Harvard law professor Noah Feldman troubled LDS historian Richard Bushman last month when, in a lengthy piece about Mormonism in the New York Times Magazine, he said the LDS Church is extreme in two respects, "in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity."
Sunday night, about the time church President Gordon B. Hinckley was passing away in Salt Lake City, Bushman stood up at a fireside in California and wrestled with Feldman's notion that Mormons are normal as a people but odd as believers.
Bushman has spent his professional life in places like Boston and New York, earning academic credentials that make him a go-to guy for journalists seeking comment on the church and Mitt Romney. With that background, Bushman found he agreed with Feldman.
Feldman also argued that many evangelicals engage in soft bigotry when they embrace Jews and Muslims who share their common conservative values but don't offer the same fellowship to like-minded Mormons.
For Bushman and many Mormons, this is a problem, especially as Romney's campaign plays out and they wonder if voters are applying a religious test when they cast their ballots. What, short of Feldman's suggestion that the church shift its theology and practices, could close this gap?
Bushman found answers in President Hinckley, who in 1995 declared on "60 Minutes" that "We are not a weird people." That public pronouncement helped, Bushman said, but was "kind of a drop of water on a rock."
Instead, the way President Hinckley lived his 97 years challenged the notions that his faith is excessively strange.
"It's not going to be someone breaking the rock apart," Bushman said. "It's going to be more drops of water in the form of one good, sane, gentle, strong person at a time holding Mormon beliefs. President Hinckley was the epitome of wisdom, goodness and stability, and that provided an incongruity for others: The beliefs can't be that strange if they can produce that kind of person.
"The more people see good people coming out of those beliefs, the less strange those beliefs will seem. I don't think there's any other way to make our miracle stories seem reasonable, and that isn't any different than the beginnings of Christianity when Christian people were looked at as strange for believing this story of resurrection. Now, Christian beliefs are accepted in the mainstream culture, but in 200 A.D., Christians still looked pretty weird."
Bushman also credited President Hinckley with changing the way Latter-day Saints talk about their faith.
"Mormons have always proclaimed what they believe, or we debated," Bushman said. "I think President Hinckley initiated the age of conversation. The interviews with Mike Wallace and Larry King introduced a totally new mode of dialogue. Mormons now don't try to sell the gospel, they don't try to impose it. They just talk about their lives."
Today Latter-day Saints bid farewell to President Hinckley, who provided leadership through most of the 20th century as the church moved away from 19th-century radicalism toward the mainstream.Today, they'll begin looking ahead to what new leadership and the rest of the 21st century holds for the Mormon story.
Tad Walch lives with his wife and five children in Provo, their home for the past 21 years. Please e-mail [email protected]