The church of the West

The Mormons

The Economist/February 7, 2002

Salt Lake City -- Within four decades, one in 20 Americans may be a Mormon and there may be 50m or more worldwide. How will outsiders react to the next world religion?

In 1847, on the slopes where 1m visitors will descend to watch the 2002 Winter Olympics, 148 pioneers arrived by wagon to build the city of God. They created something extraordinary. Tolstoy called Mormonism "the American religion." Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale, argues that "the Mormons, like the Jews before them, are a religion that became a people."

In Utah, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (as Mormons call themselves) is by far the most important public institution, with all-encompassing claims on the loyalty of its members far outstripping those of the state or nation, even though Mormons are among the most patriotic of Americans. Mormons account for 70% of Utah's 2.2m inhabitants. Yet all of the state's representatives in Congress, all of its Supreme Court, 90% of its legislature and 80% of its state and federal judges belong to the church. Not surprisingly, critics fear the Mormons are creating a theocracy.

Outside Utah, the number of Mormons has trebled in America over the past 30 years. The total for the whole country is now more than 5m (making them almost as numerous as the Jews). Outside America, where membership has increased even faster, there are now as many Mormons as in the United States, bringing the total to above 11m. Back in 1980, Rodney Stark [often referred to as a "cult apologist"] , a professor at the University of Washington, predicted, to much derision, that there would be 10m Mormons in 2000. He now estimates 50m by 2040. If current growth rates continue, the Latter-Day Saints will be numbered in the hundreds of millions by 2080 and Mormonism will be, you might say, the first new world religion since Islam.

The hordes of sports fans gathering in Salt Lake City this week may be forgiven for ignoring this ferment. In the interest of good neighbourliness, the church has taken care not to preen itself. Yet the visitors will influence the church's future indirectly. "The Olympics", says Ted Wilson, a former mayor of the city, "means the refuge is over." In other words, Mormon Utah can no longer command the privacy it used to enjoy.

To their critics, the Mormons' phenomenal growth is a danger. They argue that the church's political power threatens the wall between church and state; that Mormons' cultural conservatism limits the rights of non-Mormons (look at the state's anti-alcohol and anti-gambling laws); and that the inward-looking quality of the church (most Mormons mix with others of their faith) is divisive and menacing.

These charges are exaggerated. The alcohol laws are annoying rather than oppressive. The Mormons' undoubted conformity has not stopped the non-Mormon population of Salt Lake City becoming as diverse and lively as that of any other big city. But the charges raise a more interesting issue: the church's contradictory attitude towards its recent achievements. It is this that causes many of the difficulties the church now faces.

If you go to the Mormons' visitor centre at the heart of Salt Lake City, the smiling hosts will describe a mainstream American Christian church, faster-growing and more conservative than most, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. Its doctrines seem unexceptional. It lays great stress on the nuclear family. Its views on abortion, same-sex marriage and lifestyle are culturally conservative; Mormons do not drink alcohol, coffee or tea, and do not smoke or gamble. They also have an uninhibited attitude to capitalism, running plenty of for-profit firms.

Despite accusations of a "quasi-theocracy", the church is in some ways ostentatiously apolitical. Its leaders, unlike those of many other churches, refuse to endorse candidates for office. It takes public positions only on moral matters, such as abortion. It insists on obeying the laws of even the dictatorial countries where its missionaries roam. One senior Mormon, Dallin Oaks, quotes scriptural authority for his view that "Latter-Day Saints obey the law, participate in the affairs of government at all levels and serve in the armed forces of their respective nations." In short, Mormons appear to be a mainstream evangelical church, upholding private property, traditional family values and the separation of church and state.

Yet, when they were founded in the early 19th century, the Mormons mounted radical challenges to each of these things. Early Mormons practised polygamy, which conflicts with the traditional nuclear family. Between 20,000 and 60,000 people still practise polygamy clandestinely, but the church long ago abandoned it and excommunicates its practitioners.

In the early years, the church was almost communist in its attitude to private property. It required Mormons to hand over their goods to the church, which then handed them back but gave the former owners only "stewardship" over them. This meant that the church's leaders could make discretionary demands on the faithful for the greater good. Like polygamy, this system was abandoned long ago, as the church's embrace of corporate capitalism shows. Yet vestiges remain.

The church is extraordinarily demanding of members' time and money. Mormons are supposed to "tithe," that is, give 10% of their income to the church. Nearly two-thirds do so, accounting for most of the church's estimated income of $6 billion a year. They also voluntarily give anything up to 40 hours a week to church-run activities, an extraordinary commitment of time that helps to sustain one of the world's most impressive welfare services. At the local level, argues Dean May, a historian at the University of Utah, Mormons are far more "communal" in their attitudes than is normal in individualistic America.

