Religion

Change Comes, Even to Mormons

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.

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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.

NEXT: Congratulations, and a fond farewell, to Will Baude

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  1. As a libertarian Mormon, I was pretty interested in this article as soon as a saw the headline. For the most part it is pretty accurate, but I have just one criticism from a believers point of view.
    According to our faith, we didn’t end polygamy for political reasons or gaining statehood. The official explanation comes in the form of “Official a Declaration 1” in our scripture. You can Google it, but it essentially states that God commanded the end of polygamy in order to protect our temples and people from being crushed by the Feds. If it weren’t for divine decree, we’d have continued the practice per God’s commands.
    I can noser stand the skepticism from non-Mormons regarding this explanation, but I think it best to represent the faithful piont of view in addition to the sociological.

    1. I can understand.*
      Phone trouble…

    2. As a Mormon, why can’t you admit that Joseph Smith was a complete charlaten who fabricated the entire “Golden Plates” thing, based on a hodge podge of late 19th century occultism and egyptology. If he hadn’t been fabricating religious textbooks, he would have been holding fake seances to bilk gullible widows out of their money, or practicing mesmerism or past life regression.

      1. My, we are mighty inviting, aren’t we?

        1. It’s Hazel’s subtle power of persuasion at work.

      2. It’s probably the same way every religion got started, it’s just that in most cases it happened so along ago that we don’t have third party accounts of how Zoroaster was an incredibly obvious con man.

        1. Most every religion creates god in man’s image. I suspect this is only acceptable to those who feel a need to extend the feeling of protection that came from their parent’s “omniscience” and “omnipotence” through a “less fallible” avatar.

    3. Yes. It wasn’t in response to a desire for statehood. It came about due to a deep desire to be able to retain our faith, property and liberty in the face of an oppressive federal government bent on destroying the Mormon “rebellion”.

      This statement is also an interesting one: ” In its early years, followers were violently persecuted and answered in kind.”

      Is it now unacceptable to fight back when people are attempting to kill you and destroy your property?

      1. Ask Netanyahu.

  2. The second most striking thing is that while the Mormons built the town, they no longer own it.

    Aren’t bars invite-only clubs? I think they have a stronger grip on Utah than this article would imply.

    1. That old “private club” law was dispensed with back in 2009.

  3. 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.

    So endorsing public accommodation laws is now a good thing in Libertarian eyes? is there any principle Libertarians won’t throw out if doing so is seen to benefit the gays?

    1. Is there any opportunity you won’t pass up to remind everyone that you’re a homophobic dinosaur?

    2. Where in that quote did he say it’s a “good thing”? He simply stated a fact.

  4. 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.

    The law in question was a Trojan horse. It has so many exception that it pretty much only protects homosexuals from discrimination by people who don’t want to discriminate against them anyways.

    Meanwhile, the real purpose is to give individual Christian employees a legally binding veto authority over the direction of the owners and managers where they work. If you don’t like how your boss is running the place, just claim the policy in question “violates your religious conscience” and you can’t be punished for ignoring them.

  5. I lived in SLC for 6 years. I worked for people who, let us say, were in families deep in the church hierarchy, so gained more than a little exposure to the ideas and theology. It’s wack. No more wack than most other religions, but still, wack.

    However… Mia Love.

  6. I have an old high-school paper I’d like to submit also. Where do I send it?

  7. “Two years ago, the elders explicitly renounced “the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.”

    Now, if we could only get secular “progressives”, like Ruth “growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of” Bader Ginsburg, to abandon their racist nonsense.

  8. I oppose the Mormon religion on the same grounds as every other: Any religion that requires you leave reason at the door is no more than a cult.

    That said, America could learn much from Mormon self-reliance and their sense of community. Just not the whole god/spirits/afterlife/baptisms for the dead bunk.

  9. They leave my Reason in the mailbox,but at the door would work fine.. ; )

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