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Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Gordon B. Hinckley

Leading a World Faith Explosion With Roots in Small-Town America

May 09, 1999|Teresa Watanabe

The emergence of a new worldwide religion occurs but once every millennium or two. But some sociologists believe that is precisely what is happening with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Founded in 1830, the church is, in many ways, a quintessential American faith. Its colorful history includes rabid persecution, the murder of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, and a westward expansion by handcart and wagon train that exemplified the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Its behavioral code brings to mind the "Father Knows Best" era of hard work, discipline, traditional gender roles and firm moral values.

In 1996, however, the once-insular church reached a major new stage in its growth. Thanks to blistering conversion rates overseas, more members now reside outside U.S. borders than within them. University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark predicts the church's 10 million members, who reside in 163 countries, will explode to 320 million by the year 2080. Approximately 200,000 of the church's 733,000 California members live and worship in the greater Los Angeles area, dispersed over 465 congregations.

Gordon B. Hinckley, president and prophet of the Mormon church since 1995, is leading the global expansion with an ambitious agenda of doubling the number of local temples. At 88, he has visited members in nearly 50 nations. But, he says, neither global diversity nor America's changing social fabric of feminism, gay rights and new family forms will lead to significant changes in church doctrine, practices or its conservative social creed. With its emphasis on spiritual commitment, self-reliance, optimism and family values, Mormonism works--for everyone--just the way it is, he says.

Hinckley was humorous, forceful and folksy as he spoke in his office at the worldwide headquarters in Salt Lake City. His immense walnut desk is immaculate; his walls are adorned with portraits of Jesus Christ and Mormon patriarch Brigham Young. He is married with five children and 25 grandchildren, and his vast network of relatives includes Times publisher Mark H. Willes, his nephew.

Question: Has internationalization led your home-grown American church to make any changes to accommodate the diverse foreign cultures?

Answer: I don't think so. I think that you'll find the same program followed, the same doctrine teached, in a congregation in Johannesburg as you would in Salt Lake City. On a given Sunday, you'll even find the same Sunday-school lesson being taught across the world--some places the Sunday comes sooner.

Q: What about the 10% tithing practice? Do you expect that as much from poor members overseas as you do here?

A: Tithing's the law of the church everywhere, yes. Now, we give according to what they have; some places it isn't very much, but it represents faith. It isn't a matter of money as much as it is a matter of faith, and those who practice it--and that's a very substantial number--testify of the blessings that come to them. It's an ancient law that goes back to the Old Testament, goes back to the days of Abraham, and we have it today and it works.

Q: Is criticism from other faith groups increasing, as you grow and present more competition for members?

A: Oh, I think we have less criticism from other groups than we once had. For goodness sakes, we were . . . once a dispossessed people. We know what it's like to be driven from our homes, to have houses burned behind us, be ordered out of our homes, into the wilderness. That's Teresa Watanabe covers religion for The Times.

the history of our people. We're grateful those days are behind us and that we enjoy the peace and goodwill we enjoy today.

Q: As the church grows overseas, some foreign members have called for more autonomy from Salt Lake City. Do you envision that happening?

A: Never have heard of such a thing, I never have. I've been all over this world with the people of this church, everywhere. . . . I don't find any dissidents. We have representation from all of these places. . . . Unity is the great hallmark of this church.

Q: What are the major challenges of your rapid growth?

A: Two things: leadership and building buildings to accommodate that growth. Now, all of our local leaders across the world are volunteer workers, and they have to be trained, and that's a great challenge, but we think we need it. The second thing is buildings in which they meet, and I believe we're keeping up with those.

Q: Despite the globalization, the top leadership is still largely comprised of white American males. Do you plan to take affirmative steps to diversify your top leadership?

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