In August, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion colloquially known as Mormonism, issued a statement to its 16.6 million adherents around the globe: “We want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses,” wrote Russell Nelson, the church’s president, along with the two most senior apostles. “We urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated.”
To Lisa Mosman, a 59-year-old Latter-day Saint who drives a Subaru covered in anti-Trump bumper stickers, the statement was a welcome surprise. “It’s actually kind of brave, because it’s going to p--- off a bunch of people that they normally don’t p--- off,” she said.
In the weeks since, the statement has caused Latter-day Saints on the far right – long accustomed to having their beliefs reflected by church leaders – to face the kind of cognitive dissonance that liberal members have had to contend with for decades. “They’re having to ask themselves who they trust more – the prophet or Tucker Carlson,” Mosman said. “This is new territory for them.”
Her brother Matt Marostica, a Latter-day Saint high priest in Berkeley, Calif., also welcomed the statement. Throughout his decades as a religious leader, his congregation has served as a home for people who don’t always feel welcome in most Latter-day institutions.
Marostica, a soft-spoken political scientist who works as an associate university librarian at Stanford University, honed his liberal worldview as a church missionary in Argentina during that country’s “dirty war.” He said the Berkeley Latter-day Saint congregation, called a ward, welcomes everyone – openly gay members, atheists, followers of other faiths, undocumented immigrants and even people with very conservative politics – with acceptance and love.
“In Berkeley, the lunatics are running the asylum,” he said, smiling broadly. “That’s a perfect way to describe our congregation.”
His ward has long served as a liberal counterweight to many conservative pronouncements made by church leaders, which in recent years have predominantly concerned homosexuality. In 2008, Berkeley and other liberal communities in the San Francisco Bay area were the site of severe pushback to the church’s push to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that sought to limit marriage to a man and a woman. In 2015, when church policy was changed to prevent children of same-sex couples from being baptized, Marostica’s community was outraged once again. (That policy was reversed four years later.) And more recently, there was a profound sense of betrayal when apostle Jeffrey Holland – long considered one of the more liberal leaders of the church – urged the faculty of Brigham Young University, the flagship campus of the university run by the church, to take up metaphorical “musket fire” against peers who show public support for gay Latter-day Saints.
In other words, liberal Latter-day Saints are accustomed to finding themselves outmatched in the church as a whole. Yet Marostica holds out hope that his community’s open-tent interpretation of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint might become more common – a trend that could force the institution, thinking of its future, to play catch-up with its own members.
“The Mormon Church’s stance on this is damaging,” Marostica said of the position on homosexuality. “But it will change. It’s already changing.”
Berkeley, of course, is an outlier – one of the most left-wing communities in America – and it’s therefore no surprise that it would play host to a progressive Latter-day Saint congregation. But when it comes to the direction of the church, it’s not as much of an outlier as many might think.
Long identified with conservative theology and Republican politics, the church now finds itself at something of an inflection point. More so than in other conservative religious institutions, liberals – or at least those disaffected from conservatism – are making their presence known inside and on the perimeters of the church, provoking something of a Latter-day Saint identity crisis.
Jana Riess, author of the 2019 book “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” said fewer Latter-day Saints are following behavioral mandates like the prohibition against alcohol and coffee. Polling conducted by Riess and others has shown that the percentage of Latter-day Saints born after 1997 who do not identify as heterosexual may be 20% or higher. In perhaps the most dramatic break with the past, the partisan identification gap among millennial church members is narrow – 41% Democratic, 46% Republican – and a plurality of members under 40 voted for Joe Biden.
The church as an institution is by no means on the brink of reinventing itself as a progressive force. But it is struggling with how much and whether to accommodate liberals, and the result has been substantial internal division.
“I can see multiple futures for Mormonism,” said Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University and the author of the 2016 book “Out of Obscurity: Mormonism Since 1945.”
“I honestly don’t know which way it’s going to go. The one thing I know is that I think the church leadership is going to try and hold the whole thing together – that’s always been the impulse, to prevent schism. That is going to be increasingly difficult, but they’re going to try.”
Since its inception in 1830, the church has struggled with its image and relationship to the outside world. Proudly a “peculiar people” who are “in the world but not of the world,” Latter-day Saints have a theology distinctively focused on the history and symbols of the United States, whose Constitution it considers sacred; however, its relationship with the country at large has been marked from the beginning by conflict. Many historians argue that the modern church was established in 1890, when, under threat from the U.S. government, then-prophet Wilford Woodruff announced that he had received a revelation from God that polygamy could no longer be practiced by his followers. And it wasn’t until 1978 that a prophetic revelation officially declared Black men equal to White men – a move that had been previously considered doctrinally impossible.
Today, the church (which declined a request for an interview) has transformed itself from an iconoclastic band of scrappy outsiders to a highly organized, immensely wealthy and powerful institution, with 31,000 wards, 3,500 stakes (organizing chapters similar to Catholic dioceses) and 168 temples around the world. Its assets are worth more than $100 billion. In the United States, it has 6.7 million adherents, constituting 2% of the country’s population, and it is vastly overrepresented in the halls of influence: Latter-day Saints help lead corporations including American Express, Citigroup, Black & Decker, Dell, Deloitte, JetBlue and Marriott. And it wasn’t long ago that the country’s most famous member of the church, Mitt Romney, was the Republican nominee for president.
It’s an institution, in short, that has excelled at survival and, often, reinvention. Part of the reason may be a uniquely Latter-day Saint theological mechanism called personal revelation, by which individual members can receive direct divine instruction without having to go through the institution or its authority figures. It’s a tool that, over the years, has enabled members to adapt the faith to their own circumstances as needed – but it may now be driving the generational-political-cultural conflict within the church.
