In my line of work, I get to read what a lot of people say about my church.
Every day, news media reports mentioning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or “Mormons” cross my desk, many from remote parts of the world. Since the advent of the Internet the number has increased exponentially, especially in the US.
We’re not alone. Many of my counterparts in other large churches feel the spotlight on their faiths. But over the past few years something singular has been happening in conversations about Mormons.
A surge of interest accompanied Salt Lake City’s hosting of the international community during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Some 1,300 journalists knocked on the door of the church’s international headquarters. Most wanted to know more about the city’s founding by Mormons and what happened to the church over the succeeding 170 years.
It was five more years before we saw that kind of peak of interest again, and it came from an unexpected quarter. The 2008 GOP presidential run of former Massachusetts governor (and Mormon) Mitt Romney presented both an opportunity and a dilemma for Mormons.
As with the Olympics, reporters from all over the world began calling to ask about points of belief or practice. The trickle of inquiries quickly turned into a flood. We welcomed that because it provided an opportunity to address deep-seated stereotypes. But it was also a dilemma because many of the callers were political reporters, and the church had to ensure it upheld its strict party political neutrality and avoid being dragged into political debate. So, church leaders said nothing about politics, but engaged fully on questions about our faith.
Clearly, not every conversation about belief or practice was constructive. We found that journalists often approached us with deeply embedded misconceptions. Many had defined us only through stereotypes. Rather than seek a deeper understanding of a faith now shared by millions of Americans, some merely focused on the trivial.
With another presidential election season upon us and the possible candidacy of not one but two people identified with the Mormon faith, are we in for another spike in interest? Or, in the more dramatic terms that some have used: “Is this the Mormon moment?” These were the questions that On Faith put to me when inviting me to write a twice-monthly post on Mormon-related topics.
This very question of the Mormon moment was discussed here at On Faith not long ago. Two presidential elections involving Mormon candidates clearly have played a role in prompting it. Few things in America focus media attention like a presidential election. There are signs that the Mormon-as-a-candidate story may be old news in 2012. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, there are certainly other reasons why Mormons continue to edge into public view. With six million American members on record, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now the fourth-largest Christian faith in the United States, and it continues to grow. Sheer numbers mean more Mormons in business, government, education, the arts, entertainment and other places in public life. These public figures range from U.S. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid to Clay Christensen, revered business strategist, to vocalist and pop performer David Archuleta.
Perhaps most significantly as the church grows, more people have a Mormon co-worker, neighbor, or friend. And, as people get to know Mormons they get a clearer, fuller, and more accurate picture of our faith. This is vital, since real understanding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lags far behind its visibility.
In that vein, let me offer three things you should know about Mormons which are neither trivial nor stereotypical.
1. Mormons follow Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God and at the center of our belief and – to the best of our ability – our behavior. Some people like to define “Christian” in very precise and narrow terms. To me, it’s quite simple. We try to reflect Jesus Christ’s teachings in our lives and rely on his love and mercy when we make mistakes.
2. Mormons are friends of the family. Many of those who know Latter-day Saints realize how important the family is to us. Ideally, that means a mother, father, and their children. Today’s reality, though, means that sometimes we have broken families, remarriages, and single parents. And a large proportion of our church membership is single adults. Still, the nuclear family lies deep at the core of our belief about the purpose of life and the nature of God. It is, we believe, the fundamental unit of our society and of the eternities. While the traditional family is increasingly under threat, Mormons continue to sustain it as part of the divine order and the ballast of society.
3.Mormons are big on incorporating their religious beliefs into their day-to-day actions. Service is a hugely important principle, whether serving in the church or out of it. For some, that means partnering with others to help the people of Haiti or Japan. For others, it’s cooking a meal for a sick neighbor. At whatever level, service is as much a part of our religious culture as going to church on Sunday.
Like all faiths, mine has its unique history, its guiding principles, and even a unique culture. I hope in these columns to give readers a glimpse into the Mormon faith that they wouldn’t otherwise get. Given the tendency of religious blogs to attract critics, there will be people who disagree with me. That’s OK. I’ll be sharing my views as an active church member, who is a convert to the faith. Some of the themes may be familiar, others will be distinctive. I trust all will be interesting.
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Michael Otterson | May 9, 2011 10:46 AM