A dramatic increase in public and media interest in the Mormon Church has compelled church leaders to carry out a multipronged effort to better inform the public about the church and to dispel misconceptions.
“There’s a big knowledge gap when it comes to the church,” Michael Otterson, associate managing director of public affairs, told religion journalists in the church’s first online news conference Tuesday. He recounted a “collective jaw dropping around the country” last month by church members when a national TV network interviewed a journalist about Mormons. Asked what other church was closest to the Mormon faith, the man named the Unification Church, founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
“The church is not ready to just stand by and let others define it,” Otterson said, noting that the unprecedented interest has led to a “national conversation about us, and we want to be part of it.”
“It’s no secret that a member of our faith is running for president,” said Kim Farah, manager of media relations, who joined Otterson in the press conference.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become the center of widespread curiosity on the Internet and by media in wake of the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Whereas early this year there were just 16,000 items listed when “Romney” and “Mormons” were put into a Web search engine, it now shows 1.3 million items, Farah said.
The last time there was such comparable interest in the church was during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, where the church has its headquarters, Farah said. More than 1,300 newspeople visited church offices in 10 days.
Farah stressed that the church remains strictly neutral in politics. It endorses no one running for office, bars candidates from pulpit speeches, doesn’t allow publishing of voter guides, and won’t make membership lists available to candidates.
“We do not tell our members what party to belong to or what candidate to vote for,” she said.
With more than 6 million followers in the U.S., the Mormon Church ranks fourth in American church membership, after Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists and United Methodists. Worldwide, the church reports more than 13 million members.
Otterson said Mormons have been the subject of at least five recent national surveys, including Gallup, Harris, Los Angeles Times and Pew Research. Asked what words people associated with Mormons, one poll found 18 percent mentioned “polygamy” (which the church ended in 1890); 12 percent “strange beliefs”; and 10 percent said “Utah.” Trailing were “good people,” 7 percent. Otterson said the church has work to do to educate others about itself. He cited a Pew Research survey showing 27 percent unfavorable opinion of Mormons, while 73 percent held positive or neutral opinions.
Otterson said the church encourages members to take an interest in public affairs, including becoming engaged in political life as they feel led. Apostles, or the highest leaders of the church, plan to meet with editorial boards of newspapers to answer questions in light of the national interest.
Otterson and public affairs colleague John Taylor met Sept. 12 in Scottsdale with Tribune writers.
Much of the 37-minute conference was spent on questions about the debate over whether Mormon beliefs and teachings depart from orthodox Christian doctrine enough to disqualify it as “Christian.” Farah said the Mormon Church shares broad common ground with Christian faiths and that Jesus Christ is at the core of Mormons’ faith as their savior and redeemer.
“We are the restored church,” she said, explaining the church of the early centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection was restored on the North American continent to fulfill the revelations for the latter days. She said that with its organization of apostles, prophets and modern revelation, it parallels the early church. She said members gain added wisdom from the Book of Mormon, which the church says was translated by founder/prophet Joseph Smith from golden tablets unearthed in 1827 in upstate New York.
Farah said the church does not allow others to define whether Mormons are Christians. “This is non-negotiable for us. … We are Christians, but perhaps we are different. We are not Protestant. We are not Catholic. We hold a unique place in the Christian mosaic.”
She said while doctrinal authority rests with leaders, all members are taught to have a “personal testimony in Jesus Christ” from which to draw inspiration for leading their own lives.
Asked about the second coming of Jesus Christ, Otterson said the church teaches that Jesus will return to Jerusalem, “the city that he loved so much.” Yet, during Christ’s 1,000-year reign of peace on earth, there would be “dual capitals” for Christ’s government, Jerusalem and “somewhere in the center of the United States.”
M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also participated in the news conference through a video interview.