Lives of the Saints: the Mormon Church is struggling with a troubled legacy

Lawrence Wright, Lives of the Saints. The New Yorker, 21 January 2002. “At a time when Mormonism is booming, the Church is struggling with a troubled legacy.”

Excerpts from story:

Some Mormons regard the forthcoming Olympics [2002] as the fulfillment of a prophecy. “We shall build a city and a temple to the Most High God in this place,” Young told his followers. “Kings and emperors and the noble and wise of the earth will visit us here, while the wicked and ungodly will envy us our comfortable homes and possessions.” But the International Olympic Committee’s choice of Salt Lake City for the 2002 Games was accompanied by less welcome news. First came the revelation that members of the Salt Lake Bid Committee had boosted its candidacy by dispensing more than a million dollars in cash and gifts to members of the I.O.C. The United States Attorney’s office indicted two of the Salt Lake committee’s leaders, David Johnson and Thomas Welch, both prominent members of the Church, on bribery and other charges. It was expected that their trial might implicate other leading members of the Mormon establishment, including Michael O. Leavitt, the governor of Utah. Last August, however, the federal judge in the case, David Sam, who is also a Mormon, threw out the key charges, calling them an “uninvited federal intrusion” into the state’s affairs. Johnson and Welch faced additional charges of conspiracy and fraud, but the case was dismissed by Judge Sam last November. The federal government has appealed the decision.

In the meantime, the Church was obliged to revisit the most horrific episode in its history. In 1857, a wagon train of migrant families heading to California was massacred in southwest Utah. A hundred and twenty people were murdered in a grazing spot called Mountain Meadows. The Church had long denied any responsibility for the massacre, blaming a few renegade Mormons and a band of Paiute Indians, whom the Church accused of killing the women and children. In 1999, at the request of the descendants of the victims, the Church rebuilt a small monument at the site. The gesture became a public-relations disaster when construction workers discovered a number of bones that seemed to indicate that the women and children had been shot at close range, apparently by Mormons, rather than killed by the arrows, clubs, and knives of the Indians.

The traditional Mormon practice of polygamy, which the Church officially banned in 1890, also became a subject of renewed controversy when the Tribune published a series of articles about child abuse and welfare fraud in polygamous families. The articles revealed, among other things, that polygamous marriages were still flourishing in various parts of the state, and in greater numbers than ever. When Tom Green, a man with five wives and thirty children, flaunted his life style on talk shows—he was eventually tried and convicted on charges of bigamy and criminal non-support—the Church was obliged, once again, to try to come to terms with its most vexing legacy….

The Church made a decisive entry onto the national political scene in 1976, when it launched a five-year campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. (The Church feared that it would lead to a “unisex” society.) The Church is now conducting a similar campaign against same-sex marriage. Two years ago, Church members in California were instructed to vote in favor of Proposition 22, which upheld the ban against same-sex marriage, and in some cases members were directed to donate specific amounts of money to the cause. Church-supported prohibitions against gay marriage also passed in Hawaii and Alaska. Two years ago, the Church threatened to withdraw its support of the Boy Scouts of America if the organization allowed gay scoutmasters. Since the Church sponsors more scouting units than any other comparable institution, the threat, if acted upon, might have ended the scouting movement in the United States….

In recent years, the Church has become more flexible on matters of race. It was clear, following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that it could not exist in America if it continued to practice racial discrimination, and yet the issue of extending priesthood to blacks was not resolved until 1978, when the Mormons’ president, Spencer W. Kimball, expanded the eligibility rule to “all worthy males.”… At Mormon headquarters, however, all the top executives are still white men….

Those who are willing to speak out maintain that the standing of women in the Church is in decline. “I believe that women’s participation in the Church will become even more limited,” Lynn Matthews Anderson, a Mormon who is a freelance writer and editor, told me. She maintains that Church leaders have discouraged women from becoming missionaries. “The Church for Mormon women is entirely different from the Church for Mormon men,” she said….