Cannon to the Right of Him

More controversially, early Mormon doctrine contained such startling departures from Christian orthodoxy that some conservative churches even now question whether Mormons are Christians at all. The orthodox view of the afterlife is that good Christians spend eternity in the presence of God. Mormons believe in something different: "eternal progression" towards God. Their notion is that the soul exists throughout all time (before this earthly life as well as after it), with Latter-Day Saints advancing slowly to spiritual completion. The idea has something in common with eastern faiths; the lama in Rudyard Kipling's "Kim", with a reservation or two, would have nodded gently.

The logical conclusion of eternal progression is to muddy the difference, fundamental to other Christians, between God and man. The Mormons' founder, Joseph Smith, went so far as to say that "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man." And if men have the capacity to be like God, that implies there could be a "plurality of Gods" (the Mormon phrase). To critics, this is mere polytheism.

Some Mormons want to play down parts of this doctrine, but eternal progression influences several beliefs that others find curious. As members of a relatively new church, for example, Mormons face the problem of how to treat people born before their prophet was, in 1805. They solve it by a doctrine of posthumous baptism: America's Founding Fathers and Shakespeare are among the millions accepted as Mormons.

More important, the notion influences the Mormon view of government. In the early years, church leaders were theocrats, not democrats, and saw no distinction between church and state. Joseph Smith was running for president when he was murdered by a mob in Illinois. Brigham Young was governor of the Utah territory and president of the church.

Utah is no theocracy now but, unlike most churches, Mormonism retains a distinctive view of the state which derives from theology. Chris Cannon, a Mormon congressman, explains it as follows. Earthly life, Mormons think, is the time when the soul is tested. For the test to mean anything, people have to be free agents; if they are not, the test will be meaningless. So, says Mr Cannon, "for Mormons, the question of what the government does is one of the most important we face." The government's role, he concludes, must be minimal, to leave people free to make their choices. As a good Mormon, who believes in proselytising, Mr Cannon is not just talking in the abstract: he wants this conception of the state to influence governmental reforms in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Mr Cannon is also a conservative Republican, which may explain his "leave-us-alone" view of the state. Mormon Democrats (there are a few of them) reply that very poor people, and drug addicts, are hardly free agents; so these Mormons want a more active government.

In each of these matters, the church has made huge adjustments in the past decade or two. But in all of them, except polygamy, the basic ideas that set Mormons apart are still there. That reflects both the church's flexibility and its strength. But, as its membership continues to rise, the adjustment raises two big questions for the church and for the outsiders who are increasingly affected by what it does. How much further can it move away from what were once its fundamental beliefs before it loses its identity? And, if it cannot move away, or compromise, how will this affect its relations with non-Mormons?

The Trouble with Being so Big

The central challenge for the church is to keep alive its sense of being, as Mormons put it, "a peculiar people," the chosen ones, rather like the Jews. For Mormons in Utah, this sense of being apart is bred in the bone, by the history of their great trek into the wilderness and, especially, by their history of persecution. It is hard for Mormons to forget that their founder was killed by a lynch mob and that the federal government once sent an army to exterminate them.

How do you maintain this sense of peculiarity when Utah's Mormons represent only 14% of the church's worldwide membership? The church's leaders try to answer that question by maintaining that there is a universal Mormon identity (something that all religions have had difficulty achieving, even when they have pursued it). How far the leadership can continue doing this as congregations abroad get ever huger is open to doubt.

The relationship between Mormons and other believers is no less tricky. For the moment, the fact that the Mormon church is such a hierarchical organisation (with power exercised by small groups of men who meet in secret) works in its favour. The leadership has been assiduous in trying to open up the church, admonishing Mormons against the dangers of clannishness. The real trouble comes from the bottom of the church, not the top: the conservatism of most church members and the inward-looking quality of Mormonism almost inevitably separate Mormons from others.

Last year the Salt Lake Tribune, the city's main non-Mormon daily, commissioned an opinion poll which found that two-thirds of those living in Utah recognised a cultural fault between Mormons and non-Mormons. Of course, the sheer size of the church in Utah contributes to the conflict: it is the 800-pound gorilla which doesn't have to do anything to seem threatening. But, as Mormonism spreads, that problem may spread too.

Throughout its history, outsiders have criticised the Mormon church as isolated, marginal and rigid. It has begun to slough off those qualities. But it is still unclear whether it can rid itself of the other feeling it elicits, however unfairly: hostility towards what is different.

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