Mormon Metamorphosis: The Neglected Story

Article excerpt

AN INTERVIEW with Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the nucleus of a warm and sympathetic 60 Minutes Easter Sunday feature on Mormonism. Correspondent Mike Wallace opened the segment by announcing that members of the LDS Church, now the seventh-largest church in the nation, are entering the mainstream. Then he described some of the many demands the church makes upon its members and declared that being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a lifestyle as well as religious choice. By placing the spotlight on Hinckley, who possesses awesome skill in dealing with the media, the program also made the point that the church is currently led by a vigorous, competent and appealing administrator.

Earlier 60 Minutes segments have taken a more negative approach to the Mormon Church. This time, the program emphasized the wholesome, even admirable qualities of being Mormon--and properly so.

Yet by using so much of the segment to illustrate that Latter-day Saints are, as Hinckley said, "not weird," 60 Minutes missed two matters that are critically important to the story of Mormonism today. One of these is the attention the church is directing to the Christian dimension of its complex theology, a dimension that has often been engulfed by more idiosyncratic LDS doctrines and practices.

For many years the organization identified itself with a four-line typographical emblem in which the key words ("Church," "Jesus Christ," "Latter-day Saints") were all printed in the same size type. Last year that logo was replaced by one with only three lines. In small print the first line reads "The Church of'; the second, in print almost three times as large, says "Jesus Christ"; the third, again in small print, reads "of Latter-day Saints." A news release accompanying the changed logo made it clear that, at least from the official standpoint, "Mormon Church" has become an outmoded nickname. The official choice is now "the Church of Jesus Christ." If further differentiation is needed, the preferred modifier is Latter-day Saint. In addition, rather than speaking of themselves as Mormons, Latter-day Saints increasingly refer to themselves as Christians. Where once it was a noun, the word "Mormon" is becoming an adjective, as in "Mormon Christianity."

WHILE THEY often emphasize the importance of studying the Book of Mormon and participating in temple ceremonies (religious exercises unique to Latter-day Saints), today's Saints stress the fact that their church is the Church of Christ. Rather than simply speaking of "the gospel," they make it clear that they are referring to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They remind people that the Book of Mormon is subtitled "Another Testament of Jesus Christ." And the Ensign and Church News have replaced a focus on Joseph Smith, the First Vision and modern revelation with stories of Jesus Christ and early Christianity. These modifications are making the church and its people less distinctive or "peculiar" than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

When Wallace mentioned polygamy, President Hinckley dismissed the practice as a thing of the past. But changes in Mormonism go far beyond the fact that plural marriage is only practiced in schismatic Mormon sects. As the church places greater and greater emphasis on the "Jesus Christ" part of its name and on the crucial significance of the atonement to individual salvation, the long-established sense of peoplehood, of being a "peculiar people," seems to be weakening. Being born Mormon 50 years ago was analogous to being born Jewish. No more.

At the same time, the signs and tokens of the church's truly distinctive theological claims--tiered heavens, proxy baptisms, the infinite persistence of personality embodied in the doctrine of marriage for time and eternity, endless progression toward godhood--are increasingly bundled into the concept of "a temple-going people." What occurs in the temple is sacred and therefore private. …