"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.

Science vs. Mormon Belief

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  • But it's not just the newly baptized in the far corners of the planet who are leaving. "I see a lot of my generation sliding out of the church," said Tom Kimball, marketing director of Signature Books, a liberal Mormon press in Salt Lake City.

    He recalls a time when theological debate and doctrinal inquiry were integral to Mormon life. But in his eyes, Mormons are now discouraged from asking too many questions about faith--leading many to leave.

    Beliefs vs. Science

    The Mormon Church is no stranger to debate and controversy over everything from polygamy to the veracity of Mormon teachings on history and theology.

    One issue sparking controversy in this year of Joseph Smith's bicentennial is the accuracy of some of his teachings--in particular, his identifying Native Americans as the Lamanites, a tribe descended from a family who, in the Book of Mormon, migrated from ancient Israel to America. DNA studies support the far more widely accepted anthropological theory that Native Americans came from Asia via a "land bridge" to Alaska.

    This has led some Mormons to characterize the Book of Mormon as, at best, an "inspired" fiction. But committed Mormon academics are attempting to reconcile DNA evidence with orthodox belief.

    One theory, known as "limited geography," posits that the Book of Mormon doesn't claim to be speaking of all Native Americans, said Dan Peterson, a BYU professor and director of the school's Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts.

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