(RNS) — If tradition holds, Thomas S. Monson, who died Tuesday (Jan. 2), will be replaced as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the most-senior apostle, Russell M. Nelson, within a few weeks. The line of succession within the Mormon church is meant to symbolize stability, as there is no doubt as to who will take over the reins. History shows, however, that the transition between leaders can mean significant change for a global faith still defining its relationship with the wider world.
Like most denominations, the modern Mormon church strikes a complicated balance between cultural assimilation and retrenchment. During his tenure, Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS president between 1995 and 2008, was known for ushering in a period of outreach and inclusion. With a background in media, he built strong relationships with journalists, including giving a number of engaging interviews with Mike Wallace and Larry King, and often emphasized the similarities between Mormons and their neighbors. His decade in leadership marked an outward-facing image that helped the often-marginalized church appear more mainstream.
In some ways, Monson built on this trajectory, including on progressive issues. He added “caring for the poor and needy” to the church’s top priorities and spoke out in favor of charitable immigration policies. In the midst of the “Mormon Moment,” when Mitt Romney’s campaign for the American presidency and the "Book of Mormon" musical resulted in a blinding spotlight on the faith, the church responded with a media-savvy “I’m a Mormon” promotion that emphasized diversity and inclusion. And under Monson’s watch the church published a series of essays that addressed controversial historical and doctrinal matters in a surprisingly candid way. These developments seemed to fit with what was expected of Monson, who was known for helping widows and other marginalized Mormons and for interfaith outreach.
But there were limits to this inclusivity. Monson’s tenure will also be known as a time of increased schism between the church and the American nation on issues such as LGBTQ rights. One of his first major causes after becoming president was overseeing the church’s effort to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to outlaw gay marriage in California. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay unions in June 2015, the church instituted a policy that November that labeled those who enter same-sex marriages “apostates” and barred their children from full fellowship. These and other initiatives caused many to reconsider the church’s relationship to modern society, as the cultural rift appeared much more stark.
These competing trajectories within the last decade were, at least in part, the result of Monson’s physical condition. His health declined quickly after he was ordained as prophet, and by the end of his tenure he had been incapacitated for a few years. This led to a vacuum of authority that others tried to fill. Monson’s two counselors in the First Presidency, especially German-born Dieter F. Uchtdorf, became known for an inclusive approach; on the other hand, several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest governing body of the church — were vocal proponents of a more traditional stance that refused to bend to contemporary opinions.
Key among those who pushed for retrenchment was Nelson, slated to become Monson’s successor. Trained as a heart surgeon, Nelson has been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for more than three decades. In recent years, he has presented a firm resistance against any accommodation regarding several cultural issues, most notably homosexuality. It has been reported that he was the leading architect behind the November 2015 policy regarding same-sex families. Regardless of how the policy came to be, Nelson later described it as a “revelation,” removing any chance for revision for the time being.
Once he becomes the official LDS president, it is possible that Nelson will continue that trajectory. That might include canonizing “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a document that sacralized heterosexual marriage but has heretofore existed in a quasi-canonical status. Such a move would further cement the faith’s distinctiveness within an increasingly gay-tolerant society.
But a Nelson presidency could still be much more moderate and conciliatory than expected. One of his predecessors, Ezra Taft Benson, was similarly considered a conservative hard-liner before his ordination in 1985. However, perhaps due to a combination of his age as well as the weight of the position, Benson turned out to be much more restrained and even pacifying as prophet. Mormons believe their president to be led by revelation and, notwithstanding personal backgrounds and prejudices, those who have risen to the office often refer to it as a sobering experience that prompted reverence and humility.
As has been the case with every president before him, Nelson will have the choice to follow several different, and at times competing, trajectories for the church in relation to the surrounding culture. His decisions may shape the movement for decades to come.
(Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of American history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. His work focuses primarily on American religions, including Mormonism. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminEPark. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)