Latter-day Saints president approaches 100th birthday with mixed record on minority support

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — As he nears his 100th birthday, the oldest-ever president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has created a mixed legacy that some churchgoers say has made its global membership feel more included but has left LGBTQ+ and other minority members feeling unsupported.

Russell M. Nelson, a 99-year-old retired heart surgeon turned faith leader, had a conservative track record in his previous position on the faith’s leadership panel, which led many to predict he wouldn’t make any significant changes as president. But religious scholars now say his six years in office have been anything but stagnant.

“He’s shaken up the church in a lot of ways — changed everything from what happens every Sunday at regular worship services to the long-term trajectory of where the church is pointed,” said Matthew Bowman, a religion professor at Claremont Graduate Universities.

Nelson, who is considered a prophet by church members, is expected to speak Sunday at the twice-annual Salt Lake City conference of the faith known widely as the Mormon church, which is watched by millions of members worldwide.

The president has embraced becoming a centenarian but told congregants before the conference that he and other elderly church leaders might need accommodations. Nelson left the Saturday afternoon session in a wheelchair. He was notably absent from the fall 2023 conference due to a back injury.

“We are called to serve for the remainder of our lives, often long beyond ‘retirement age,'” Nelson said. “From my point of view, this is cause for celebration.”

Nelson, who notes he has been alive for more than half of the faith’s 194-year history, is known for leading the church through the COVID-19 pandemic and urging people to stop referring to Latter-day Saints as “Mormons,” a sharp shift after previous church leaders spent millions over decades to promote the moniker.

He severed the faith’s century-long ties with the Boy Scouts of America, creating the church’s own youth program that also could serve the more than half of its 17 million members who live outside the U.S. and Canada. He appointed non-American leaders to the top governing body and pushed to publish regional hymnbooks that celebrate local music and culture worldwide.

The president shortened Sunday services and launched the construction of more than 150 temples, accelerating a long-running push to dot the world with the faith’s lavish houses of worship.

He also forged a formal partnership with the NAACP in a move aimed at shoring up the faith’s checkered history on race. Until 1978, the faith banned Black men from the lay priesthood, a policy rooted in the belief that black skin was a curse. The church disavowed the ban in a 2013 essay, saying it was enacted during an era of great racial divide that influenced the church’s early teachings. But it never issued a formal apology, leaving it as one of the most sensitive topics for the Utah-based religion.

Nelson has largely avoided taking a position on hot-button issues, sparking frustration among some members.

“He’s not a culture warrior,” said Patrick Mason, a religion and history professor at Utah State University. “But in terms of church presidents over the past century, I would put him in the the top two or three who, by the time of their death, will have left their mark on the church.”

Mason described Nelson’s administration as “gentler” than presidents past by welcoming people and trying to maintain members while still applying a strict interpretation of religious doctrine.

Under Nelson, the church insists LGBTQ+ members are welcome but maintains that same-sex marriage is a sin. It also limits the participation of transgender members who pursue gender-affirming medical procedures or change their name, pronouns or how they dress.

Nelson’s early actions as church president gave some LGBTQ+ members hope that he might change those policies.

He made waves in 2019 when he rescinded a pair of controversial rules banning baptisms for the children of gay parents and branding same-sex couples as heretics who could face excommunication. His administration later supported a 2022 law protecting same-sex marriage at the federal level because it included what Nelson’s top adviser Dallin Oaks called “necessary protections for religious freedom.”

Oaks, 91, is Nelson’s likely successor and among the most outspoken supporters of the church’s opposition to acting on same-sex attraction. He has reminded followers at several past conferences that the church believes children should be raised by a married man and woman.

That message is echoed in what’s colloquially known as the “musket fire speech,” which recently became required reading for incoming students at Brigham Young University. The speech from a high-ranking church leader calls on faculty and students to take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend the faith’s stance on marriage.

Fred Bowers, president of the LGBTQ+ Latter-day Saints support group Affirmation, pointed to the speech as one of many recent examples of how the faith has made LGBTQ+ members feel isolated. Faith leaders tell LGBTQ+ members that God loves them and they are accepted in church, but that support is not reflected in their policies, he said.

“Our members continue to experience trauma and are constantly met with mixed messages,” Bowers said.

Despite ongoing tensions between church leadership and LGBTQ+ members, Nelson repeatedly has instructed congregants to be kind to those whose experiences they might not understand.

“We are to be examples of how to interact with others, especially when we have differences,” Nelson said in his conference speech last spring. “One of the easiest ways to identify a true follower of Jesus Christ is by how compassionately that person treats other people.”

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