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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Reuters) - A religious studies class late last year at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, was unusual for two reasons. The small group of students, faculty and faithful there to hear Mormon Elder Marlin Jensen were openly troubled about the future of their church, asking hard questions. And Jensen was uncharacteristically frank in acknowledging their concerns.
Did the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints know that members are "leaving in droves?" a woman asked.
"We are aware," said Jensen, according to a tape recording of his unscripted remarks. "And I'm speaking of the 15 men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church. They really do know and they really care," he said.
"My own daughter," he then added, "has come to me and said, 'Dad, why didn't you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?'" For the younger generation, Jensen acknowledged, "Everything's out there for them to consume if they want to Google it." The manuals used to teach the young church doctrine, meanwhile, are "severely outdated."
These are tumultuous times for the faith founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, and the rumbling began even before church member Mitt Romney's presidential bid put the Latter-Day Saints in the spotlight.
Jensen, the church's official historian, would not provide any figures on the rate of defections, but he told Reuters that attrition has accelerated in the last five or 10 years, reflecting greater secularization of society. Many religions have been suffering similarly, he noted, arguing that Mormonism has never been more vibrant.
"I think we are at a time of challenge, but it isn't apocalyptic," he said.
Impact on voters - link.reuters.com/zun36s
Converts to Mormonism - link.reuters.com/wun36s
The LDS church claims 14 million members worldwide -- optimistically including nearly every person baptized. But census data from some foreign countries targeted by clean-cut young missionaries show that the retention rate for their converts is as low as 25 percent. In the U.S., only about half of Mormons are active members of the church, said Washington State University emeritus sociologist Armand Mauss, a leading researcher on Mormons.
Sociologists estimate there are as few as 5 million active members worldwide.
In Africa and Latin America, however, Jensen said that interest in the LDS was so strong that the church has cut back baptisms in order to better care for new members.
With defections rising, the church has launched a program to staunch its losses. The head of the church, President Thomas Monson, who is considered a living prophet, has called the campaign "The Rescue" and made it his signature initiative, according to Jensen. The effort includes a new package of materials for pastors and for teaching Mormon youth that address some of the more sensitive aspects of church doctrine. "If they are not revolutionary, they are at least going to be a breath of fresh air across the church," Jensen told the Utah class.
All this comes as the public profile of America's Mormons had been raised by two pop-culture hits: the recent TV series "Big Love" and the current Broadway hit, "The Book of Mormon." The attention, says church spokesman Michael Purdy, is a "double-edged sword."
It has been an opportunity to educate the public about Mormonism and fight misconceptions. For example, the "I am a Mormon" ad campaign, which features stereotype-busting Mormons who are black or single parents, helped boost chat sessions on the church's website to more than a million in the last 12 months.
The curious find a family-focused church with socially conservative values that teaches Christian principles and believes Christ appeared to founder Joseph Smith in America, where Smith established the new religion.
Church members are satisfied with their lives, content with their communities, strongly see themselves as Christian and believe acceptance of Mormons is increasing, a recent Pew Research poll of people who describe themselves as Mormon found.
But on Broadway, the church's gospel and missionary zeal are mocked. And the Web has intensified debate over the truth of the history the church teaches.
Not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the 1837 failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church, Jensen said.
"Maybe since Kirtland, we've never had a period of - I'll call it apostasy, like we're having now," he told the group in Logan.
Then he outlined how the church was using the technologies that had loosened its grip on the flock to reverse this trend.
"The church has a very progressive research and information division, with tremendous public opinion surveyors," he said. Among other steps, it has hired an expert in search-engine optimization to raise the profile of the church's own views in a web search.
Researchers note a rising tide of questions from church members about the gospel according to Joseph Smith's The Book of Mormon, the best known of the Latter-day Saints' scriptures. Over the years, church literature has largely glossed over some of the more controversial aspects of its history, such as the polygamy practiced by Smith and Brigham Young, who lead the Mormons to Utah.
The church denied the higher priesthood to blacks until 1978 and still bars sexually active homosexuals from its temples. The church's active role in promoting California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage, drove away some its more liberal members.
Moreover, church leaders have taught that the Book of Mormon is a historical document -- not a parable -- so the faithful are startled to find articles on the internet using science to contradict it.
