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Mormonism thriving in heavily Catholic US Northeast

April 3, 2006

By Jason Szep

BELMONT, Massachusetts (Reuters) – Stepping into a Mormon
temple is like watching a cinematic take on heaven: everything
glows in white — from the rich upholstery to the ivory outfits
of worshipers and polished marble floors.

It’s also a step more people are taking in the heavily
Roman Catholic U.S. Northeast, where Mormon numbers have jumped
37 percent in 10 years, nearly double the religion’s national
growth rate of 21 percent, church data show.

“The number of new members here is just utterly amazing,”
said Allan Barker, president of the Massachusetts temple of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the faith is
formally known.

The once-isolated sect based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is
now one of the world’s fastest-growing and affluent religions,
with 12.3 million members globally. More than half live outside
the United States, including a flourishing Latin American
flock.

Sociologist Rodney Stark, who predicted in 1984 that
Mormonism would eventually rival Catholicism, Islam and other
major religions with 267 million members worldwide by 2080,
said aid lavished on new converts by a lay clergy rooted in
international business and other top-tier professions explains
much of the global appeal.

“The fact that the church provides substantial social
services is very attractive, especially when you start getting
into places where social services are really lacking,” said
Stark, author of “The Rise of Mormonism.”

“Mormons tend not to ever appear on the welfare rolls
because the church tends to step in and take care of them,” he
added. “Elderly people will get their houses painted by a group
of guys from the local church over the weekend. There’s a lot
going on there that doesn’t meet the eye.”

Church officials and religious scholars attribute its
growth in the Northeast to a steady influx of Hispanic
worshipers, the allure of top-flight universities in Boston and
New York, and to turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church following
a clergy sexual abuse scandal that erupted in Boston in 2002.

“Catholicism has stumbled,” said Jan Shipps, president of
the American Society of Church History, adding that
Massachusetts’s Mormon governor — potential 2008 White House
contender Mitt Romney — also boosted the church’s profile.

Tim Wilson, a 31-year-old former Catholic, said news that
U.S. bishops moved priests known to have abused minors to new
parishes instead of defrocking them sealed his decision to join
the Mormon faith in December 2002.

“I didn’t have any vested interest in belonging to an
organization that would conduct such an awful situation among
its priests,” said Wilson, a research executive.

However the Northeast’s 333,000 Mormons remain vastly
outnumbered by its estimated 20 million Catholics.

RETURN TO ROOTS

But the expansion marks a historical triumph in a region
where Joseph Smith, a Vermont native, founded the sect in 1830
in upstate New York a year before being persecuted and forced
to flee to the Midwest.

But as it expands, Barker and other Mormon leaders are
quietly bracing for a possible new threat to the church’s
image.

“Big Love,” a new series on cable TV channel HBO about a
fictional polygamous family headed by a Viagra-popping husband
in Utah, casts light on its awkward and embarrassing ties to
polygamy, which the Mormons practiced before the Civil War then
banned in 1890.

“The show has to be a negative,” said Barker. The central
characters are not Latter-day Saints and Mormons who commit
polygamy are excommunicated, he noted, echoing a point recently
reinforced by a statement from church headquarters in Utah.

Mormon leaders have spent decades countering critics who
dismiss the faith as a cult and a threat to Christianity. They
distance themselves from about 30,000 breakaway Mormons in Utah
and nearby states who practice polygamy illegally, as well as
the many excommunicated Mormons in polygamous marriages who
still identify with the faith.

Founder Joseph Smith took at least two dozen wives, say
historians. His successor, Brigham Young, had about 20. The
custom was officially banned when Washington, angered by its
spread, threatened to deny statehood to Utah.

Today, about 30,000 missionaries — often young men in
business suits walking the world’s streets in pairs — project
a wholesome, family-oriented image that has helped swell global
Mormon adherents by 36 percent from 1995 to 2005.

Under the faith’s tenets, alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are
banned, while no one goes to hell.

Exactly how the clergy sex-abuse crisis has played into
Mormon numbers growth in the Northeast is unclear, scholars
say. The last formal survey of the Catholic population in the
region was held in 2001, a year before the scandal surfaced.

Some 90 percent of about 900 members of the six-year-old
Mormon temple in the Boston suburb of Belmont converted from
other religions. Barker declined to say how many had been
Catholics.

But doctrinal similarities with Catholicism could account
for some of the expansion, Shipps said.

Like Catholicism, Mormonism offers clear-cut answers to big
theological questions. In contrast, she said, American
Protestantism offers greater room for spiritual debate.

Barker, 79 and a Utah native, recalls the suspicion he
faced in Boston in the early 1950s. Once, when a furniture
saleswoman found she was talking to a Mormon, she turned to
Barker’s wife and exclaimed: “How could you live with this
man?”

“Here we are 50 years later,” he said. “It’s remarkable how
much things have changed.”


Source: reuters