Mormonism considers its image

As the religion grows, its leaders begin to confront public questions and suspicions

October 14, 2007|By Margaret Ramirez | Margaret Ramirez,Chicago Tribune

Thomas Appiah and his wife, Katrina, have no problem with all the curious new questions about their Mormon faith.

The couple recalled attending a recent event at a nondenominational church and entering into a discussion about Jesus. As Thomas Appiah spoke on the Scriptures, people became captivated, and many asked whether he were a pastor and where they could hear him preach. When he told them he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the crowd turned.

"All of a sudden, that desire to befriend me, that desire to embrace me, it all turned to animosity. They became argumentative and said we were not Christians," said Appiah. "I felt sorry for them; they missed the chance to know me truly for who I am."

His wife added, "I think once prejudice is there, it just becomes really hard to get rid of."

Despite tremendous growth of Mormonism worldwide and a heightened profile of the faith because of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, church officials and members say they still face hostile attitudes and misperceptions about their beliefs.

Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, with more than 13 million members, more than a third of those in Latin America, according to church figures. The church ranks as the fourth-largest denomination in the United States, with close to 6 million members, surpassing Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians.

In the past, church officials largely distanced themselves from public scrutiny, perpetuating the notion that the religion is secretive. But with Mormonism becoming an issue in the candidacy of Romney, the church has done an about-face and launched an unprecedented campaign to inform the public about the religion.

This month, church officials in Salt Lake City hosted their first online news conference to educate the nation's religion reporters about the Mormon faith. The effort includes a 24-hour contact line for political writers seeking basic information about the church and a media guide outlining church beliefs. In addition, church officials are considering visits by senior church officials, known as apostles, to newspaper editorial boards for presentations on Mormon beliefs.

"Right now, there is a national conversation going on about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," said church spokesman Mike Otterson. "We want to be part of that conversation. ... We won't stand by and let other people define us."

As the nation watches, the Mormon Church stands at a crossroads, struggling with how to portray itself to the public and whether to be more forthcoming about church beliefs. Church officials have emphasized common ground with other Christians, such as belief in Jesus Christ and acceptance of the Bible. Yet full disclosure means open discussion of their differences, including the teaching that humans are "spirit children" of God, the belief that Mormon leaders are living prophets and the significance of baptisms for the dead. Some say candor could be a double-edged sword.

"This is critical for the church," said Jan Shipps, a prominent Mormon scholar and professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "It could bring Mormonism into the nation's mainstream or it could make it seem wackier than ever.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in a log cabin by Joseph Smith and five others in upstate New York in 1830. Members believe Smith revived the early church after receiving revelations from God through the angel Moroni. From those beginnings, the church has grown rapidly, fueled mainly by black and Latino converts won over by Mormon missionary zeal.

Margaret Ramirez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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