Much has been written about recent activism in the LDS Church throughout the bloggernaccle. And with the recent announcement that at least one of the prayers in the upcoming General Conference will be given by a woman, and with the launch of a compelling new website devoted to gender equality in the Church it seems this issue is not going away any time soon. There are many in the Church who feel such activism has no place--"revelation always comes from God" they say, "and not from picket lines or protests." Others support the causes but disagree with the methods, viewing such initiatives as strategically unwise or doctrinally prohibited.
It is important, however, to explore the different reasons for activism. Here are the three general categories I've come up with. I'm sure there are others, but I think this is a useful way to get at the various motivations driving activism within the Church.
1) The Church leadership is wrong/uninspired/bad and we need to set them straight
While the teachings of the Church maintain that prophets and apostles can be (and often have been) incorrect on any issue, this impetus for activism is a problematic one for any member to have. We believe that imperfect humans are called to lead the Church, and that while we are all capable of mistakes we are to be as loving and forgiving of others' faults, blind spots, weaknesses, and errors as we know the Lord is of ours. Sustaining our leaders doesn't mean we think they're perfect, just that we support them and know how difficult it is to do their job.
2) The Church leadership needs to make this change, and we're going to protest until they do
This type of activism is less confrontational than the first, but still doesn't sit well with many in the Church. I'm not saying this type of activism is never appropriate, but it's vary dangerous ground. Although, some might argue that the Word of Wisdom came from this type of agitation--Emma Smith badgered Joseph about the mess the School of the Prophets made on the floor of their home, and the resulting prayers from Joseph resulted in what we now know as the Word of Wisdom. So this seems to have some justified precedent.
3) The Church membership needs to be prepared for a change
Imagine that God had given the revelation giving the Priesthood to all worthy males in 1940 rather than 1978. What would have happened? Among other things, it would have angered any openly racist members of the Church. And I don't have data on this, but I'm willing to bet there were significantly more racist Mormons in 1940 than there were in 1978. I could imagine Mormon civil rights supporters in the 60s and 70s agitating for all men to be given the Priesthood not to change the minds of Church Leadership, but to begin to soften the hearts of the lay membership. Here's my point: God isn't going to reveal new changes until the membership is ready to accept them. And the membership often (always?) needs activists to pave the way forward.
This way-paving creates a space within the Church for people who agree with the change, and demonstrates to more reticent members that good faithful Latter-day Saints can have a variety of opinions.