“The Latter-day Saints display in microcosm what we see in the larger culture,” said Kathleen Flake, the Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia. “There is political radicalization and a lack of confidence in the traditional sources of authority – and, consequently, an anxiety about where people can look for truth, about either secular or religious things.”
The phenomenon is so pronounced, she said, that the current moment in America might be described as the post-truth era. “People have lost confidence in not only the traditional authority in society, but they’ve lost confidence in the fact that one can actually know what is real or true,” she said.
One can see these tensions on display in even the most conservative places in the Mormon world. Rexburg, Idaho, is among the most reliably Republican towns in America. Its population is over 95% Latter-day Saint, and it is home to the Idaho campus of Brigham Young University. BYU-I – semi-satirically known as “BYU I Do” because of the pressure undergraduates feel to get engaged – is widely considered more conservative, both politically and theologically, than the school’s flagship campus in Provo, Utah.
In terms of its handling of social issues, the Idaho campus is often described as 20 to 30 years behind Utah. And yet even here, there are members who are asking tough questions about identity, belonging and faith – both of their church and of themselves.
Once a week, a group of young Latter-day Saint men meet in an undisclosed location in Rexburg to process their attraction to other men. The group is affiliated with BYU-I and is “church-affirming,” meaning that its leaders cannot endorse that anyone leave the faith.
One night, there were 11 men sitting in a circle. Only two were White; the rest were Black, Asian or Latino. Some were public about their sexuality; others had barely started to come out. All have a relationship with their religion that might best be described as complicated. One member said: “Every good thing in my family’s lives comes from the church. But the same thing that brings them a lot of good brings me a lot of turmoil.”
The evening’s topic was what the men used to hate about themselves – and how they are working on not hating themselves anymore. As each man spoke, the others listened carefully, nodding often. When other men would mention difficult matters – “Being gay isn’t exactly accepted in my country” or “I haven’t come out to my dad yet” – one young man nodded empathetically.
When it was his turn, he became visibly nervous. In a soft voice, he said his name, and then his hometown, and that he was in the beginning of his studies at BYU-I. He inhaled deeply. “And ...,” he began. “I ... I like men. Like, I’m interested in men, mostly.” His face flushed. “I’m ... I’m a homosexual.”
Later, he told me that, because he could not change his sexuality, he planned to stay celibate for life.
There are Latter-day Saint communities in which a progressive theology and a strong allegiance to the Democratic Party is nothing new. These tend to be in areas known for their liberal politics – places like New York and Cambridge, Mass. Most, but not all, of these places are outside the West’s so-called Mormon Corridor (exceptions include areas of Salt Lake City and Provo, which is home to theologically and politically liberal BYU professors).
None of these places, however, is quite the same as Berkeley. And the kind of fiercely independent, nonconformist ideology the town is known for is embodied by the Latter-day Saints who have chosen to make their homes there.
In recent Sunday services in Berkeley, one could see attire you’d be hard-pressed to find in Latter-day Saint services in the rest of the country, from flip-flops to tank tops.
Multiple men in attendance wore beards, which are prohibited for missionaries and on BYU campuses, and are controversial in many other Latter-day Saint circles.
And in another conspicuous flouting of norms, the newly elected leader of the elders quorum, the ward’s organization of priesthood holders, wore shoulder-length hair.
Marostica, who was the ward’s bishop from 2008 to 2015, sees his politics as inextricable from his faith. “Mormons are like, ‘We really, really value the Constitution.’ Like, God had a hand in creating the Constitution! Well, if you really believe that, then you cannot support the Republican Party, because the Republican Party is actively subverting the Constitution. So, you know, like, in terms of the question of how can you be a Latter-day Saint and support the Republican Party? You cannot.”
In 2017, a group of Latter-day Saint women formed Mormon Women for Ethical Government, an organization championing causes including immigration, anti-racism, the environment and voting rights.
When Marostica assumed his role as bishop in the Berkeley ward, those convictions – as well as his duty to carry out the orders of his church superiors – were put to the test. It was a month after church leaders in Salt Lake City had instructed all California clergy to read a statement urging members to campaign to pass Proposition 8 – that is, to “do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment.”
At the time, Marostica used that language to his advantage. “I got guidance from the stake president to say: Here’s what the letter says: ‘Do all that you can do,’ ” he said. He interpreted that liberally with his congregants. He told them: “If all that you can do is to not do anything, that’s fantastic – you’re doing all that you can do. If doing all that you can do means that you don’t demonize the church leadership, that is all that you can do.”
Dean Criddle, who was serving as president in the Oakland Stake, of which Berkeley is a part, tried to influence church authorities toward more inclusive policies, hosting a panel of Latter-day Saints who felt personally wounded by the Prop 8 statement and bringing apostles to meet in private with church members who might touch their hearts, or even change their minds. Criddle said these actions reflect his view that change best comes from using levers within the institution – never by publicly criticizing church leaders.
Criddle believes some of the church’s recent softening around gay issues came as a result of meetings he set up between members and visiting apostles.
However, what the church has not done – and, according to Criddle and other church leaders, will likely never do – is concede that it was ever wrong in the first place. Asked if he agreed with that approach, Criddle laughed. Then he paused. “You know,” he said, “my life experience has been that apologies can be very healing when they’re heartfelt.”
People like Jason Holcomb, a recent graduate of BYU-Idaho, aren’t waiting for an apology. Holcomb has decided to identify as an inactive member.
“An organization is not needed for me to have a proper relationship with God,” he said.