The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, you may be surprised to learn, the largest religious organization in the United States after the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church. The Baptists and the Methodists are in decline, while the number of Catholics and Mormons is growing, with Mormons adding to their numbers at 2.5 times the Roman rate of redemption. It is likely that Joseph Smith soon will have more followers in the United States than does John Wesley; already the words “Salt Lake City” carry a religious resonance no longer detectable in place names such as “Aldersgate” — or “Boston” or “Philadelphia” for that matter. (If it weren’t for E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, the religious flavor of those places would be not only gone but also forgotten.)
Mormons and Catholics are alike in that they matter. Everybody knows who the pope is, and when there’s a papal vacancy the drama of the election leads practically every newspaper in the world, and all of Europe holds its breath. Very few Americans could pick Bryant Wright out of a police lineup or tell you that he is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. What the Catholic Magisterium teaches influences public policy — and life — around the world. Mormons, likewise, have a kind of cultural electricity about them: There is no Broadway musical assembled to lampoon the beliefs of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but The Book of Mormon keeps selling out. There are few if any websites dedicated to “unmasking” the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., but there are dozens dedicated to Mormons. The Catholic Church matters in part because it is global, and in some quarters it is still held in suspicion for that reason. The Mormons represent precisely the opposite condition: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only major worldwide religion bearing a “Made in the U.S.A.” label. Forget apple pie: With its buttoned-down aesthetic, entrepreneurial structure, bland goodwill, and polished professionalism, it is as American as IBM.
Also, it drives people crazy.