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Cardell Jacobson

Sociologists' most recent take on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was edited by faculty at church-owned Brigham Young University, but published by the University of Utah Press — a fact that, for longtime Utahns, may illustrate just how much has or hasn't changed in the past half-century for a faith that continues to draw both curiosity and scrutiny.

Written by a stable of scientists, most not part of the LDS Church, "Revisiting Thomas F. O'Dea's 'The Mormons,"' already has spurred a daylong university symposium and is likely to provide fodder for those who study the church — and more directly, its members — for some time to come.

Released earlier this year, the book includes reflection on O'Dea's original question of "how the LDS Church could retain its own uniqueness as it confronted the larger society," according to editors. His seminal study on Latter-day Saints, published in 1957 after the Harvard graduate student was assigned to do a detailed survey of rural LDS communities, was the basis for much of the sociological study of Mormonism that followed.

Cardell Jacobson, one of the new book's editors, told an audience at a Utah Valley State College symposium on Wednesday that, at the time of its publication, O'Dea's study focused on a faith that was Utah-focused and mostly isolated within the Intermountain West. "He didn't anticipate the kind of growth the church has experienced."

Other things he didn't foresee in his look at Latter-day Saints include:

• The women's movement and its impact on members.

• Changes in the sexual mores of the nation, including increasing tolerance for homosexuality.

• How race and the civil rights movement would impact society and the church.

Those topics all are addressed at length in the new book.

Race plays heavily into the faith's current missionary effort in Africa and South Africa, he said, which before a 1978 announcement rescinding a ban on priesthood ordination for black males was not even a possibility. Even so, the church "has never recorded race as part of its membership record," he said, "so we simply don't know how many ethnic groups (and in what proportions) belong to the church."

Sociologist Armand Mauss addresses the topic in the book's chapter on "O'Dea and the Race Issue," writing that, "Some white Mormons have continued to hold the old conceptions about race, but at a clearly diminishing rate. Black populations in most of the world are joining the church in large numbers.

"Even in the United States, where the church has taken longer to live down its racist stigma among black Americans, there are signs that at least younger African-Americans are willing to view the future of Mormonism as much more relevant to their lives than its past."

Jacobson's own research interest has included trans-racially adopted children. When he asked parents and adult adoptees about their experience with race, "without exception, any child over 5 or 6 years old has heard the 'N' word," he said. "Clearly, racism continues throughout American society," but he sees signs of optimism in the LDS Church, including an April 2006 statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley to LDS males during the semi-annual priesthood session of general conference condemning racial hatred.

The book's co-editor, Tim Heaton, said most of the authors are "outsiders" to LDS belief and practice, just as O'Dea himself was, though "they have a variety of different attachments to the church. It's part of the ethic among those who study Mormonism" that they respect each others' work, "don't challenge truth claims and don't ask about their faith."

He said those who study Mormonism apply a variety of different social science perspectives and come from wide-ranging academic backgrounds, noting the scientific study of the LDS Church and its members is becoming more widely accepted in the academic community, particularly among non-LDS practitioners.

Information isn't always easy to obtain, because the church doesn't share its own research and keeps detailed membership information confidential. Because church membership is relatively small compared to the U.S. population, it's difficult to get information from national studies that include Latter-day Saints.

Another challenge: "The Mormon community isn't always excited about how social scientists study them. If the results are positive, that's great, but if the results are negative, that's not so good."

For example, Heaton said, the editors approached a BYU official about hosting a conference to discuss the book's findings, but "he was afraid the press would show up and publish something that sounded negative, so he said he would rather not have the conference there. If you talk to Mormons and share something that's positive about Mormons, they love it. If it's negative, you become suspect."

That fact was shown in one of O'Dea's original concerns about how the church would function in the future with a number of built-in "stresses and strains within its own structure," the editors wrote. "The most significant of these, O'Dea believed, was the 'encounter with modern secular thought.' He foresaw a conflict between the church's encouragement of education and the exposure that it would inevitably bring to secular thought and church teachings on a variety of topics."

Richley Crapo, an anthropologist at Utah State University, addressed the church's "shift" in language regarding homosexuality, noting recent talks and publications that soften the stance some previous LDS leaders had taken regarding people with "same-sex attraction."

The topic also is addressed in the book in a chapter titled "The Current Crisis in the Formation and Regulation of Latter-day Saints' Sexual Identity," by Melvyn Hammarberg, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and self-identified father of an adult lesbian daughter and adult gay son.

Crapo said the term "gay Mormon" is seen an an oxymoron by some, "but there is diversity in every religion." He said Elder Dallin H. Oaks' recent article, which explained that Latter-day Saints who feel same-sex attraction are not condemned if they don't act out on those feelings, "would be seen as a baby step from the view of gay and lesbian members, but revolutionary with regard to the impact on Mormon thinking at the grassroots level."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com