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Millions of Mormons from Salt Lake City to Santiago and from Provo to Perth will raise their right hands during the LDS Church's 178th General Conference today to signal support for Thomas S. Monson as their 16th "prophet, seer and revelator."
It will be Monson's first public recognition by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which calls for a rare ceremony known as a "solemn assembly." The ritual, initiated by church founder Joseph Smith for sacred occasions, emphasizes group solidarity and commitment.
Each priesthood quorum, made up of men divided by age and level of responsibility, will stand separately to show its support, followed by adult women, then girls between 12 and 18. In the end, the entire 13 million membership of the church will offer the affirming gesture wherever they are, either in the LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, watching in Mormon chapels or in front of their TVs or computer screens.
This solemn assembly will showcase the church's continuity from its founding days, even as it highlights the changes wrought by the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, who added the separate female voting to be more sensitive to women.
Monson inherits an LDS Church vastly different from the one Hinckley took over in 1995. It operates in a world transformed by mass communication and global politics.
"A third of the church has known only President Hinckley as their prophet," said Melissa Proctor, who teaches a course on Mormonism at Harvard University, "and that reminds us how different the church really is now."
A golden legacy
Hinckley ascended to the presidency at a time of great optimism. He told reporters his biggest challenges were "growth, growth and growth" - good problems to have. He hoped to change the world's view of Mormons.
In 1997, the national press covered the three-month re-enactment of the 1847 pioneer trek by emphasizing Mormon heartiness and heroism. Then came the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
"It portrayed Mormonism as this wonderful, family-oriented faith, where everybody is polite and the place is clean," said Jan Shipps, historian of Mormonism. "Everyone focused on behavior, not belief."
By the end of Hinckley's tenure, the mood had changed. Growth had slowed, retention of new members was tough and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign revealed a deep hostility to Mormon beliefs.
"One of President Hinckley's main goals was to get people to believe Mormons were not weird," Shipps said. "With Romney, the whole weirdness issue re-emerged."
Reporters wondered whether Romney had been baptized for the dead, why his wife's parents couldn't attend their wedding and if he wore the sacred undergarments. Shipps, too, began to get questions she hadn't been asked in 20 years.
Today's atmosphere is not so hopeful, she said. "There are tough issues now."
The Internet generation
Google is a mixed blessing for the LDS Church. While it gives potential converts instant access to anti-Mormon literature and outspoken critics, it also is a valuable tool for Mormon evangelizing. Ward calendars, membership lists, doctrinal explanations and media reports are now accessible to members through official Web sites.
Unfortunately, these sites are still dominated by English-language materials, said David Stewart, a Las Vegas physician. "Only within the past year has the church made the scriptures available online in Spanish and Portuguese."
Most of the church's growth is outside North America. European members' main problem is the misconception they are polygamous cultists, says Ronan James Head, a British blogger and academic.
"Church growth in Europe has slowed to nil and retention is a continual problem," Head said in an e-mail. "The church's concern going forward will be to keep the current membership base active."
It will be essential for Monson to maintain a balance between the church's American outlook and its growing international presence.
"We are wired, we're watching stake conferences broadcast straight from Salt Lake via satellite transmissions, we're downloading our Sunday School lessons on our BlackBerries," said Russell Arben Fox, a Mormon who teaches political science at Friends University, a small, nondenominational Christian liberal-arts school in Wichita, Kans. "I see a church that is both less American (white, Caucasian, North American, etc.), and more American (more technological, more media savvy and media dependent, more 'political,' etc.)."
Monson will need to help Mormon youths overcome the particularly American challenges of apathy and ambivalence, Fox said. "What will become of the youth of the church when being a Mormon is no longer really that hard of a thing to be?"
A place for everyone
Women's issues continue to percolate beneath the church's social surface. Julie Beck, the church's general Relief Society president, ignited controversy at General Conference last spring by addressing mothers exclusively and by seeming to conflate nurturing children with housework. Whatever her meaning, hundreds of LDS women found something that troubled them in the speech, which also ignored the fact that nearly a third of Mormon women are single.
"It has become an ecclesiastical issue that the church must address on the institutional level," Proctor said. "It is not sufficient to try to prevent the situation by an ever louder emphasis on the theological importance of the family or the romantic joys of marriage in hopes to incentivize both men and women to earlier marriage. Nor does it help to attempt to browbeat or shame the men into compliance with preferred Mormon courtship norms."
Single Mormon women don't want sympathy, said Proctor, a lifelong church member. "They want to be recognized for the accomplished women they are by being given the opportunity to make significant contributions."
And Monson might just be the one to do it.
"Over the years he has told the church membership countless stories of his service to widows, often during General Conference," Proctor said. "It may well be that his long and loving service to those single women will make President Monson particularly sensitive to a younger, different set of single women in the church."
LDS Church General Conference
* Sessions are today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m. at the LDS Conference Center. Tickets are required for admission to all sessions and must be obtained from church priesthood leaders.
* All four sessions will be broadcast live on KSL Channel 5 and on BYUTV. KBYU Channel 11 will repeat the morning sessions at noon and the afternoon sessions at 4 p.m.
* KSL Radio (1160 AM, 102.7 FM) and KBYU (89.1 FM) also will air all sessions live.
* Live Internet video streams will be available at http://www.lds.org.
* A session for the all-male priesthood is tonight at 6 in the Conference Center; it will be broadcast via satellite to church stake centers.