Gabe P, so many thought provoking questions!
Do you really believe that there's inevitably or even usually a trend toward a more progressive leadership?
Yes, if for no other reason than that the culture in which we are raised influences our world view. Frankly, we talk about being "not of the world," but we go to movies, we have iPods, we watch Lost, and we shop at Target. We are not Amish. Even the Amish have made huge changes in the last 15 years due to population growth in nearby cities, technology explosion in communications especially, and the need to remain competitive.
I agree with you about the gerontocracy, but I also doubt that the young will necessarily be more progressive than the old.
I agree that there are some young in the church who are old beyond their years, but "progressive" means many different things. Even the conservative young in the church are much more progressive in their views on women (even those who are secretly sexist will be sued into the next millenium if they try that crap at work), their global awareness (thanks to the internet), and how pushy they are about how other people should live their lives (social conservativism, which has mixed feelings in the church at best, often with half-hearted compliance except among the most rabid).
After all, most significant changes have followed situations where a practice or policy was beaten out of the Church.
But don't confuse the small church of yesteryear (polygamy & blacks) with the global church of today. Even in 1978, the church had fewer than 3 million members worldwide. You can't control what happens at the grass roots level in a church of 13 million in the way you can when the church was more insular with a higher % of members in one small state in the U.S.
The vast majority of the rank and file in the Church are conservative to a fault and the process of being promoted to leadership screens for conservatism at every turn.
This is actually not my experience. I grew up in a very vocally liberal ward in Pennsylvania with most of the leaders coming from academia. In my current ward, there are people from both sides of the divide, but most conservatives are just in it for the tax breaks, not telling people how to live their lives. Most members I know would still claim that the church doesn't get involved in politics (Prop 8 notwithstanding). There is definitely a very vocal population of staunch social conservatives in the church that are loud enough to sound like the majority, and they absolutely think they are the majority. Leadership positions are screened, not for conservativism, but for: 1) activity, 2) tithing, 3) family stabillity, and 4) inspiration on the part of the person extending the call. Is it possible that a staunch conservative will think a more liberal-leaning person doesn't meet #4 as a result? Perhaps, but the field is already narrowed considerably by #1, #2, and #3.
So my concern is that the force for change in the Church is likely to be smart people who know better, but they're less likely today than they were in the time of Talmadge to get in line well enough to rise to leadership.
Smart people might have insight, but that doesn't make them agents of change. Culture is set at the local level. Change happens at the grass roots level. It may not be felt at the top, but we don't live at the top. People in the church often have great flexibility in interpreting things, and different leaders emphasize different things. We follow the leaders we like.
Additionally, there's a threat to the growth model if we move to a more liberal path as well.
I think there is truth to that, but I also think that there is a balance of voices in the 12 if you listen. They may use Mormonspeak, but they aren't all talking about the same things in the same ways.
I see no reason why they won't be stuck in the 50s, if only because being stuck in the 50s is probably good for most of the Church.
Here I can't agree for two reasons: 1) the 1950s they are stuck in never existed. If you want a glimpse of the 1950s, watch Mad Men (alright, that was the 1960s, but you get the point), and 2) living in the past (especially one that never existed) is never as relevant as living in the present. However, aside from the Church Office Building, I don't see this as a very real threat to the lay members. The lessons have a strong emphasis on sharing personal experience which does some interesting things: 1) keeps us firmly rooted in the present, and 2) mythologizes our own life experiences. We become the hero in our own spiritual journey, and that becomes a stronger narrative than the experiences of others who are not directly involved in our lives.