This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Since Mormonism's founding nearly two centuries ago, the faith's vocabulary and perspectives on women, gays, immigration and history have evolved sometimes softened, sometimes enlarged but its eternal doctrines have not.
That's the view of Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who explored such shifting awareness and reasons for it in a 50-minute address Tuesday at a Utah Valley University symposium in Orem.
For example, he said, some members use the word "betrayal" to describe finding out about controversial aspects of the faith's founding in upstate New York in 1830.
At first, Otterson, a British convert who read plenty of anti-Mormon material before joining the LDS Church decades ago, was dismissive of those who were surprised by what they learned about LDS history. Only dissidents and critics, he reasoned, would believe that Mormon officials deliberately withheld damaging information or "lied" to members.
"I later repented of my dismissive attitude," he said, realizing that LDS leaders were writing curriculum mostly "to motivate and inspire. ... With the advent of the Internet ... that no longer suffices."
The church responded with historical "transparency" acknowledging controversial aspects in a series of groundbreaking essays Otterson said, "but it's a very long way from betrayal."
Then there's the use of the term "hate" as applied to the church's approach to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
"As society's understanding of LGBT issues has expanded, so has the use of more inclusive language and greater sensitivity to the struggle which many LGBT people have, particularly in religious communities," he said. "But we should also recognize that there is a difference between not excluding or ostracizing people and making fundamental changes in doctrine."
He denied that the LDS Church's opposition to same-sex marriage constitutes hatred of gays. The Utah-based faith helped promote statutes that oppose discrimination in housing and employment, he said, so why does the word "hate" continue "to be leveled against the church by some LGBT advocates, gay media and allies? Even some of our own young people have accepted that propaganda."
Mormonism neither "constitutes nor condones any kind of hostility" to gays, Otterson said. Members should approach all these issues with "respect, honesty and civility."
He also pointed to several other contemporary topics:
• Race relations: The church's prohibition on black boys and men from being ordained to its all-male priesthood and black women from entering Mormon temples before 1978, he said, "doesn't seem to be an issue for our rapidly expanding African membership. ... It is much less significant than it has been in the United States."
• Immigration: The LDS Church has consistently balanced love of neighbors and the importance of keeping immigrant families together with protecting U.S. borders and upholding the law.
During Mitt Romney's presidential run in 2012, Otterson said, "we repeatedly told journalists that the church was a big tent."
• Women: Mormonism's incremental steps toward gender equity female leaders sitting in the middle of the stand at LDS General Conferences and offering public prayers at those twice-yearly meetings are encouraging, he said, but they are "dwarfed" by the recent move by Mormon women leaders to create a worldwide refugee-aid program.
"We are seeing something in its infancy," Otterson said. It is "what Jesus Christ would want of the women of the church."
During a 15-minute question-and-answer period Tuesday, the first inquiry came from Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated for her role in pushing for female ordination. She asked whether Mormon women could express their desire for priesthood without being disciplined.
"People aren't punished for having opinions," the faith's chief spokesman said. "But when those opinions transfer into advocacy or lobbying, there could be a problem."
Alluding to the conference title "Mormonism and the art of boundary making" Otterson said that drawing such boundaries is more "art than science."
"All of us are artists to some degree. Through the lives we lead, the contributions we make and the service we give to others, we all get to contribute a brush stroke," he said. "But in the end there has to be a master artist, someone who sees the grand vision of what our Father in Heaven plans for the eternal destiny of his children. By divine appointment, prophets, ancient and modern, have had that charge."
Or to use an architectural metaphor "Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone," he said. "There are boundaries, both of behavior and of doctrine."
There are commandments. There is obedience, Otterson added, Ultimately, though, all will be accountable for where they draw those boundaries for themselves.