News analysis: A Christian queston: LDS seek to define faith on their own terms

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

A KSL television camera takes in the view of the Salt Lake City Temple on a wet Friday.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

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Religion and politics have long been the "oil and water" of any social gathering, where political correctness and polite conversation dictate avoidance, or at best, whispered interchange.

But the "faith factor" in presidential politics has changed the discussion of late for American Mormons, who are now constantly confronted with questions about their belief in Christ — or the lack thereof. So as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather today for their 177th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, it is against the backdrop of a politically charged landscape that has placed their doctrine and history in the spotlight as never before.

Though leaders of the LDS Church have long maintained the faith's political neutrality, their recent initiatives to define the church on its own terms, rather than allowing the media, political think tanks, Christian pundits or skeptics to do so, have come after years of offering a more subtle response to the question of whether Mormons are Christians.

Raised daily in continuing media accounts about Mitt Romney's run for the White House, the question has been magnified beyond its most recent incarnation a decade ago, when leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention were preparing to hold their annual convention in Salt Lake City and stated publicly that Latter-day Saints are not Christians.

That declaration caught the attention of former President Jimmy Carter, who told reporters in 1997 that Southern Baptist leaders were "trying to act as the Pharisees did ... in trying to define who can and who cannot be considered an acceptable person in the eyes of God. In other words, they are making judgments on behalf of God. I think that's wrong."

Since then, the "Mormons as Christians" question has become a hot topic among the nation's evangelical Christians, who by many estimates include roughly one-third of Americans. Recent surveys show many of them are drawn to Romney's values but repelled by his faith. The issue has also been raised in nationally televised candidate debates and become the subject of political columnists across the ideological spectrum.

From the faith's infancy, Latter-day Saints have been publicly categorized in ways with which they disagree, but a worldwide membership of 13 million, the church's ranking as the fourth largest denomination in the United States and its growing political clout has brought the church "out of obscurity" nevertheless.

To counter what the church sees as inaccuracies and stereotypes about what the church teaches and what it requires of its members, two new initiatives directed at media have been added to a string of recent public pronouncements by the church, designed to provide detailed answers to questions that intersect faith and politics.

The first was inaugurated earlier this week, when two LDS Public Affairs officials held the church's first-ever live online press conference for more than two dozen religion reporters across the country. In addition to taking live questions, the press conference featured eight video clips of Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve addressing questions the church is frequently asked. Five of the eight dealt with the role of Jesus Christ and how others have tried to define the church:

• "Are you Christian? What is the role of Jesus Christ in your faith?"

• "Why do some people say your church is a cult?"

• "Do you worship Jesus Christ in your church services?"

• "How are your beliefs similar to those of other Christians?" and "How do your beliefs differ from other Christians?"

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