Philippines, and Chile.

But all of our twelve apostles are white, our nine female auxiliary leaders are white, and most of the members of the Seventy are white.

And while the statistics in this excellent Salt Lake Tribune article demonstrate that more international diversity is now entering the ranks — in 2013, only 66% of all general authorities were born in the United States — that demographic change hasn’t yet trickled up to the Twelve.

One of the blog comments on Friday was that “God chooses the new Apostles and reveals His choice to His living oracles . . .” My expressed desire for racial diversity was “irrelevant” since “God has prepared whom He has prepared and they will be called.”

But it’s not this simple. I do not believe that apostolic callings happen so very differently and miraculously than other callings occur in the Church. It is the combination of divine inspiration and human agency working together that makes a calling happen. When we issue callings in the Church, we do so under the guidance of prayer and the Spirit’s leading, but our own experiences and inclinations factor in as well.

Which is why we need to think very carefully as a people when there is such a growing discrepancy between the beautiful racial and international diversity that characterizes our religion around the planet and the much narrower range that is evidenced among our most visible leaders.

What would it be like to have an apostle like Elder Joseph W. Sitati of Kenya, a nation which has only about 12,000 members of the LDS Church?

What that could mean is having an apostle who is not the product of generations of Mormonism, a proud descendant of pioneer stock. What it would mean is that he would be a pioneer himself.

He would know what it’s like to be a convert, with all the fresh energy and trials that converts experience.

He would know firsthand the challenges of establishing and expanding the Church in places where it is untried.

And he would be a light to all of the people of his heritage who currently cannot look at the Quorum of the Twelve and see a single person whose race and cultural experiences resemble their own.

Currently, the only apostle in the Quorum who was not born into the Church is Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who is also the Quorum’s only non-American.

He is, not coincidentally, one of its most popular apostles. He has been a breath of fresh air precisely because he’s not like everybody else.

I would love to see more apostles who represent the diversity of the broader LDS Church. Some of those will continue to be white, Utah-born, upper-middle-class American professionals.

And I pray that one day the Quroum will also include people who are converts themselves, from every corner of the globe, bringing with them a wider range of experiences, expertise, and concerns.

If we are striving to be the Lord’s church, then our leadership will mirror the diversity of the Lord’s people.

 


FOLLOW-UP POST: Letter to a Doubting Mormon, 10/9/15


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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