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LDS Church ramps up on global stage

Published September 14, 2010 6:33 pm

Wider audience • Moves by BYU and Deseret News show the faith increasingly looks beyond Utah and the West.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mormons have been making headlines across the nation — from HBO's "Big Love" to California's Proposition 8, from David Archuleta to Stephenie Meyer, from Harry Reid to Glenn Beck.

LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson writes essays for The Washington Post. Mormonism is included as a major faith on several respected religion websites and in an important new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. The church's "I'm a Mormon" ads have attracted widespread media attention in nine major U.S. cities. Two more universities are poised to launch "Mormon Studies" courses.

All these developments and more have given the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a glimpse of playing in religion's big leagues.

Indeed, says LDS blogger Jana Riess in Cincinnati, Mormonism is becoming part of the "mainstream national conversation in a way that it wasn't 10 years ago."

Such visibility could partially explain why the LDS Church-owned Deseret News laid off nearly half its Salt Lake City staff. The paper plans to tap a stable of "correspondents" and be guided by a national advisory board of high achievers as it charts a new and brighter future — beyond the Wasatch Mountains — for the 160-year-old periodical.

Mormonism's more prominent profile also may have helped propel its flagship school, Brigham Young University, to bolt from the Mountain West Conference and sign a deal with ESPN to broadcast Cougar football games with a promise to fill stadiums across the land with true-blue BYU fans. The arrangement offered the church school a chance to showcase its talent in some 99 million homes and play "high-profile" teams.

Taken together, these moves suggest to American religion scholar Jan Shipps that LDS leaders are saying to themselves, "The world is changing, and we are going to change with it."

The church is looking to a stage "that is much grander than the Intermountain West," says Shipps, an eminent non-LDS historian of Mormonism. "And especially grander than Utah."

Says BYU journalism professor Joel Campbell: "We have arrived. We are now well-known enough that we can do our own thing."

And, the former News media columnist quips, "We are even big enough to be mocked."

All joking aside, is Mormonism big enough and secure enough to rise on the respectability ladder? And will Latter-day Saints online — and others who "share their values," as new Deseret News CEO Clark Gilbert describes such potential readers — flock to the new publishing venture? Can editors who put such a high priority on LDS beliefs really do journalism — with its varied sources, controversies and critiques of the powerful — or will the need to control the overall message overwhelm individual messengers?

Gilbert and the other LDS executives involved in recasting the Deseret News are confident of their direction. They say they will, in fact, be leading the country's journalistic revolution and increasing their church's status at the same time.

"We are not just a local paper; we have national reach and influence," Gilbert told Doug Fabrizio, host of KUER's Radio West, last week. "We are not The Sacramento Bee. People read us all over the world. People care about us and our values. [They] will be motivated to contribute their voice because they share our values."

On the sports front, can BYU football score the same kind of national cachet as Notre Dame? In the United States, Mormon membership tops 6 million, but it remains a pittance compared with Catholicism's 68 million. And, pollsters say, Catholics rank among the country's most admired believers, while Mormons are near the bottom.

From the center • Mormons everywhere — whether they were raised in the Beehive State or never have set foot here — look to Salt Lake City as a kind of home. It is, after all, the sacred core of the faith, with its pioneer tales of persecution, exodus and exile. It also is the church's headquarters, where the top hierarchy lives and leads.

It was natural, then, for the church to have its own newspaper, which Brigham Young launched in 1850 to detail the comings and goings from an LDS perspective.

Beginning in the early 20th century, new converts were urged to build Mormonism where they were, while many multigenerational members left Utah's capital to take jobs in other cities. A large number of high-achieving LDS students ended up at some of the nation's most prestigious universities, establishing Mormon congregations.

Still, they all yearned for news of Zion, which some got through the church's paper and especially its Church News section.

Now the Internet has made the connection much easier for far-flung Mormons to keep in touch, says Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

"There are probably a lot of diaspora Mormons who long for more of a connection to Salt Lake City," Haglund writes in an e-mail from Boston. "Paradoxically, I think Mormons who have never lived in Utah often have a very intense desire to be part of Mormon culture, which they perceive as emanating from Utah."

Haglund knows East Coast-born Harvard alumni who are rabid BYU football fans. "And for Utah natives living elsewhere," she says, "I suspect absence may make the heart grow fonder."

