SALT LAKE CITY — Recently my wife and I attended the wedding of a valued friend and colleague, a seriously lapsed Mormon getting married outside the faith to her live-in boyfriend, with her devout Mormon family in attendance. Did I mention it was held at a brewery?
The event came back to me on this my first visit to Salt Lake City, the creation of Mormon pioneers who arrived in 1847 to take possession of a place nobody else wanted. It is now a gleaming business hub, the capital of Utah and the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It's not a generic American city. Temple Square, occupying 35 acres downtown, is anchored by the Salt Lake Temple, an astonishing structure that looks as though it came straight out of a Disney fairy tale and, being a sacred site, is closed to non-Mormons.
The square has a tabernacle, a conference center, statues of Jesus and John the Baptist, and a theater showing a film about founder Joseph Smith. You can't stroll through without encountering a bright-eyed young Mormon inviting you to see the film, attend a concert or otherwise investigate what the faith has to offer.
The LDS complex, with its unreal aura, constitutes the most striking thing about Salt Lake City. The second most striking thing is that while the Mormons built the town, they no longer own it. You don't have to walk more than a few blocks from the temple to find a craft brewery or tavern, filled with non-Mormons—and doubtless some lapsed or former Mormons—doing things the church does not condone.
The Zion of Brigham Young's dreams is a secular place with all the amenities of a medium-sized city. Mormons are a minority of the Salt Lake City population. The area attracts throngs of heathen tourists who come to ski, hike, golf or ride all-terrain vehicles, heedless of celestial matters.
Mormons are famous for their fervent commitment to old-fashioned virtues, like sobriety, sexual probity, and community. With their bulletproof smiles and overwhelming niceness, they often seem like historical reenactors giving us an exaggerated sense of what it was like to live in America circa 1955.
But the church's story is one in which change figures as much as tradition. In its early years, followers were violently persecuted and answered in kind. At one point, the U.S. Army occupied Utah to put down a rebellion. Somehow, though, the armed insurgents eventually gave way to the likes of Mitt Romney.
The LDS church staunchly opposes same-sex matrimony, in the name of preserving "traditional marriage." Yet Mormons were once regarded as sworn enemies of traditional marriage since they practiced polygamy—and gave it up only so Utah could gain statehood.
The church has lately tried to mitigate its anti-gay reputation by endorsing a Utah measure to outlaw employment and housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation—which last week became law. It was quite a turnaround.
It's not the only one. The Mormons once barred blacks from the priesthood, a policy abruptly abandoned in 1978. Two years ago, the elders explicitly renounced "the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse."
The priesthood still admits only men, but the church has had to adjust to the expectations of modern women. In 2012, it lowered the age at which they can become missionaries from 21 to 19, a change that has tripled the number of female proselytizers. Upon returning home, they may be less amenable to the remaining limits on women.
Mormons portray their faith as one that is continually winning converts. But in this country, members leave at about the same rate as new ones join. Today, apostates are more numerous than ever, and they find it easier than ever to spread their views.
A 2011 study published by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College found, "Despite a large missionary force and a persistent emphasis on growth, Mormons are actually treading water with respect to their per capita presence in the U.S."
Like other faiths, they face a younger generation that has a noticeable skepticism about religion—including my newlywed friend. Maintaining the sense of unstoppable divine favor won't be easy. Neither will resisting the powerful influences of modern America.
The Mormons are learning what followers of other religions know: It's possible they will change the culture, but it's certain the culture will change them.