President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives a Book of Mormon to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington, New Zealand on Monday, May 20, 2019. Photo courtesy of the Newsroom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

New Zealand PM Ardern is the face of a new generation of former Mormons

Earlier today in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a meeting with President Russell M. Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Judging from the Deseret News coverage, it doesn’t sound that different from previous LDS leaders’ meet-and-greet opportunities with heads of state. Ardern received an embossed leather copy of the Book of Mormon, and a promise that the Church will make donations to the two Christchurch mosques that were the targets of a gunman’s fatal spree two months ago that resulted in the deaths of 51 people. They discussed shared issues, including a mutual concern for the abuse of social media for violent ends.

What’s different — I think perhaps unprecedented — is that Ardern is a former Mormon herself. She grew up as a member of the Church in New Zealand, and some of her relatives who also attended the meeting are still active believers.

That fact makes the meeting not just a typical photo opportunity but an example of the generational sea change happening in Mormonism in many parts of the world.

Ardern, age 38, is a born-and-bred Kiwi, but her experiences sound eerily similar to the American Millennials I discuss in "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church."

Those similarities include the main reason she has said in prior interviews that she left the Church in her mid-twenties: LGBT issues. As she told the UK Independent in 2017:

For a lot of years, I put it to the back of my mind. I think it was too unsettling. If something like religion is part of your foundation, and then suddenly you start questioning that—it’s quite a confronting thing to deal with.

Even before the Civil Union Bill came up (in 2004), I lived in a flat with three gay friends and I was still going to church every so often and I just remember thinking “this is really inconsistent – I’m either doing a disservice to the church or my friends.”

Because how could I subscribe to a religion that just didn’t account for them?

In the U.S. Next Mormons research, LGBT issues ranked as the third-most-common reason why Ardern’s fellow Millennials left the Church. For GenXers, that was sixth, and for Baby Boomers and Silent Generation members, it didn’t even factor into the top ten.

I also can’t help but imagine that Ardern’s strong feminism played a role. Here’s an excerpt of a piece she wrote for Villanesse in 2015, when she was a rising member of Parliament but not yet the prime minister:

In my simple worldview, if you believe in equality, you should be a feminist.

If you believe that women and men performing the same job should get the same pay, you should be a feminist.

If you believe that places like parliament or local government should reflect the people they represent, and that means having equal showing from women, you should be a feminist.

If you believe that women deserve to be free from violence, have economic security, and have choices around the roles they take on — be it caregiver, worker or both — then you should be a feminist.

If you believe that in New Zealand we have all of that already, then you don’t need feminism, you need educating.

It’s tough for a strong young feminist to find a place within the LDS Church, which does not extend leadership opportunities to women in the manner Ardern describes here; church government simply does not have “equal showing from women,” a fact that someone like Ardern likely recognized at an early age.

It also doesn’t provide women a substantial amount of choice regarding “the roles they take on.” The Mormon ideal has remained frozen in time since just after World War II: women are called to be mothers and to stay home with their children if at all possible.

Ardern, by contrast, has carved her own path. Last year, she became the second head of state in world history to give birth while in office, as she and her partner welcomed a daughter to their family. Apparently the baby, not yet one, was also present at today’s meeting with President Nelson.

For his part, Nelson sounds like he was a bit bowled over by everything Ardern has achieved. (Jacindamania is a real thing, even for a guy more than half a century her senior.) He singled out her compassionate, strong leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks and offered some thoughts on her multiple roles:

She's courageous. The world will discover they've got a real leader here. It's an unlikely scenario, a young mother leading a great nation, a peacemaker, a policymaker, a consensus-builder. We're very confident she'll have a great future.

I’m sure that some will point out that if Ardern had been a 38-year-old male PM, Nelson would never have called attention to his parenthood. They would no doubt be right. But let’s cut the guy some slack; he’s almost 95 years old.

What’s significant here is that he also praised her for some things I frankly doubt she received a lot of kudos for when she was growing up in the Church: leadership. Policy making. Consensus building. A career that has blessed the world.

I’m sad that Jacinda Ardern could not remain a Latter-day Saint. It’s our loss when a woman so smart, so driven, and so absolutely awesome (did we mention that Jacindamania is a thing?) feels there’s no place for her in Mormonism. Unfortunately, she’s far from alone in her generation in being alienated by the Church’s relentless emphasis on what it calls the “traditional family.”