The News' new plan to emphasize the church's national and international developments at the expense of Utah news, she says, may, ironically, diminish those readers' interest. She also wonders about the paper's decision to write about national issues from an LDS point of view.

"It's not clear to me that there's anything particularly Mormon about most Mormons' Fox News-branded conservatism," Haglund says. "The Deseret News may be aiming for the forehead of the national giant with a very small slingshot and some smallish rocks of Mormon tribalism."

Principal or principles? • While several LDS observers questioned whether the BYU and Deseret News developments were dictated by anything more than economic conditions, most agreed that both plans face serious obstacles.

It is clear that Mormon presence and participation online are extraordinary.

In fact, Latter-day Saints are among "the bloggingest folks in the country," says Melissa Proctor, Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fellow at the Reed Foundation in New York City.

"From personal family blogs to the more scholarly group blogs that constitute the bloggernacle, Mormon presence online is deep and broad," Proctor says in an e-mail, "and runs the gamut from heterodox offerings to hyperorthodox journals like Meridian Magazine and, of course, the church's own website."

What, she wonders, can the Deseret News offer that isn't already being done? Plus, Proctor fears, this change may harm, not help, the faith's reputation.

"Replacing professional journalists with amateur observers, who might be little more than glorified bloggers on one hand and official church representatives on the other," she says, "fundamentally changes the Deseret News from a respected newspaper accountable to journalistic standards to something else entirely."

Kaimi Wenger, an LDS lawyer in Southern California, compares this journalistic direction to the efforts of Boyd K. Packer, president of the LDS Quorum of Twelve Apostles, to replace the work of professional Mormon historians with a more "faith-affirming" approach.

The desire for exposure, says Wenger, who regularly blogs at timesandseasons.org, conflicts with the church's need for a "correlated message."

"Our insecurities are actually exacerbated by the national platform," Wenger says. "Mormons want to be taken seriously and accepted on their own terms, while, at the same time, they want tight message control so they can avoid difficult, complicated and possibly derailing conversations about polygamy and other touchy subjects."

Blog bog • The News is counting on attracting the lively community of LDS bloggers as potential writers and readers of the paper's future incarnation.

So far, though, last week's announcement has had little impact on the online Mormon world. Well-established LDS blogs haven't heralded the move nor even discussed it.

The paper's new mission "isn't a bad thing," says Steve Evans, an LDS lawyer in Seattle who in 2004 founded bycommonconsent.com, the mostly highly trafficked Mormon blog. "It just doesn't interest me."

Evans gets his LDS news directly from the church's website, he says, and sees many of the articles in the Deseret News — and its Mormon Times Thursday supplement — as merely "devotional."

"I would love to see a journalistic institution that actually did investigative journalism, that is, timely and impactful explorations on the church, not just puff pieces," he says. "The Deseret News would like to do that, but I don't know that they can."

On the other hand, BYU's jump — to Notre Dame-like independence in football and the West Coast Conference in other sports — has provided endless online fodder.

"I'm not sure BYU's move is a deliberate part of any strategy to get a national presence for the church," says David Campbell, a Mormon and a Notre Dame political scientist. "It's already not just a Utah-based church."

It remains to be seen whether Cougar games can attract the promised audience, Campbell says. "Notre Dame does have a national constituency, and that is based on people's tie to the school's mystique."

No matter why BYU and the News made these moves, the LDS Church never can go back to being a little parochial enterprise, says Utah State University historian Philip Barlow.

"Both the newspaper and the football program are responding to conditions and imaginatively trying to establish a different place in the world," says Barlow, a Latter-day Saint and Leonard J. Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at the Logan school.

He points to an LDS Church's website posting, which celebrates the rise of Mormon studies at secular universities.

"We are important enough to invite this kind of scrutiny," Barlow says, "and rooted enough to endure it."

pstack@sltrib.co

'Fill the Earth'

O God, our Eternal Father, with thankful hearts we approach thee in prayer on this historic Sabbath when we dedicate this magnificent Conference Center. …

Not far away are the Church Office Building, the Administration Building and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Also nearby are the Lion House and the Beehive House, both of which are historic in character. In the other direction are the Museum of Church History and Art and the Family History Library. …

Together they become a testimony of the strength and vitality of thy work, the headquarters of thy church, and the fountain from which truth rolls forth to fill the Earth.

— President Gordon B. Hinckley, dedicatory prayer of downtown Salt Lake City's LDS Conference Center in October 2000.