LDS General Conference in the “Mormon Moment”

Saturday and Sunday, LDS Church leaders and millions of Mormons around the world convened—whether in person at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, or by internet, cable television, satellite broadcast, and radio—for the Church’s semi-annual General Conference. For Mormons, Conference means listening to a set of sermon-like addresses by Church leaders, not “conferring” in committee and deliberating policy, as is the case for other Protestant denominations. And although Church spokespeople stressed that Conference this year would be a routine affair, attentive Conference observers noticed signs that the Church is aware of what the media has called “the Mormon Moment:” an intensity of public attention driven largely by the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

Political watchers’ ears pricked up on Saturday afternoon when J. Willard Marriott and Jon Huntsman Sr. were among a group of LDS Church officials “released” from their callings. With both men being the namesakes of current political candidates—Mitt Romney’s first name is Willard, and Marriott was a close friend of Mitt’s father George Romney—the changes in office led to some speculation that the move was motivated by the Church’s desire to underscore its stated non-involvement in the Huntsman and Romney campaigns. Church spokespeople, however, described the changes as a routine “rotation.”

Signs that the Church is eager to be understood better by the general public include key Sunday (the equivalence of Conference “prime time”) addresses asserting the centrality of Jesus Christ to Mormon belief and practice. Reaction to the Romney campaign among Christian evangelicals has revealed the extent of the evangelical view that Mormons are not Christians. On Sunday morning, Elder M. Russell Ballard emphasized the place of the name “Jesus Christ” in the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and reasserted that other branches of the Mormon movement—including fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy—should not be confused with the LDS Church. On Sunday afternoon, Elder Dallin H. Oaks affirmed Mormon belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

On Saturday morning, Elder L. Tom Perry directly engaged the “Mormon moment,” acknowledging the extent to which the internet is shaping Mormons’ ability to communicate with the public and encouraging Church members to use this time to dialogue candidly with friends about our faith, whether in person or by social media. Members should be certain to declare their faith in Jesus Christ, said Perry.

As someone who writes about Mormonism for a general public, it’s my experience that most people actually know little about what we believe—especially how we relate to mainline Christianity. The Mormon movement was founded in the early nineteenth century by American Protestant “Restorationists:” people who believed that high-church Protestant sectarian schism and theological technicalities had obscured the original power of primitive Christianity and who sought to restore that original power to daily life and practice. Mormonism has turned out to be the most powerfully innovative of the Restorationist Protestant movements (which also include churches like the Disciples of Christ), generating its own additional books of scripture, a distinctive notion of Christian perfection (or “sanctification,” to use the theological term) centered in LDS temple worship, and a history of distinctive social practices. But that innovation should not obscure the fact that a belief in Jesus Christ as savior is at the core of Mormon worship. Every Sunday, we take a bread-and-water sacrament in remembrance of Christ. Baptism by immersion in the name of Jesus Christ is the gateway ordinance for membership in the Church.

Yet when I have asserted the Christianity of Mormon belief for national audiences, the number one reaction has come from Christians who seek to correct my understanding of my faith and remind me that Mormons are not, in their eyes, Christians. Some assert that they’ll be praying for my mistaken soul (and the soul of my Jewish husband too). Others seek to engage in a friendlier conversational exchange about whether Mormons profess the Nicene Creed. (We do not recite the creed as a matter of custom, but most Mormons would assent to about 90% of it.) These kind of encounters are always a strange experience for Mormons who authentically regard ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. And without dismissing real theological distinctions between Mormonism and mainline Protestantism—and there are some—the Mormon experience suggests that the dominant usage of the term “Christian” in American discourse is not as a descriptor of the way an individual regards Jesus Christ, but as a political and social term used to distinguish sanctioned branches of Christianity and withhold approval from others, often in the service of institutional and political agendas. But none of this political and institutional debate changes the immense role Jesus Christ plays in the faith lives of Mormons. Including me.