One Saturday afternoon this month, a larger-than-expected turnout of 300 religious volunteers in Pasadena, California, packed nearly 10,000 personal hygiene kits for relief shipments to Iraq. A third of the volunteers were Muslims and the rest were church folk--not mainline Christians but members of the Mormon Church.
Items like towels, soap, combs, toothpaste and the kits themselves were provided by the Utah-based church's worldwide Humanitarian Aid Department. But joining the Mormon volunteers were family members from at least six southern California Islamic organizations. Mercy Corps International was to truck that shipment and others into northern Iraq.
The joint Muslim-Mormon effort was hardly a breakthrough interfaith event. Mormons have been long active in regional interreligious councils, notably in western states. Shabbir Mansuri, executive director of the Council on Islamic Education, a research institute in Fountain Valley, California, said he has had contacts for at least six years with Dallin Oaks, a member of the top-level Quorum of the Twelve at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Also, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena hosted in April an evangelical-Mormon conference, "Thinking Theologically About America," funded by the Louisville Institute. Fuller President Richard J. Mouw said it was fair to say that "evangelicals have been Mormonism's most antagonistic critics." The three-day conference was part of a larger move to "tone down the rhetoric and engage in a more civil dialogue," Mouw said.
Growing religious pluralism in the U.S. has allowed LDS churches to blend in with Buddhists, Hindus and Bahais in interreligious programs once dominated by traditional Christian and Jewish groups. Moreover, analysts say, Mormon leadership has been reexamining its 20th-century mode as the paragon of American patriotism and politically conservative culture. That was evident in LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley's relatively evenhanded speech on war in early April when bombing and battles were under way in Iraq.
"He finally comes down in the end [of his speech] to say we have to support the nation because leaders know more than anyone else," said historian Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon expert on Mormons in America. "But he reminded people that there are mothers with sons on both sides, and he warned about the dangers of imperial ambition," she said.
Citing the Ottoman, Roman, Byzantine and British empires, Hinckley told his church's semiannual conference that there was "a darker side to every one of them" entailing subjugation, repression and astronomical cost in life and treasure. …