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Church Journalist On Why He Thinks Mormonism Is The Most American Religion

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This year is the 200th anniversary of a church that journalist McKay Coppins calls the most American religion. In The Atlantic, Coppins describes growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He uses the shorthand Mormonism. And he asks, after 200 years of trying to assimilate to a certain national ideal, what will the third century of the faith look like?

McKay, it's good to talk to you. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MCKAY COPPINS: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: In this article, you lay out a lot of concrete ways in which the Mormon church was founded in America and sort of followed an American path. But in a more abstract sense, you also talk about the sort of values, ideals and aspirations of the Mormon church as being uniquely American. What are those?

COPPINS: The Mormon community and the Mormon theology was founded on ideas of community and democracy, mutual sacrifice, kind of the ideals to which America has always aspired and maybe not always accomplished. Those are also found in Mormonism. The church is very hierarchical in certain ways, but it's also very democratic. Congregations are run by lay members - so volunteers, essentially. It's interesting. There's almost kind of this democratic spirit, this frontier American, you know, spirit that's woven into the Mormon ethos in ways that are often good and sometimes can be unhealthy as well.

SHAPIRO: Perhaps the most prominent Mormon in public life right now is Utah Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican. And you and I covered his presidential campaign together in 2012.

COPPINS: We did.

SHAPIRO: So we are both familiar with the sort of extreme earnest sincerity that he is known for, talking on the stump about how he loves the hymns of America, saying heck and gosh darn when he gets angry. And you tie this into a larger idea that Mormons have finally succeeded at establishing this all-American persona that is now out of sync with the times. Tell us about that.

COPPINS: He is, in many ways, kind of the most pure embodiment of Mormonism, you know? In a way, his whole persona is kind of the product of generations of assimilators, you know, Mormons who were trying to mold themselves to what they saw as the American mainstream. And I think what happened was that Mormons finally did succeed, but they molded themselves to an American mainstream of maybe the middle of the 20th century that in a lot of ways kind of went out of style with Eisenhower, right?

You know, covering Mitt Romney, I could see that the way that he talked about his family, the way he talked about the patriotic hymns of America, in his words, he thought he was being, you know, the model presidential candidate. And a lot of people found it kind of off-putting because I think a lot of people thought that there was no way that this, you know, persona was real.

SHAPIRO: Pull the camera back and explain what you think that says about Mormonism in this moment of the 21st century beyond Mitt Romney.

COPPINS: We as a people, as a religion, assimilated to this national ideal that at - right at a moment when America was kind of approaching an identity crisis, right? And so I think that this has brought about an occasion for a lot of Latter-day Saints and for the church as an institution to sort of step back and decide, well, what is the core of Mormonism? What is the core of the faith? What in America do we want to hold on to? And what are we willing to jettison and kind of leave behind?

SHAPIRO: So how does what you describe as this earnest desire to assimilate, to be accepted, to be thought of as fully American, translate to the church's position on LGBTQ people, which you say has provoked more debate within the Mormon church than any other issue in recent years?

COPPINS: Yeah. So, you know, I think you can look at 2008 and the church's involvement with the Proposition 8 battle in California to ban same-sex marriage as sort of the apex of the church's kind of engagement in political battles over that issue. The anti-same-sex marriage side temporarily won that battle, but there was enormous backlash. Eventually, it was overturned by the Supreme Court. And since then, the church has sort of tried to chart this middle course where, you know, they have created a website for gay Mormons, urging kindness and respect and inclusion. And they have endorsed legislation in Utah to provide housing and employment protections for LGBT people. You can see the church trying to do what it can to kind of keep up.

At the same time, they have not lifted their doctrinal position that ultimately, same-sex relationships are out of step with God's teaching. There will be a lot of talk about inclusion and love and respect, but you're not going to be able to achieve all of the blessings and all of the kind of temple ordinances, for example, that you would if you were straight.

SHAPIRO: What about the church's position on race? I mean, you say Mormon leaders have engaged on issues like Black Lives Matter protests but have not apologized for the racism of the past for fear of undermining their own authority.

COPPINS: Right. This is another issue where you see the church kind of making incremental steps toward a more progressive place, right? The church has disavowed its past racist teachings. It's announced a partnership with the NAACP. It has put out statements, most recently after the killing of George Floyd. The president of the church decried the blatant disregard for human life and called on racists to repent.

So you can see, again, church leaders gesturing in the direction where the rest of the country is headed. But the tension point there is that the church, for many years, decades, banned Black men from holding the priesthood and banned Black families from participating in important temple ordinances. And while the church has disavowed those past teachings, it has not apologized for them. And that's what I - where I think a lot of members are right now. They're waiting for the church not only to move forward but to fully reckon with its past so that they can move forward together.

SHAPIRO: So how do you answer this big-picture question of what the third century of the faith will look like?

COPPINS: Yeah. You know, I don't have all the answers (laughter). But I do try to present...

SHAPIRO: You spent almost all year working on this story, and you still don't know what the next century of the faith is going to look like. How dare you, McKay?

COPPINS: I know. I'm not a - look. I'm not a prophet, right? The church does have prophets. I'm not one of them. I think it should try to preserve the parts of Mormonism that are hard. You know, a lot of my experiences in the church - being a Mormon missionary, you know, skipping coffee, which is, like, a small sacrifice - all these things kind of pile up over a lifetime and can create a kind of sense of character in the people who live the faith. And so I hope whatever the next century brings for Mormonism - that those hard parts are preserved because I think that they're important.

SHAPIRO: McKay Coppins - his piece in The Atlantic on the 200th anniversary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is called "The Most American Religion."

Thank you for talking with us about it and happy holidays.

COPPINS: Thank you. You, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURTNEY BARNETT SONG, "DEPRESTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.