WASHINGTON, April 6, 2013 — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormon) opened its 183rd Annual General Conference today. More than 100,000 members are expected to attend the meetings that will be held in Salt Lake City today and tomorrow. Millions more are expected to watch some or all of the proceedings by live broadcast.
The LDS Church currently claims a worldwide membership of 14.4 million, with just over 6 million members in the United States. The church experienced a period of rapid growth in the latter part of the 20th century; after reaching 1 million members in 1953, it grew to 5 million in 1982, and 10 million in 1996. It continues to grow, but at a decreasing rate. Its heaviest growth has been in Latin America, where it has over a million members each in Brazil and Mexico, and over 500,000 in Chile.
In spite of its remarkable successes, the church faces some serious challenges, both in the United States and abroad. In the U.S., it achieved a new level of prominence with the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, but the attention garnered by Romney was both positive and negative. He faced early opposition from the religious right in the GOP, and not all of it was due to policy.
In 2007, a Pew Research poll found that one-in-three Americans didn’t believe Mormons are Christians. 53 percent had a favorable view of Mormons, compared to a 76 percent favorable rating for Jews, 60 percent for Evangelical Christians, and 53 percent for Muslim Americans. Only atheists came in lower, at 35 percent favorable.
Romney’s campaign did little to improve perceptions of Mormons. Only 16 percent of Americans polled at the end of 2012 said they learned much about Mormons because of the campaign, while 82 percent learned nothing at all. Members of white mainline churches generally felt more favorably toward Mormons after the campaign, but feelings remained almost unchanged among white evangelicals and white Catholics. A third of Americans still don’t believe that Mormons are Christians, almost unchanged from 2007.
All of this comes in the wake of decades of public relations efforts by the church. Many Mormons believe that entertainment portrayals of Mormons have been generally negative and have hurt the image of the church, and 38 percent believe that news coverage of the church has been unfair.
Other issues have certainly affected the public’s view of Mormons, though there are no polling data to quantify the impact. Mormons took an active role in the passage of California’s Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. The country has moved in the direction of favoring SSM, especially those under 40, and in the last election the church took a much more low-key approach in states that had marriage referendums on their ballots. The church made common cause with evangelical groups in California, but that effort is unlikely to have earned Mormons any greater appreciation from evangelicals and probably hurt them with young people.
The issue of ordaining women to the priesthood has probably had little impact, but the role of women in the church has been and remains a problematic issue. It has been widely rumored that women will be allowed for the first time to offer the invocation or benediction at a conference session. Women have been featured as speakers at some conference sessions, but have never been invited to offer the prayers, in spite of no doctrine or official policy in opposition. Feminism is not a large issue in the church, but there is anecdotal evidence that younger women feel peripheral to the operations of the church at every level.
Abroad, the church faces a different set of challenges. Once perceived as a North American church, it has had some success at shedding that image, but at the same time it has faced increasing competition from evangelical Christian churches in its Latin American areas of high growth. After 20 years in Russia, it has only 20,000 members; evangelical and fundamentalist groups have done better. Among the other countries of the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc, none but Ukraine has more than 10,000 members, and the rest all have fewer than 5,000.
LDS missionaries were spectacularly successful in England and Scandinavia in the 19th century. Most of those converts emigrated to the U.S., though, and helped establish the church in Utah after it was driven from Missouri and Illinois. In more recent times, church missionary efforts in increasingly secular Western Europe have been unimpressive. Germany has only 38,000 members, and Spain, 47,000. France, where Mitt Romney served his mission, has seen very little missionary success in the last 60 years.
This general conference is conducted by a church at the crossroads. It has had more media attention than ever before, and has been the subject of a hugely successful (and somewhat affectionate, in a backhanded way) Broadway musical. It has 55,000 missionaries serving around the world, and its decision last year to reduce the age at which young men and women can serve is likely to produce a large, if one-off, surge in missionary numbers. It is building temples around the world, it has been widely admired for its welfare program and disaster relief efforts, and its missionaries have begun to incorporate much more community service into their schedules, bolstering the church’s presence as a force for basic social and economic development.
While many of those on its membership rolls are not actively involved with the church, many of those who are involved are involved at a level of commitment not often seen in other faiths. The Mormon Church is almost unique among American churches in its ability to marshal human resources, hence its importance in the passage of Proposition 8.
At the same time, the church operates in an increasingly secular world. As it has attempted to become more mainstream, it has lost ground to more militant Christian churches. It faces the crisis faced by many other mainline Christian churches, keeping its youth involved in and excited by their faith. It is far too early to count the Mormons out as the next major American church, and the church retains enormous vitality, but its future looks increasingly less triumphal than many Mormons had imagined 20 years ago. Its period of generational doubling is over. It remains to be seen whether it will become a mature, mainline Christian denomination, whether its best days are behind it as it manages a gentle decline, or whether it will roll out like a stone to fill the world.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He was a Mormon missionary in Brazil. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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