SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (Reuters) - After more than a century on the fringe of America’s consciousness, Mormons are riding a wave of media attention and public scrutiny -- and say they welcome the chance to set a few things straight.
From Mitt Romney’s bid to become the first Mormon in the White House to Public Broadcasting Service’s four-hour documentary on Mormonism in May and a Hollywood movie opening this month focusing on one of Mormon history’s darkest episodes, the once-isolated religion is moving into the open.
“We welcome it,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, a church leadership body, said of the sudden attention.
“To the extent that attention can be informative as opposed to pejorative and there’s a sincere interest and honest curiosity, I think that’s positive,” he said.
But areas the church would rather forget are sharing the limelight, including its awkward ties to nearly 40,000 fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy, which the church introduced before the Civil War and then banned in 1890.
“Big Love,” HBO’s series about a fictional polygamous family headed by a Viagra-popping husband in Utah, begins its second season this month, while Mormon fundamentalist leader Warren Jeffs will keep Americans tuned in to a real-life polygamous drama at his trial in September.
“We see them as in violation of civil law and in violation of church law,” Christofferson said of Utah’s polygamists.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the sect based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is formally known, is the fourth-largest U.S. religion and one of the richest, with 12.9 million members globally and an estimated $5 billion in annual revenue. More than half live outside the United States.
But Americans know little about it and are often skeptical of its beliefs. Thirty percent surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in February said they would be less likely to back a Mormon for president, while 46 percent in a Gallup poll said they had an unfavorable opinion of Mormons.
Dr. Richard Land, the conservative president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Mormonism’s biggest skeptics are not evangelical Christians but those who shun all organized religion. “They tend to look at Mormons as religion on steroids,” he said.
In an interview, Christofferson sought to dispel several long-festering misconceptions, such as whether Romney would take direction from the church’s 96-year-old president, who is revered as a living prophet who speaks the word of God, if the Republican was elected to the White House.
“In our view the first loyalty of a member of the Church in his role as a government official is to the nation and his constituency,” he said.
“Even where the church has taken a firm or vigorous position on something, which we do occasionally, if a member as a government officer votes in a different way or contrary to the church’s position there’s no church censure, there’s no church discipline applied,” he said.
He said the church was growing by about a million members every three to five years, a pace below previous official estimates of a million every three years. Experts say the rate, while fast relative to the Roman Catholic Church and some other religions, has slowed, especially in the United States.
“Retention is a problem for them, as it is in other religions, and it’s going to take another two or three more years for us to know whether growth has peaked,” said Jan Shipps, a Mormon expert and professor emeritus of American religion and history at Indiana University/Purdue University.
Christofferson said the church, which opposes abortion in most cases and gay marriage, is not pressing U.S. public schools to teach “intelligent design”, which argues some forms of life are too complex to have simply evolved, although Mormon scriptures teach God directed the creation of life.
He said the Mormon church encourages political activism but adheres to the separation of church and state and does not officially support a candidate in the White House race, although Mormons and many prominent Utah residents are among the top donors to Romney’s well-funded political campaign.
“It’s a matter certainly of interest here,” he said.
The church, founded in upstate New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith, has long struggled for mainstream acceptance. Many evangelical Christians are taught that Mormonism is a cult with a heretical interpretation of Scripture and doctrine.
Although Mormons revere Christ as Savior and consider themselves devout Christians, they reject the unified Trinity and teach God has a body of flesh and blood. They believe Smith was a prophet instructed by God to restore his true church.
Guided by an angel named Moroni, Smith professed to have discovered tablets written in what he called “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics that told the story of the Book of Mormon and detailing an ancient civilization of Israelites sent by God to America.
Smith was able to read and translate the tablets with the help of special transparent stones he used as spectacles.
Christofferson said it was conceivable Mormonism could end a ban on women in its lay priesthood as it did with blacks in 1978, if God directs the church president to do so in a revelation. Revelations are a central tenant of Mormonism, giving the religion flexibility to evolve.
“We think the Lord continues to reveal his will,” he said.