Speaking of Post-American Mormonism
In less than a week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will hold its semi-annual general conference. This is a time when church leaders, who Mormons consider prophets, speak to offer instruction and encouragement to members around the globe.
The conference is conducted over several days in six different sessions (including the women's meeting that took place on September 27th). This allows for over 30 speakers to address the global body of the church. A small but significant change has been announced that will make this conference unique.
For the first time, speakers will now have the option of speaking in their native language. While the majority of speakers have been American, the small minority who are not Americans have until now been encouraged to speak in English. While most have done well, for some it has been a significant challenge. This small policy change will most likely lead to a better general conference experience for thousands of non-English speaking members.
In short, this is a small step in the development of post-American Mormonism.
Church leaders being able to speak in their native language is important for several reasons. First, it will improve the quality of the talk by enabling the speaker to better relay the message and feelings he or she wishes. Second, it means that many non-English speaking members will be able to hear talks in their native language and the original language of the speaker. There are often emotions and nuances that aren't completely felt when listening to a translated talk read by another person. Third and most importantly, it (hopefully) means that speaking English will not be a de-facto requirement to be a general authority in the future. This will increase the likelihood that more local perspectives will be represented in general conference talks.
While all speakers seek divine inspiration about the topic and content of their talk, the messages that are given still represent the experiences and world views of the speakers. While many topics are universal, some topics receive more emphasis, not because they are more important, but because the vast majority of church leaders are from and live in the United States. Despite the heavy travel schedules of church leaders, the political climate in the U.S. has influenced many general conference talks. From the Iraq war to gay marriage as well as the frequent use of U.S. based statistics, the U.S. centric view of church leaders is easy to notice.
Allowing church leaders to speak in their own language will hopefully inspire more post-American topics. There are many critical issues that influence billions that receive little or no attention in general conference.
For example, what responsibility and opportunities do the church and church members have in fighting poverty? How can we be better stewards of the earth? The billion dollar City Creek Center in some ways has sent the wrong message about excessive consumption; a general conference talk could clarify doctrine and policy on this issue. With all the "wars and rumors of wars" that have been going on over the last few years, how should members deal with difficult situations? Specifically, how should members in semi-democratic countries apply article of faith number 12 which states that "we believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." At what point can members feel justified in supporting or participating in anti-government protest or revolution movements in their countries?
General conference is a marvelous experience that offers millions of Mormons the chance to feel unified in a great cause and the chance for a spiritual feast. The recent policy change that allows leaders to speak in their own language will help those millions not in the U.S. enjoy the feast a little more. While this is a small policy change, it has the potential to play an important role not only in the expansion of the church, but also in the formation of post-American Mormonism.