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The “Because He Lives” Easter messages are from a worldwide initiative sponsored by the LDS Church’s missionary department in Salt Lake City that features images of Jesus Christ. This is an example of one of the memes the church offers for people to share with others during the initiative.

SALT LAKE CITY — During the 2012 presidential election, the LDS Church's public affairs office fielded 50 calls a day.

The interest in Mormons was "just enormous," said Michael Otterson, managing director of the church's public affairs department.

Two-and-a-half years later, there is evidence that Otterson was correct when he predicted after the election that the "Mormon Moment" not only wasn't over but signaled instead the "real emergence of American Mormons."

"I've got no reason to back off that at all," he said this week. "I think that was exactly right. We thought something fundamentally different had happened. ... I don't think you can have that kind of intensity and just turn off the switch at the end of it."

The church is firmly in the national spotlight as it gathers for the faith's 185th Annual General Conference today and Sunday. That spotlight burns brightest now for the faith's position on nondiscrimination laws, with The Washington Post calling the church "a voice for tolerance."

Meanwhile, the church's Easter video, released a week ago, is exhibiting international reach, seen online in more than 30,000 cities in 223 countries and territories across the world.

Observers say the positive attention for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over a difficult issue and the broad reach of the video — banner ads purchased by the church on YouTube have a potential reach of 250 million people Sunday — indicate either a new act within an ongoing Mormon Moment or an even larger post-Mormon Moment development.

Fundamental shift

Whichever it is, the attention drawn by the church is changing, said Eric Hawkins, the church's senior manager of media relations.

"During the (Mitt) Romney period," Hawkins said, "stories often were a very cursory skip across the surface to try to help a Swedish audience, a Japanese audience, a German audience figure out who are the Mormons. Following the election, the phone didn't stop ringing but it became, how do Mormons feel about this issue or that issue?

"The questions in some ways seem harder. The way we respond had to become more comprehensive, and we had to deal with the issues instead of just the inquiry."

On Jan. 27, the church hosted a news conference that drew national attention. Three LDS apostles and one of the faith's women's leaders outlined the church's official support for nondiscrimination laws that ensure fair access to housing and employment for LGBT people while safeguarding religious freedom.

The initial reaction was largely positive, but some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups expressed criticism that the church's position was a license to discriminate. Others said the position could become a model for state legislatures across the country.

Less than two months later, the Utah Legislature passed two nondiscrimination bills modeled on the church's position, and weeks later the national media continue to hail them in contrast to quagmires in Indiana, Arkansas and elsewhere over bungled attempts at nondiscrimination or religious freedom laws.

The nation's major newspapers described the “Utah Compromise” as a "landmark bill" (The Washington Post), a "golden mean" between religious freedom and gay rights (The New York Times) and as Utah showing "the way on gay rights" (The Wall Street Journal).

A senior scholar at the First Amendment Center said “the Utah Miracle” should make everyone "proud to be an American."

"Although that wasn't strictly speaking our story," Otterson said, "we clearly triggered it, and there's been continued high interest in the church because of that topic."

The church's public affairs office took a call this week from Time magazine asking for comment on the Indiana legislation.

"We tend to get calls asking us to just comment on things all the time now," Otterson said. "That's particularly interesting, I think."

Improving view?

For J.B. Haws, the new development in the Mormon Moment is improved public perception of the church as an institution.

Public perception of Latter-day Saints in American society long has been split. Most people held a better opinion of Latter-day Saint individuals than of the institutional church, said Haws, author of “The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception.”

Now institutional moves are generating more positive media attention. For example, many stories celebrated the church's openness after it released a dozen new gospel topics essays in late 2013 and 2014.

Those stories, the "I'm a Mormon" campaign, the "Meet the Mormons" movie and NBC's special "Mormon in America" all "brought a new attention to lived religion, what makes Mormons tick and why they do the things they do," Haws said.

"That seems to have created space for more interest in the institution," he said. "There has been a recent switch to talking about Mormon principles, Mormon doctrines, Mormon values, which I think are institutional themes."

The nondiscrimination position is the latest example. Haws was interested in The Washington Post article — "Utah, yes, Utah, passes landmark LGBT bill."

"The Washington Post called the church a voice for tolerance," he said. "That was something new and different about the church as an institution. What was interesting was a recognition by the writer that the church has been pushing for tolerance, and civility, and working together, and compassion for some time, and that this was frankly a model for compromise for other groups.

"It's sending some new signals about what the LDS Church is like and what the church stands for. Frankly, I think it's surprising to observers. The church is demonstrating itself to be more open, more compassionate, more willing to engage than some people may have thought."

Interesting group

Otterson believes the new development is a combination of a maturing Mormon Moment and a change in society.

"We have shifted from being a kind of outlier to much more of the mainstream, but mainstream doesn't mean the same as everyone else," he said. "I think just the Internet age itself has brought this recognition that society is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of different groups and subgroups, and they all have a kind of legitimacy, and that's all been at work at the same time as the church's emergence. I think there's a much more ready acceptance than 10 years ago.

"I think whatever happens now, Mormons, I think, are seen as an interesting group, an interesting part of American society."

Haws said the new wave of the Mormon Moment has a broad sweep and includes the intensifying academic interest that has launched more Mormon Studies programs, research and books.

"This next act seems derived from a focus on the church's stands, its principles, its teachings and its positions," he said.

Otterson noticed something different about one example of that this week, when NBC's "Today" show aired a segment titled "Why covering up is cool: Inside fashion's modesty movement." The segment included views from Muslim, Orthodox Jewish and Latter-day Saint women.

"Interestingly, the piece actually refers to 'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' and in another place to 'LDS,'" Otterson said. "You wouldn't have seen that 10 years ago. All you ever saw was references to 'Mormon.' Now there's a respectful full name of the church used in a story that was really nothing to do with us. There's something that's happened in the last 10 years that I think's quite fundamental."

Super Bowl

While general conference is underway in downtown Salt Lake City Easter Sunday, the LDS Church's missionary department will be flooding the Internet with its "Because He Lives" video.

For a 24-hour period, the church will be the sole advertiser on YouTube's home page. For Latter-day Saints, the excitement compares to a Super Bowl ad, said Greg Droubay, director of media in the church's missionary department.

"We have a potential audience of 250 million people that has the opportunity to see a 15-second version of the 'Because He Lives' with an invitation to go see the entire video. It's really a unique opportunity for us to truly reach a good portion of the world with our message focused on Jesus Christ."

The goal is global penetration, which the church measures a number of ways. The first video in the series, "Because of Him," reached people in 179 countries during Easter season 2014. The Christmas video "He is the Gift" reached 201 nations and territories. Through Thursday, "Because He Lives" had been seen in 223 of 234 of the world's countries and territories.

The broad, international reach also was apparent in a breakdown of online views. Through Thursday, more of the views were in Spanish (6 million) and Portuguese (3.3 million) than English (2.9 million), with most of those coming from Central and South America.

"We're really thrilled with what's happening," Droubay said.

Combined, the three videos have been viewed more than 52 million times, "another discernible step" in the next act of the Mormon emergence, Haws said.

"They feel natural but also very poignant and very memorable. I think they are creating a new, identifiable marker about LDS beliefs," he said.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com