Mormons catch a glimpse of life in the big leagues

September 30, 2010

SALT LAKE CITY

Mormons have been making headlines across the nation — from HBO’s “Big Love” to California’s Proposition 8, from American Idol wannabe David Archuleta to “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer, from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to conservative icon Glenn Beck.

Church spokesman Michael Otterson writes essays for The Washington Post and Mormonism is included in an important new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Two more universities are poised to launch “Mormon Studies” courses.

It’s all given the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a glimpse of playing in religion’s big leagues.

Indeed, says Mormon blogger Jana Riess in Cincinnati, Mormonism is becoming part of the “mainstream national conversation in a way that it wasn’t 10 years ago.”

Such visibility could partially explain why the church-owned Deseret News laid off nearly half its Salt Lake City staff and plans to tap a stable of “correspondents” as it charts a new future beyond Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.

The more prominent profile also may have helped propel its flagship school, Brigham Young University, to bolt from the Mountain West Conference and sign a football broadcasting deal with ESPN, with a promise to fill stadiums across the country with true-blue BYU fans.

Taken together, these moves suggest to American religion scholar Jan Shipps that Mormon leaders are saying to themselves, “The world is changing, and we are going to change with it.”

The church is looking to a stage “that is much grander than the Intermountain West,” says Shipps, an eminent non-Mormon historian of Mormonism. “And especially grander than Utah.”

Says BYU journalism professor Joel Campbell: “We have arrived. We are now well-known enough that we can do our own thing.” And, the former Deseret News columnist quips, “We are even big enough to be mocked.”

All joking aside, is Mormonism big enough and secure enough to rise on the respectability ladder? Will far-flung readers flock to a revamped church-owned newspaper? Can BYU football score the same kind of national cachet as Notre Dame?

Clark Gilbert, CEO of the Deseret News, is confident the 160-year-old paper can lead the country’s journalistic revolution and increase the church’s status at the same time.

“We are not just a local paper; we have national reach and influence,” Gilbert told Doug Fabrizio, host of KUER's “RadioWest,” recently. “People read us all over the world. People care about us and our values. (They) will be motivated to contribute their voice because they share our values.”

Brigham Young launched the paper in 1850 to report the news from a Mormon perspective. Since then, the Mormon Diaspora has looked to the paper for coverage of their spiritual home away from home.

“I think Mormons who have never lived in Utah often have a very intense desire to be part of Mormon culture, which they perceive as emanating from Utah,” said Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, in an e-mail from Boston.

She wonders, though, about the paper’s decision to write about national issues from an LDS point of view.

“It’s not clear to me that there’s anything particularly Mormon about most Mormons’ Fox News-branded conservatism,” Haglund says. “The Deseret News may be aiming for the forehead of the national giant with a very small slingshot and some smallish rocks of Mormon tribalism.”

Kaimi Wenger, a Mormon lawyer and blogger in Southern California, said the desire for increased exposure conflicts with the church’s need for a “correlated message.”

“Our insecurities are actually exacerbated by the national platform,” Wenger says. “Mormons want to be taken seriously and accepted on their own terms, while, at the same time, they want tight message control so they can avoid difficult, complicated and possibly derailing conversations about polygamy and other touchy subjects.”

Likewise, Steve Evans, a Mormon lawyer in Seattle who founded the wildly popular blog bycommonconsent.com in 2004, had his doubts. He gets most Mormon news directly from the church’s website, and sees many Deseret News articles as merely “devotional.”

“I would love to see a journalistic institution that actually did investigative journalism, that is, timely and impactful explorations on the church, not just puff pieces,” he says. “The Deseret News would like to do that, but I don’t know that they can.”

On the other hand, BYU's jump — to Notre Dame-like independence in football and the West Coast Conference in other sports — has provided endless online fodder.

“I’m not sure BYU’s move is a deliberate part of any strategy to get a national presence for the church,” says David Campbell, a Mormon and a political scientist at Notre Dame. “It’s already not just a Utah-based church.”

It also remains to be seen whether Cougar games can attract the promised audience on ESPN, Campbell said. “Notre Dame does have a national constituency, and that is based on people’s tie to the school’s mystique.”

No matter why BYU and the News made the expansion moves, the Mormon church never can go back to being a little parochial enterprise, says Utah State University historian Philip Barlow, especially when universities are treating Mormonism as a serious course of study.

“We are important enough to invite this kind of scrutiny,” he said, “and rooted enough to endure it.

Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for “The Salt Lake Tribune.”

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