For example, the book describes Israelites moving in 600 BC to the Americas, where they had horses and other domesticated animals. But Spaniards introduced horses to the New World many centuries later, and extensive DNA studies have failed to find any genetic link between Israelites and Native Americans, suggesting instead that North America's indigenous population came across the Bering Strait from Asia many thousands of years ago.
"I think you can find scientific studies coming down on both sides, but the Book of Mormon doesn't live or die on scientific evidence," Jensen said.
But Christian Anderson, 41, a non-practicing Mormon in Columbia, South Carolina, for years filed away on a mental "shelf" concerns about the historical veracity of the religion's central text and its socially conservative views. "It came to a point where the shelf was too heavy," he said. He quit attending service, telling himself, "Ok, I'm done."
That's a common story to PhD student John Dehlin, who conducts conferences nationally for "unorthodox Mormons" wrestling with doubts and has a podcast, mormonstories.org.
"I think this is an epidemic for the church," said Dehlin. "Most of the people we cater to have been life-long members."
The church is particularly concerned, however, about its younger members -- the ones who are asked to dedicate two years of their life to spreading the Mormon gospel.
"It's a different generation," Elder Jensen told the group in Logan. "There's no sense kidding ourselves, we just need to be very upfront with them and tell them what we know and give answers to what we have and call on their faith like we all do for things we don't understand."
Certainly the church can change, as it did a generation ago in admitting blacks to the higher priesthood. And it has now reached out, quietly, to the gay community.
LDS support of Prop 8 became a lightning rod both inside and outside the Church. There were demonstrations in Salt Lake City, which is home to the Mormon tabernacle but was also just named the "the gayest city in America" by the Advocate magazine, crediting its numerous gay-friendly bars, book stores and neighborhoods. In the wake of the Prop 8 battle, Brandie Balken, executive director of gay rights group Equality Utah, was one of five gay advocates who met with three LDS officials to ease tensions.
What was supposed to be a half hour or hour meeting stretched to two hours. Participants took turns describing their background. Balken talked about her love of gardening -- and the pain infusing the family of her wife, who was the only gay child in a big LDS family.
Most of the church members present said they weren't aware of anyone they knew being gay, but they had heard from parents whose gay children were no longer speaking to them and who felt caught between their religion and their family.
There was no immediate agreement. But the Church did in 2009 support a job and housing anti-discrimination measure in Salt Lake City, saying that opposing discrimination was a separate issue from same-sex marriage. Now Utah Democratic Senator Ben McAdams and Republican Representative Derek Brown are proposing a similar statewide bill, and the Church's position on that will be significant.
I have never ever been associated with an organization that changes as fast as the Mormon church," said former church researcher Ray Briscoe, 79, whose investigations helped spur movement on issues such as the treatment of blacks.
"I don't think God was ever against blacks in the priesthood. We just had to grow up enough to accept it," he said. As for gays -- "it will get there, in my judgment."
This crisis of faith in the LDS church remains largely offstage in the race for the presidency. Mitt Romney's religion has been less of a prominent issue on the campaign trail this time around than in 2008.
Still, in heavily evangelical South Carolina, Romney won only one-tenth of the vote among those who said a candidate's religious beliefs mattered to them a great deal.
Many evangelicals say they do not consider the LDS church to be Christian.
And to some voters, Mormonism remains a complete enigma. During the South Carolina primary, one Mormon woman there said an acquaintance was surprised to see her driving a car, confusing Mormons with the Amish.
Individual Mormons are encouraged to participate in public life, including running for office and supporting candidates, but the church officially stays out of electoral politics. It won't allow its property to be used for polling, unlike many other churches, and has been careful not to run the "I am a Mormon" ads in early primary states.
But that's not to say church leadership isn't watching Romney's campaign with interest.
"There have been discussions at LDS church headquarters about both the positive and negative aspects of Romney's presidential bid," a person briefed on the talks said. "One concern is that Romney's campaign could further energize evangelical antipathy toward the church. Another concern is that he could take positions that would complicate the church's missionary efforts in the U.S. or other countries such as in Central and South America."
But on the positive side, the person said, "having a Mormon president could raise the church's profile and legitimize it in other countries."
Reporting By Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke, editing by Lee Aitken