The Mormon Moment
Boom times for the once-persecuted Latter-day Saints
BY: Michael Kress
But growth brings its own challenges, and during these boom times, Mormons are debating everything from the place of dissent in their community to the long-term prospects for success of the Church's international missionary efforts.
Appealing to and making room for a worldwide following has been one challenge facing this quintessentially American church.
"One of the problems that the church has been coping with for some time is how it can disassociate itself from American culture and the American way of life and American foreign policy without denouncing those things," Mauss said.
To ease internationalization, the church has worked to decentralize and diversify its leadership. It also follows a strategy known as "correlation," which helps ensure that the church remains unified--and uniform--in beliefs and practices throughout the world. Correlation stipulates that church curricula, practices, and customs be identical everywhere in the world; changes and innovations that church leaders deem appropriate are enforced everywhere. Because of correlation, not only is American Mormonism exported faithfully abroad, but changes dictated by worldwide needs are enforced back in America as well, Shipps said.
"It's very much a way of saying you don't have to go to Salt Lake to find Mormonism," Shipps said. "This correlation program is very good at creating a special identity for Latter-day Saints."
As an example, Shipps pointed to the notion, traditionally taught to Mormons, that all converts are literally descendants of Abraham. As the church has spread to places where the biblical patriarch Abraham is unknown, that idea "doesn't work," Shipps said. Now, Mormons--abroad and domestically--are generally taught that the link is more metaphorical, she said.
In the U.S., conversions are today particularly strong in the South, where Mormon growth comes largely at the expense of evangelicals, who are vying for the same souls, Mauss said.
"Mormons and evangelicals tend to compete for the same market niche, religiously speaking--namely, people who are socially conservative, who commit themselves strongly to family values and to a fairly literal interpretation of the scriptures, and tend to vote Republican," he said. "That also helps account for the occasional acrimony between the two."
Though that acrimony is often harsh, there have been signs of detente recently. Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, became the first non-Mormon in more than a century to address the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where he apologized for evangelicals' treatment of Latter-day Saints.
Still, Mouw faced a lot of criticism from some evangelicals for the appearance, and Flake, the Vanderbilt professor, predicts that any alliances will be short lived.
"These two groups are going to continue to be at odds with each other because they are both very overt in their argument that it matters what church you belong to," Flake said.
But even as Mormon proselytizing reaps increasing numbers of converts, the church is seeing its share of defections. The actual number of Mormons leaving the church is unknown, since members are rarely removed from formal lists.
To counter defections among new members, the church emphasizes follow-up: Church members visit recent converts to help ease the transition into their new faith.