On Tuesday, January 16, millions of Mormons around the world tuned into a live broadcast from church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. The occasion? The formal announcement of the new president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nonagenarian Salt Lake native Russell M Nelson.

Latter-day Saint (or LDS) presidents serve for life; Nelson’s replaces Thomas S. Monson, who had filled the role since February 2008, until his death at aged 90.

A new leader at the helm

Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as ‘Mormons’ for their belief in the holy scripture The Book of Mormon, believe the church’s president to be “prophet, seer, and revelator” and God’s anointed spokesperson on the earth, à la Moses, Noah, and Isaiah in the Old Testament.

As church leader, President Nelson will be responsible for directing administrative and theological duties of the church, including its missionary program, temple construction, welfare program, and advocacy for religious freedom. The President’s most visible role comes at the church’s biannual “General Conferences” in Salt Lake City, in which he and other top church leaders speak on matters of spiritual guidance.

As new president of the church, what direction will Nelson’s leadership take? All signs indicate that he will continue on the conservative path set by his 16 presidential forebears. Although Mormon doctrine is very liberal on certain policies (such as socialism and shared wealth, immigration, and religious freedom for Muslims in the West) culturally, it maintains conservative stances on issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and tradition of overwhelmingly male leadership.

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2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney is perhaps the most influential Mormon in US politics. Photo credit: Mark Taylor

The idea that President Nelson, born 1924, will not budge on these issues has rankled America’s liberal press, most especially Utah’s largest newspaper, the left-leaning Salt Lake Tribune. Critics lambast the antiquity of the LDS church’s doctrine and politics and suggest that modernization is key in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, the numbers tell a different story–the church has grown steadily since its formation in 1830, having added thousands of new members and created hundreds of congregations in the last decade.

Meet the Mormons

Nowadays, thousands know the LDS church through the hit musical “The Book of Mormon,” which took Broadway and the West End by storm. Although sometimes perceived of as a rural, Utah-based cult, membership in the Mormon church numbers approximately 15.8 million members worldwide.

The United States of America is home to the lion’s share of Mormons – about 6.5 million, or 2% of the country’s population. This is to be expected, as the church was born in New York state in the 1820s and has its headquarters in Utah, heart of the American West. However, in the late 1990s, the church passed an important turning point, in which membership numbers outside the USA surpassed those within; non-Americans now account for at least 56% of total members.

After the US, Mexico has the most Mormons, with 1.4 million members, followed by Brazil with 1.3 million, and the Philippines, with 745,000 (within Europe, the UK leads the way with 185,000).

Proportionally speaking, Mormonism is most popular in Tonga and Samoa, with 60.2% and 39.6% of their respective populations on the records of the LDS church. The global scale of the institution means that decisions made by the new president in Salt Lake City have a real political impact, from Brasilia to Nuku’alofa.

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Many have been introduced to the Mormon church by the satirical musical The Book of Mormon. Photo credit: André-Pierre du Plessis

How influential is Mormonism?

Politically speaking, Mormons’ influence is most pronounced within the United States. Mitt Romney, 2012 Republican presidential candidate and rumored 2018 senate candidate, is perhaps the country’s highest-profile Mormon leader (according to certain pundits, affiliation with the LDS church may have lost him the presidential race 6 years ago), but he is far from being the only one.

Senators Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr (R-Utah), and Representative Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) all profess faith in the prophets in Salt Lake City. The fact that Mormons make up both President Trump’s government allies (Hatch, Huntsman) and fiercest critics (Reid, Flake) demonstrate that the Church is not beholden to one particular political party, and that Mormons’ beliefs inform their politics in a variety of ways.

LDS Church in international relations

How will Nelson’s leadership come to bear on international relations? In recent years, church leaders have lobbied and spoken out in support of religious freedom, a sometimes thorny issue as countries struggle to curb the rise of Islamic extremism.

Church presidents and members of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles criss-cross the globe every year, meeting with political leaders and local members to spread their influence and message of Jesus Christ (in 2017 alone, Church leaders travelled to Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Tonga, Australia, and even Oxford, England [watch for your correspondent on camera at 2:53!]).

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The new head of the Church of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson. Photo credit: Pastelitodepapa

The LDS church’s approach is first and foremost to use “soft power” to promote global harmony and goodwill, ensuring that foreign countries remain open to Mormon members and missionaries. Russell M. Nelson brings to the presidency experience garnered from visiting over 130 countries in his 33-year church tenure, including making inroads for the Mormon church in China and in Russia (he speaks both countries’ languages on a basic level).

Arguably, the Church’s most profound global influence lies in its welfare and disaster relief services, praised by President Donald J. Trump when he visited Salt Lake City in December 2017. These programs administers millions of dollars in relief annually, such as assistance to victims of mudslides, forest fires, and hurricanes in 2017. Such assistance to those in need will most assuredly continue under Nelson’s leadership.

Steady as she goes

All signs indicate that new leadership at the helm of the Mormon church is unlikely to change its behaviour or role in global affairs. Worth considering is the age of President Nelson; he is the oldest man to assume the function of President in over 100 years (in contrast, Thomas S. Monson was “only” 80 years old when he became President in 2008).

Were Nelson to pass away due to old age, and a younger church leader to take the post of President, generational-related changes and practices might be more forthcoming. Nevertheless, as it stands, Russell M. Nelson’s ascent to leadership indicates that the LDS church will continue in its steady course.

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