The Atlantic

The Most American Religion

Perpetual outsiders, Mormons spent 200 years assimilating to a certain national ideal—only to find their country in an identity crisis. What will the third century of the faith look like?
Source: Michael Friberg

Photographs by Michael Friberg

Image above: The Oquirrh Mountain Temple sits about 20 miles south of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where the Church is based.

This article was published online on December 16, 2020.

To meet with the prophet during a plague, certain protocols must be followed. It’s a gray spring morning in Salt Lake City, and downtown Temple Square is deserted, giving the place an eerie, postapocalyptic quality. The doors of the silver-domed tabernacle are locked; the towering neo-Gothic temple is dark. To enter the Church Administration Building, I meet a handler who escorts me through an underground parking garage; past a security checkpoint, where my temperature is taken; up a restricted elevator; and then, finally, into a large, mahogany-walled conference room. After a few minutes, a side door opens and a trim 95-year-old man in a suit greets me with a hygienic elbow bump.

“We always start our meetings with a word of prayer,” says Russell M. Nelson, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “So, if we may?”

The official occasion for our interview is the Mormon bicentennial: Two centuries ago, a purported opening of the heavens in upstate New York launched one of the most peculiar and enduring religious movements in American history, and Nelson designated 2020 as a year of commemoration. My notebook is full of reporterly questions to ask about the Church’s future, the painful tensions within the faith over race and LGBTQ issues, and the unprecedented series of changes Nelson has implemented in his brief time as prophet. But as we bow our heads, I realize that I’m also here for something else.

For the past two months, I’ve been cooped up in quarantine, watching the world melt down in biblical fashion. All the death and pestilence and doomscrolling on Twitter has left me unmoored—and from somewhere deep in my spiritual subconscious, a Mormon children’s song I grew up singing has resurfaced: Follow the prophet, don’t go astray … Follow the prophet, he knows the way.

As president of the Church, Nelson is considered by Mormons to be God’s messenger on Earth, a modern heir to Moses and Abraham. Sitting across from him now, some part of me expects a grand and ancient gesture in keeping with this calamitous moment—a raised staff, an end-times prophecy, a summoning of heavenly powers. Instead, he smiles and asks me about my kids.

Over the next hour, Nelson preaches a gospel of silver linings. When I ask him about the lockdowns that have forced churches to close, he muses that homes can be “sanctuaries of faith.” When I mention the physical ravages of the virus, he marvels at the human body’s miraculous “defense mechanisms.” Reciting a passage from the Book of Mormon—“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy”—he offers a reminder that feels like a call to repentance: “There can be joy in the saddest of times.”

There is something classically Mormon about this aversion to wallowing. When adversity strikes, my people tend to respond with can-do aphorisms and rolled-up sleeves; with an unrelenting helpfulness that can border on caricature. (Early in the pandemic, when Nelson ordered the Church to suspend all worship services worldwide and start donating its stockpiles of food and medical equipment, he chalked it up to a desire to be “good citizens and good neighbors.”) This onslaught of earnest optimism can be grating to some. “There’s always a Mormon around when you don’t want one,” David Foster Wallace once wrote, “trying your patience with unsolicited kindness.” But it has served the faith well.

By pretty much every measure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has defied the expectations of its early observers. In the years immediately after its founding—as Mormons were being chased across the country by state-sanctioned mobs—skeptics predicted that the movement would collapse before the century was out. Instead, it became one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. The Church now averages nearly 700 converts a day; it has temples in 66 countries and financial reserves rumored to exceed $100 billion.

In the past few years, Mormons have become a subject of fascination for their surprising resistance to Trumpism. Unlike most of the religious right, they were decidedly unenthusiastic about Donald Trump. From 2008 to 2016, the Republican vote share declined among Latter-day Saints more than any other religious group in the country. And though Trump won back some of those defectors in 2020, he continued to underperform. Joe Biden did better in Utah than any Democrat since 1964, and Mormon women likely played a role in turning Arizona blue.

Scholars have offered an array of theories to explain this phenomenon: that Mormon communities are models of connectedness and trust, that the Church’s unusual structure promotes consensus-building over culture war, that the faith’s early persecution has made its adherents less receptive to nativist appeals.

Nelson attributes these qualities to the power of the Church’s teachings. “I don’t think you can separate the good things we do from the doctrine,” he tells me. “It’s not what we do; it’s why we

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