The Mormon Moment
The Church of Latter-day Saints grows by leaps and bounds
Yet as Harold Bloom noted in his 1992 book, The American Religion, beyond the inner circle of the Mormon hierarchy, "no one really knows what portion of the liquid wealth in America's portfolios is held by the Latter-day Saints Church." Even so, it is clear, wrote Bloom, that "Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in 50."
That influence has been hard won. In its early years, the LDS church was widely regarded by outsiders with suspicion and outright disdain. Its members, many of whom practiced "the divine principle" of polygamy, were run out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The movement's leader and founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered by an angry mob in 1844. Years later, the stronghold where the Mormon faithful had settled, now Utah, was denied statehood until after the church officially abandoned its practice of polygamy in 1890.
Although violent opposition has long since faded, the church has continued to face almost unrelenting controversy over its origins. From the beginning, critics have disputed and ridiculed Smith's claim that an angel led him to a set of golden plates hidden in a woods near his home in Palmyra, N.Y. The plates were said to contain the sacred history of an ancient Israelite civilization in North America, along with teachings said to have come from Jesus during a post-Resurrection visit to America. Smith published his translation as the Book of Mormon.
Detractors have dismissed Smith's story as religious fantasy and the Book of Mormon as coarse fiction filled with clumsily reworked passages from the King James Version of the Bible. They argue that there is no archaeological evidence of an ancient Israelite sojourn in America--although some Mormon scholars say a link may exist to the ancient Mayan culture. Other critics contend that Smith, a former Mason, drew upon Masonic rituals rather than divine revelation when he instituted Mormon temple rites.
But today, religion experts note, the LDS church is widely respected for its devotion to faith and family, and its pioneer past is celebrated as an integral part of the American saga. Such a dramatic shift in public perception has not come easily or by accident. In 1995, leaders hired an international public-relations firm to combat what they saw as unfair characterizations of Mormons in the media. One of its first efforts was to encourage the redesign of the church's logo to emphasize the centrality of Jesus Christ in LDS theology. "We don't see it so much as PR," says Maxwell, "as trying to define ourselves, rather than . . . letting others define us." Church headquarters is gearing up for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and plans to take full advantage of the limelight.
The afterlife. Savvy media relations aside, LDS leaders emphasize the church's unique doctrines and beliefs. Among LDS teachings, say church leaders and others, none has proved to be more attractive to potential converts than the church's view of the afterlife. Mormons teach that only "sons of perdition"--lapsed Mormons who betray the church and its teachings--face eternal punishment. Everyone else will at least make it into the "telestial kingdom," a sort of third-rate Paradise where one spends eternity apart from God. The most faithful attain the "celestial kingdom," where they commune directly with God and may themselves become gods and inherit universes to rule and populate with their own spiritual offspring.