SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Otterson, director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says that something "transformational" happens in downtown Salt Lake City twice each year as general conference time approaches.
"Temple Square becomes thronged with people of every nationality," Otterson wrote in his regular "On Faith" blog posting in the Washington Post this week. "Across the (downtown LDS Church headquarters) campus the flavor becomes decidedly cosmopolitan, from the cafeteria crowds to the tourists packing the (Main Street) Plaza, the nearby Family History Library or the adjacent Church Museum.
"In short," he said, "things get busy."
But are things any busier this general conference — sessions of the LDS Church's 181st Semiannual General Conference begin Saturday morning at 10, with two more sessions Saturday and an additional two sessions on Sunday — than they have been for general conferences past? This is, after all, the Mormon Moment, so proclaimed by various media outlets because of the intense media scrutiny of the past six months, a perfect storm of independent events and circumstances that have collectively shone a spotlight of unprecedented brightness on the LDS Church. Will general conference in the Mormon Moment be any different than any other general conference?
Probably not, if you ask Latter-day Saints who have been following the Mormon Moment professionally.
"Pundits outside the church may be expecting some church leader to take advantage of the moment to make some landmark speech that will get a lot of coverage around the world," said McKay Coppins, a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics, religion and national affairs. "My experience is general authorities don't tend to do that. They go in seeking inspiration for what the members of the church need to know at this point in time. There may be a reference or two to the increased media attention of the past few months, but I don't expect any public positioning."
Neither, evidently, do others in the secular media. LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said Wednesday that requests for media credentials for conference sessions this weekend are running about the same as usual, with no requests from media sources that normally don't cover conference.
"There is news, and there is conference," said Carole Mikita, who has been covering The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a reporter for KSL-TV since 1998.
Mikita said she expects a "business as usual" kind of conference, and doesn't expect Church leaders to try to capitalize on "the Moment." And that's OK, she said: "These conferences were not created for news cycles."
"The strategy of the church has been to emphasize the good the church does and the diversity of the church through things like the 'I'm a Mormon' campaign," Coppins continued. "They tend not to directly engage any secular examination that may be taking place. They use the spotlight of general conference to push forward the gospel message to the membership of the church, and to the world — not to engage their critics."
Joanna Brooks, a widely circulated columnist for Religion Dispatches and the "Mormon girl" behind the popular Twitter feed askmormongirl, agreed.
"The American media may have declared this 'the Mormon Moment,' but Mormonism is a global religion, and conference is an important time for church leaders to speak to members around the world," Brooks said. "As fascinating as media coverage of the (Mitt) Romney campaign or 'The Book of Mormon' musical may be to members in the U.S., I doubt that these are major concerns for our brothers and sisters in Korea, or the Philippines, or Chile.
"It is possible that we may hear a reaffirmation of the church's statement of neutrality on political candidates, or a brief comment on the ('I'm a Mormon') campaign," Brooks continued. "But I think it's unlikely that LDS Church leaders will address 'the Mormon Moment' over the pulpit. The LDS Church's PR department has taken 'the Mormon Moment' very much in stride, allowing church leaders to focus on the messages of peace, hope and reassurance that Mormons and other people of faith around the world are hungry to hear."
And that's just as it should be, according to Otterson.
"General conference is not really a conference at all, in the usual sense of the word," he wrote in his "On Faith" blog. "There will be no great debates, no huge policy changes to announce to the general membership. You can be certain that there will be no political addresses from the podium, and it's highly unlikely that anyone will mention even indirectly the two Latter-day Saints running for president of the United States."
What people come to conference for, Otterson said, "is altogether different."
"This is a time for listening and thinking," he wrote. "For several months (LDS Church leaders have been) pondering and praying about what message (they) should deliver to the worldwide membership. Leaders do not necessarily confer with each other. There is no coordination of messages. Each speaker, whether man or woman, looks for inspiration in choosing his or her subject, drawing on personal prayers and life experiences as well as their interactions with members as they travel the world."
Once those talks are presented, Otterson said, the relevance of general conference messages are manifest "in the lives of the members they touch."
"All will listen to the 20-plus addresses over the weekend for what seems most relevant to them," Otterson said. "Many will ponder and pray and find ways to help them be better parents, better husbands and wives, better sons and daughters, better neighbors, better followers of Jesus Christ."
Those are the kinds of messages Coppins, Brooks and Mikita said they will be looking for and expect to hear delivered during this conference — regardless of whether more people outside the church are paying attention because of "the Mormon Moment."
181st Semiannual LDS General Conference
What: The five sessions of the 181st semiannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Where: The LDS Conference Center, 52 W. North Temple St., Salt Lake City
When: Three Saturday sessions — at 10 a.m, 2 p.m. and the 6 p.m. priesthood meeting for males 12 and older; two Sunday sessions — at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Who: A total of more than 100,000 Church members, friends and invited guest are expected to attend in Salt Lake City, with millions more watching and listening at various locations around the world.
Tickets: Required to enter the Conference Center. Attendees will pass through a security check, with cameras, recording devices, weapons, food, backpacks, packages and large bags not allowed.
Overflow: In the Tabernacle, the North Visitors' Center on Temple Square and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for all sessions. For the priesthood and Sunday sessions, additional seating is available in the Conference Center Theater. The Assembly Hall will provide overflow seating for Spanish speakers for all five sessions. Tickets are not required for admission to overflow facilities.8 comments on this story
Traffic: Conference-goers are encouraged to carpool or use public transportation to relieve downtown traffic and parking congestion. UTA service options can be found at www.rideuta.com/.
Parking: Public parking is not available at the Conference Center parking lot. Limited public parking is available at Regent Street Parking (119 S. Regent Street (50 East)), the Energy Solutions Arena parking lot (70 N. 300 West) and Eagle Gate Terrace (145 E. Social Hall Ave. (50 South)). Disability parking is located at the West Temple lot just north of North Temple. Conference attendees should avoid parking in front of homes in downtown residential areas. Cars parked on neighborhood streets may be ticketed or towed at the owner's expense.
Broadcast plans: A detailed broadcast schedule is available at www.bonneville.info, with information regarding audio and video streaming via the Internet at www.lds.org/broadcast/. With the exception of the priesthood session, conference sessions will be broadcast on BYU Television and locally on KSL-TV. For additional information on broadcast availability and rebroadcasts visit www.byutv.org.