By Michael Otterson
During the past few years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has navigated a period of intense public attention and scrutiny rarely seen during any other time in its history. In 2008, nationwide media attention was focused on the Mormon faith during the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney (a Mormon). A few journalists named the period "The Mormon Moment." For a year or more, media attention far exceeded even the considerable interest generated during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
That particular Romney-specific "Mormon Moment" came and went (although it could easily resurface if the former Massachusetts governor decides to run for the White House again). But beyond politics, those of us who interact daily with the news media and other opinion leaders sense a more fundamental and long-term shift in public fascination with Mormons.
Several factors contribute to this. Certainly the Church has reached a size, especially in the United States and some parts of Latin America, that prompts people to pay attention. While remaining distinctive as to beliefs, as the fourth largest church in the U.S. it has become an integrated part of American religious life. In 2005, Newsweek profiled a number of prominent Latter-day Saints from the arts, industry, and other fields, suggesting that Mormons are everywhere. A month ago, the prestigious British newspaper, the Financial Times, devoted considerable space to the fact that Mormons seemingly crop up regularly -- and are much sought after -- at the top of the business world, partly due to the discipline, language skills, and reputation for honesty that arises from missionary experiences. Then again, the Church's strong stance on such moral issues as defending traditional marriage has earned it substantial praise from other churches as well as criticism from its detractors. Either way, Mormons are becoming harder to ignore. Other faith groups, including Catholics, Jews and Muslims, have already experienced the pluses and minuses of growing out of obscurity to a place prominent in the public's mind. Now it's the Mormons' turn.
Some commentators have pointed persuasively to the "Mormon Diaspora" to account for this growing interest. Once seen as a religion confined mostly to Utah, the faith's adherents now live in every state in the Union and in virtually every country of the world. While public opinion surveys still show a marked lack of understanding of the Church's core principles and beliefs, neither the Church's leadership nor its members are particularly discouraged by that fact. Monumental progress has been made during the past century, and particularly in recent years, in gaining respect in the public's mind. Significantly, studies show that people who know Mormons on a personal level typically have great respect for them, even if they occasionally baulk at an institutional church with which they may not readily identify.
Nothing in the future is more important in helping the public break through remaining misconceptions about Mormons, to come to an understanding of who they truly are, than the lives and examples of individual Latter-day Saints. As people come to recognize that the real Church is its 14 million Mormon neighbors, friends, and coworkers, their respect for and understanding of the religion will grow. In fact, the cumulative effect of Mormons who endeavor to follow Jesus Christ in their daily living and interaction with their communities is the most powerful reputation-building effort the Church has.
For years the Church has publicized messages to explain what it is, what it stands for, who its people are and what it is not. But with the fracturing of the news media and the explosion of publishing on the Internet, combined with the confusion that results when movies, books, plays, or other commercial works of fiction try to depict Mormonism, inaccurate and even negative perceptions persist. We will not be successful in changing these perceptions of the Church in the future by simply sending out messages alone. Perceptions will change only when people see Christlike actions of the Church in its individual members in matters of family life, personal integrity, neighborliness, and personal standards of honesty and morality. What really matters most is the way we act, not what we say. That's part of the reason why I'm greatly encouraged by the new web site, Mormon.org, which features thousands of real Latter-day Saints, unscripted, expressing what their faith means to them.