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LA Times - President Hinckley Interview

An interview with President Hinckley that was published in the LA Times May 9 1999

Click Here for the text only format.

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?

A: We've had diversification in our top leadership. We've had a man from Brazil, for instance, who's black. Wonderful man. We have people from Japan and Germany and elsewhere in our top leadership. . . . As the church grows across the world, we'll have more and more of that, I have no doubt whatsoever. It isn't a matter of affirmatively doing anything. It's a matter of finding worthy and able leadership, wherever they may be.

Q: Another of your favorite topics is feminism.

A: Oh, yes.

Q: Feminism is transforming other religious faiths, and, within Christianity, the Mormon doctrine is unique because it recognizes the heavenly mother and goddesses. Yet, members have been instructed not to pray to the heavenly mother. Why not?

A: . . . We pray to our heavenly father, after the manner which the Lord used. Now, women in the church, yes, we treat them wonderfully. They have their own organization, 4-million-strong, nothing like it in all the world. They have their own officers, their own general board, their own leadership, their own programs which they carry out across the world. . . . Believe me, you want to get out of the way and let 'em run.

Q: Are you concerned that talk about the feminine divine would undercut the all-male priesthood?

A: Oh, no, I don't think so at all. Just isn't right, that's all. Just a basis of what's right and what isn't right.

Q: Do you envision the rules against women priests changing?

A: I don't anticipate any change. Each has his own place. And we recognize that and we amplify it. You don't find Mormon women going around with a dour look on their faces. They're happy people.

Q: You've said the church loves gays as sons and daughters of God, yet, according to Mormon doctrine, even gays who refrain from homosexual behavior are denied access to the highest tier of heaven unless they marry and have children. Isn't that basically saying to gays: What you are will never be good enough?

A: Oh, I don't know that that is. I don't think their condition is beyond change. There's ample evidence to show change can occur. I think it has occurred. . . . My heart reaches out to these people. A lot of wonderful, fine people among this group. I have nothing but love for them and concern for them, and we want to help them. But can we do so? It's when they violate their moral standards, which are the same for them as they are for everybody else, that we take some disciplinary action. Now, that's all there is to it, just that simple.

Q: As other churches slowly make accommodations to America's changing social fabric, do you think the Mormon church should do more of the same?

A: Oh, look, there are fundamentals that are basic, that are scriptural, that are revealed, that come from God. We stay with those fundamentals. Now, we adapt our programs somewhat, but we remain with the fundamental doctrine. But really, when all's said and done, we worked on the same principles under the same system of government that we worked under a century and a half ago, and we obtain results with that. We have developed a very happy and productive way of life, and you'll find millions upon millions of our people across the world who will testify to that. And that's why we're growing. We're satisfying a need.

Q: The church has not countenanced open public dissent or challenges to doctrine, and this has been criticized as anti-intellectual. In the marketplace of ideas that is America, what's wrong with robust and open discussion of church doctrine and teaching?

A: Anybody's free to think as he thinks, as he desires. We're a very open society. We encourage discussion. We're not closed. We're not bigoted. We're not reclusive in the way we do things. We're open and forward and aboveboard, straightforward. And people do discuss doctrine every Sunday morning. Now, if people get way off, though, outside the doctrine and begin to advocate that and preach it publicly, then there's some reason for discipline.

But let's consider the fact that . . . we had, ah, five or six people about six years ago excommunicated here in Utah. While those six were excommunicated, we had over 5,000 convert baptisms in Utah.

Q: Some scholars believe the church's growth has deprived it of the protective tolerance of minority religious status, as stories on polygamy and other issues appear. Will a sharper media glare be good or bad for the church?

A: Oh, I don't think it's gonna hurt the church, never has substantially. The fact of the matter is we have wonderful treatment from the press, the media. Now you get a little story here and a little story there that's negative; that's to be expected in this world. You can't expect peaches and cream at every meal. It doesn't hurt us. It may help us, may keep us on our toes, may keep us alert, may keep us from becoming a little arrogant, a little self-satisfied.

Q: Turning to the Olympics, you've said in the past the games would be a great opportunity to showcase the church. Now that the games are embroiled in scandal, are they still a good thing?

A: Well, the fact is that Salt Lake City has been designated to put on the Winter Olympics 2002. They're coming. I regret very much the scandal that's occurred, it's hurt Salt Lake City. In a measure, it's hurt the church. Not materially, but in a degree. We regret that. The actions of a very few people have caused so much difficulty. Now, I believe we're just hopeful that [new Salt Lake City Organizing Committee head Mitt Romney] and his associates will pick up the thing . . . by their bootstraps and go forward and put on a wonderful show for the people of the world.

Q: I understand the church has become an engine of economic growth in developing countries. What role is it playing in bringing jobs and business activity ?

A: Oh, I don't know. We're not in the business of bringing business activity. We're in the business of bringing the blessings of the church, and, sometimes, some business activity follows that. For instance, we've established an area office in a place, and that entails the employment of architects, real-estate men, builders. . . . We're trying to carry on a program of teaching our young people. We believe in teaching the man how to do things, and then he'll walk out of the ghetto on his own power and become a productive and able citizen, and that's one of our undertakings.

Q: In assessing your own mark on the presidency, you've been credited with expanding the program of building local temples and improving public relations. Are there other marks you'd like to make?

A: Oh, I just hope to see the church move forward. To me, it's a miracle that in all of these years, through persecution and storm, through sunshine and goodwill, the church has never taken a backward step. It's always moved forward. My desire is that when . . . I go, I could look back and say, the tradition carried on while you served as president. We're just trying to do good in the world; our whole objective is to make bad men good and good men better.*

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