DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is about to get a new leader. Ninety-three-year-old Russell Nelson is expected tomorrow to take over as president of the Mormon church, which is one of the fastest-growing faiths in the world. Our co-host Rachel Martin spoke with Kathleen Flake, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia who focuses on the Mormon church.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the Catholic church, the transition between popes can signal big changes in the focus and the policies of the church moving forward. Is it true for the changes in the leadership in the Mormon church? How significant is the person at the top?
KATHLEEN FLAKE: What they prize in their transition is continuity of the tradition. And they choose a man who is most experienced. I shouldn't even say choose. It's the - it's kind of the last man standing. So he's the most mature in terms of experience in the system.
MARTIN: The previous president, Thomas Monson, drew some criticism over how the church was approaching same-sex marriage, especially from younger, more liberal contingencies (ph) in the church. Under his watch, The Church of Latter-day Saints reaffirmed its position against same-sex marriage, and it ruled that the children of same-sex Mormon couples cannot be baptized in the church or take part in other important religious rites of passage. Do you expect that Nelson will take any less hard of a line on this?
FLAKE: I don't expect so. The difference between Mormonism and most other Christian churches is they have placed marriage at the heart of how they understand people go to heaven. And so they don't view marriage, say, in a Protestant light as a divine good. They see marriage as part of how you become saved. So it's harder for them. They have this gender binary - even this biological binary woven into the heart of their theological system.
MARTIN: I want to talk more about women's issues in the church because the church is very specific about women's roles. They are not allowed to assume top leadership positions. A couple years ago, a woman named Kate Kelly who was speaking out for women to be ordained into the priesthood was excommunicated from the church. Is there any reconsideration of women's ability to access the priesthood in that way?
FLAKE: Kate Kelly was using the typical ways we argue for social change.
MARTIN: Public advocacy and agitating from the outside.
FLAKE: That is viewed as rebellion, not political agitation. And that rebellion is usually handled as a family matter. And when it goes public, then the church, too, acts publicly with its means. That's not to say who's right here. It's just talking about a system. You can see Mormonism changing. But they're changing using their own frame.
MARTIN: What does that mean in layman's terms?
FLAKE: Well, in layman's terms, it means that religious power in Mormonism operates in homes. It operates in chapels. And it operates in temples. And what you can see in Mormonism right now is they are experiencing in each of those venues how to extend women's authority within the church.
MARTIN: You think this is happening regardless of who sits at the top of the Mormon church?
FLAKE: I think who sits at the top of the Mormon church operates less as a sole actor than people realize. He is always acting within a consular model that demands unanimity among 15 people.
MARTIN: Kathleen Flake - she is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. Thank you so much for your time.
FLAKE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.