PROVO — For a solid 45 minutes Monday morning, Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke to members of the LDS International Society about "How the Church is Handling Increased Global Visibility."
In what may be a first for anyone speaking on that subject over the past year, not once during the entire presentation did he mention the name Mitt Romney.
"I have done that deliberately, because it should tell us something about the 'Mormon Moment,'" Otterson told some 300 International Society members, who were holding their annual conference on the BYU campus. "It is much more than politics. It is much more than a moment. After 182 years, the church may have reached that point which the Lord described in (the first section of the Doctrine & Covenants) — finally, the church has emerged from obscurity, at least in some parts of the world."
Otterson was the second speaker on the International Society's conference agenda. Just moments earlier, Elder Anthony D. Perkins of the LDS Church's Quorums of the Seventy, received the society's Distinguished Service Award. Elder Perkins, who was serving as president of the church's Taiwan Taipei Mission at the time of his call to be a General Authority, has served for five years as a member of the Asia Area Presidency. He also spoke about how the LDS Church is emerging from obscurity, only from the perspective of the church in Asia.
According to Otterson, there are two kinds of obscurity: the kind that relates to invisibility, and the kind that relates to misunderstanding.
"Joseph Smith said in his history that he endeavored to 'disabuse the public mind' of false ideas about himself and his work, and we are still working on that project," Otterson said. "If Phase 1 had to do with the church's visibility, then Phase 2 — which will be about achieving understanding — still mostly lies ahead."
Otterson contends that the current period of time, which U.S. media has proclaimed to be "the Mormon moment," is not a moment at all but actually the next logical extension of 182 years of church growth, beginning with LDS founding prophet Joseph Smith's "First Vision" in upstate New York and continuing through to the Salt Lake Winter Olympics and the current presidential campaign.
"Perhaps after 182 years of successive moments, it's time to change the paradigm," Otterson said. "Of course the 'Mormon moment' is going to live on in the journalistic lexicon, but this is not a transitory moment that will end, but simply the latest phase in the historic emergence of the church to a higher level of public consciousness."
Otterson noted seven contributing factors to the LDS Church's growing public profile, all of which he believes are enduring well beyond the current presidential campaign:
LDS celebrities: "This is not a new phenomenon," he said, recalling the huge popularity of the Osmonds in the 1970s. "Today, LDS celebrities are almost too numerous to mention. Many come from the world of sports. Others are in arts and entertainment. Some have made names for themselves in business and industry. Others are emerging in academia. And several have been successful in politics Collectively, they have the net effect of raising the church's profile and adding to the national and international conversation about Mormons."
LDS politicians: "Unquestionably, this factor is driving much of the current media interest," Otterson said. "The presidential campaign presents significant challenges for the church as well as opportunities. The most obvious challenge is keeping the institutional church out of the political campaigning It is not part of the church's mission to campaign for political candidates or influence."
Academics: Otterson referred to "a new generation of scholars which is being more and more frequently quoted in the mainstream media," specifically citing David Campbell, co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us;" Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People"; and J.B. Haws, author of an upcoming history of LDS Public Affairs. "The serious work in which they and others are engaged is raising the church's public profile in significant ways with thoughtful observers."
LDS bloggers: "Just how much influence individual LDS bloggers as a whole have on public perception of the church is a matter of conjecture," Otterson said. "Some bloggers push themes that are very different from the official voice of the church, and we sometimes have a challenge in explaining that to journalists." However, other bloggers are having a positive impact, he said, referring specifically to "thousands of LDS women who are writing about familiar themes of home and family (and who) seem to have created a new media niche that is raising the church's profile in unexpected places."
Popular culture: "Popular culture is an incredibly powerful force in conditioning public opinion and increasing awareness," Otterson said. "It may be the factor over which we have the least influence, but it may be one of the most significant in terms of how many of the general public see the church." He referred to the church's response to "The Book of Mormon" musical on Broadway as an example of how the church tries to elevate "above the fray onto higher ground."
Church initiatives: Otterson referred to the LDS Church Missionary Department's "I'm a Mormon" campaign as a way to allow "members of the church to tell their own stories honestly and in unscripted ways." There are also outreach efforts from the church to interfaith leaders, leaders of ethnic or cultural minorities, members of Congress, state governors, ambassadors, academics, think tanks and those who represent advocacy groups. "All of these groups have members who from time to time have interests that overlap with the church," Otterson said, "hence our interest in helping people better understand who we are and the values we represent."
Church growth: "In my view, ultimately the rising public awareness of Latter-day Saints in almost all of the categories I have mentioned is a subset of one major factor, and that is the continued growth of the church," Otterson said. "Our members everywhere are our best advertisement. They are school teachers and students, professional associates and fellow factory workers, bankers and businessmen, artists and musicians. All form a part of the rising tide of church membership with its potential for interaction with the nonmember public, and for greater education as to our beliefs and practices."
Because of all of these elements, Otterson is confident the end of the current American election cycle will not mean the end of public attention to the LDS Church — for good or ill.
"While there are opportunities for the general public to better understand the church, it is obvious that dissenting voices and anti-church critics will seek to exploit this higher profile for their own objectives," Otterson said. "We know that there will be times when we need a thick skin. We may also need a sense of humor. Above all, we will need a spirit of kindness and forgiveness, remembering that our claims to be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ are most convincing when our actions are in harmony with our beliefs."
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