A year of scrutiny for the LDS Church
If 2002 was Mormonism's debutante ball, 2008 may go down as its first semester of college.
The Utah-based church made new friends, endured back-stabbing from would-be friends, joined some clubs, got a taste of fame and had a few wrenching exams.
From the possibility of a Mormon in the White House to a stream of Latter-day Saints on reality television, from being attacked as belonging to a cult (or mistaken for a polygamous sect in Texas) to participating in California's bitter battle for traditional marriage, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would see their faith in the nation's mirror. To many, such scrutiny was unlike any they had seen in their lifetime.
"The church emerged on the center stage of public consciousness in a way we hadn't seen before," says Chase Peterson, former University of Utah president and lifelong Latter-day Saint. "The full consequences of this new public awareness probably will not be understood for some time."
Indeed, it was a "wild, eventful year for the church," says Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, "quite beyond its perpetual efforts in spreading its message, looking after its members, managing its vast resources, building its facilities and addressing catastrophes at home and abroad."
The crucial question is: How will the LDS Church and its individual members respond to the year's events?
For example, Mormons, who in recent decades have been staunchly Republican, were cast as pariahs during Mitt Romney's presidential campaign by controlling sectors of the Republican Party. Though he had won widespread political and financial support across the nation, most Evangelicals in the party bitterly opposed him, and between 37 percent and 43 percent of Americans said they would never vote for a Mormon, any Mormon.
Even after Romney bowed out of the race, many Mormons continued to smart from the accusations and misrepresentations of their faith that flourished during his run. They developed a serious distaste for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who, they believe, fueled anti-Mormon hostility while playing innocent.
Others were more straightforward. The Rev. Robert Jeffress repeatedly called Mormonism a "cult," and evangelist Bill Keller famously said, "A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for Satan."
Will Latter-day Saints now begin to question their allegiance to the Republican Party, Barlow wonders, or even move into the Democratic Party in the future, especially if Barack Obama is successful in his first term?
Life was changing inside the church as well.
LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley died at the end of January. At 97, Hinckley was Mormonism's oldest prophet and the most vigorous to the end. He had transformed the church's public image, giving interviews to reporters everywhere he went.
Hinckley's longtime associate, Thomas S. Monson, ascended to the LDS presidency, choosing Dieter Uchtdorf, a German member, as a counselor. The leadership focus began to shift.
Where Hinckley met with the media and immediately traveled outside the country, Monson held an awkward, scripted news conference and stayed closer to home, running the church from its Salt Lake City headquarters. He dedicated four temples and announced eight more, while also opening a new welfare services compound and sending humanitarian aid across the globe.
Despite such goodwill efforts, conflicts occasionally erupted.
In March, Mormon leaders were chagrined by news accounts of three Mormon missionaries in Colorado who apparently desecrated a Roman Catholic shrine. Though the Catholics ultimately forgave the missionaries for their vandalism, a month later the Vatican issued an order, blocking LDS access to Catholic parish records because of the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. The move caused widespread hand-wringing among genealogists everywhere, including Catholics.
Catholics and Mormons later put aside their differences to become allies on a different political issue -- gay marriage.
In June, Mormons joined the Preserve Marriage Coalition at the request of Archbishop George Niederauer, the San Francisco Catholic leader who had previously led the Diocese of Salt Lake City. The First Presidency sent a letter to all California Mormons, urging them to support a ballot measure known as Proposition 8, which defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
The same Evangelical groups that had demeaned Mormonism as a cult during Romney's campaign were now the LDS Church's allies in the California fight.
"These new defenders of the Mormon faith have long been the most prolific Mormon-bashers in the nation," said Wayne Besen, executive director of the Brooklyn-based gay-rights group Truth Wins Out. "[The two groups] have nothing in common but their anti-gay rhetoric."
The measure passed on Nov. 4, and in the ensuing days, angry supporters of gay marriage protested outside LDS temples across the nation.
"The church's support of Proposition 8 created a loud backlash and may make the church a symbol for the constriction of civil rights," Barlow says. "Will the church dig in on what it sees as a moral and constitutional issue or will common cause help repair or forge new allegiances with Evangelicals?"
Not many years from now, 2008 may be seen as a turning point for the LDS Church in addressing the reality of homosexuality, he says.
The church's theology was formed at a time when homosexuality could only be construed in biblical terms as "abomination," he says. "Because of experience and science, today church leaders see the issue in a more complex light. They distinguish between feelings and actions, and they acknowledge that we do not know the originating causes of same-sex attraction."
LDS founder Joseph Smith once said that " 'by proving contraries, truth is made manifest,' " Barlow says. "As is the past, this may be a painful but auspicious moment in LDS history."