The Mormon Moment?

The cover is an irresistible mash-up: notoriously staid Mitt Romney, refashioned as one of the musical missionaries from the Book of Mormon musical, captured mid-leap.

But what’s actually inside Newsweek’s special issue “The Mormon Moment” fails to live up to the promise.

Here’s an executive summary of the Newsweek cover article “Mormons Rock!” by Walter Kirn (himself a young convert to Mormonism and one of the best writers our tradition has ever been able to claim): 

Mormons: they’re still weird! (Insert gratuitous reference to “weird” belief or practice here.)  Not everyone likes them!  But they are also super successful (Quote CEO here.) What’s their secret? They’re Mormon!

It’s the same story we saw last summer in the Financial Times: Mormons! Different! But also highly sought after on Wall Street and by the CIA!

But it’s not as interesting as the story rank-and-file Mormon bloggers are telling about Mormonism as it enters the 21st century. Here are some key elements of the story Newsweek missed:

1.  Spectacular growth rates for the LDS Church once predicted by non-LDS sociologists have failed to materialize. In fact, despite a substantial international missionary force, LDS Church growth rates are flatlining in the U.S. and internationally. 

2.  With much of the Church’s growth being among US Latinos and in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, tensions between the political and economic interests of the Church’s white, multi-generational American core and its global membership are increasing. Recent political efforts by the LDS Church to support a suite of moderate immigration reform measures in the state of Utah evidence the growing influence of Latino Mormons in the Church. And they point to a future of more contests and compromises.

3.  New tensions about how to manage controversial elements of the Mormon past are emerging, thanks to the digital era. The LDS Church would like to quietly leave behind issues like polygamy; current lesson manuals, for example, do not reference multiple marriages by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But with information about Mormon polygamy—a great deal of it prurient and designed to hurt—only a mouse-click away, a growing number of Mormons (especially young Mormons and converts) are stumbling into harder questions about the Mormon past.

4.  The LDS Church has massive wealth it continues to develop through real estate and development projects. Lately, more LDS Church members are asking questions about the Church’s investment of $3 billion USD in a redevelopment project in downtown Salt Lake City in comparison to the Church’s reported spending of $50 million USD annually on welfare and humanitarian relief.

Disappointed expectations. Global tensions. Historical controversies. Human failings.

Those are the ingredients of a story that makes Mormons sound like humans after all.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.