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2000s: The First Decade — Mormon Church influence soars

President Thomas S. Monson, right, waves to the crowd as he and President Henry B. Eyring, left, take the stand before the annual First Presidency Devotional at the LDS Conference Center Sunday, Dec. 6.
President Thomas S. Monson, right, waves to the crowd as he and President Henry B. Eyring, left, take the stand before the annual First Presidency Devotional at the LDS Conference Center Sunday, Dec. 6.
Jason Olson, Deseret News

The First Decade — Seventh in a series: A new millennium was born amid concerns about the Y2K bug. Far more real fears unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001. Deseret News and Associated Press writers today continue a series of essays examining the major developments of the past decade and their impact on Utah and beyond.

When LDS President David O. McKay died in 1970, Time magazine mentioned him, calling him a cowboy who read the English classics.

Now, 40 years later, President Thomas S. Monson has been named the most influential 80-year-old in America and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are listed among the most important 100 Americans in history

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has steadily come out of the footlights into the spotlight. And during the first decade of the new millennium, the church has been moving ahead by leaps and bounds.

With a wise, witty and media-savvy leader in Gordon B. Hinckley, the church began raising its profile early in the decade. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, President Hinckley was one of the first guests Larry King interviewed on his nationally televised program. The enormously popular leader also attended a special summit at the White House to counsel President George W. Bush.

A year later, when the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City, the church took an active role again, urging members to pitch in. Former missionaries with language skills were recruited to aid visitors, and the Tabernacle Choir sang at the opening ceremonies to an audience of 3.5 billion. Media from around the world did feature stories on the church, examined its history and debunked many of the negative "folk stories" that still persist about the Mormons.

In 2005, the bicentennial of the birth of Joseph Smith, PBS aired a documentary that took the church into the family rooms of America. And though the production garnered mixed reviews, the program crystallized the image of the LDS Church as a cultural force and a populist institution.

Members of the church themselves celebrated the Joseph Smith bicentennial with concerts, symposia and satellite broadcasts.

In 2008, the Proposition 8 vote over gay marriage in California presented new challenges. As with most hot-button political issues, those in favor of gay marriage and those against found little common ground. The gay community saw Proposition 8 as a civil rights issue, the LDS Church was among the faiths that saw it as a sanctity-of-marriage issue. When the measure passed, the church was singled out by activists for its role and had to deal with a backlash. Others, however, praised the Mormons for being a strong moral voice heard above the winds of dangerous change.

The humanitarian efforts of the church were also brought into high relief over the past 10 years as the faithful offered money, time and energy to help alleviate suffering caused by earthquakes, wildfires, famine, war, hurricanes and floods around the world.

But as the church as an institution was becoming better known, some individual members of the church also found themselves spirited into national prominence.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ran for president, Sen. Harry Reid became Senate Majority leader, and pundit Glenn Beck offered a play-by-play account of the battle lines that separated their political parties.

David Archuleta sang himself into the hearts of Middle America on "American Idol," Stephenie Meyer wrote of high-minded vampires, selling millions of novels that primed a series of movies. LDS athletes and coaches also continued to shine.

Yet while the religion found fresh exposure in the world it was growing and unfolding internally as well.

In 2000, the first general conference was held in the new Conference Center. The Perpetual Education Fund was established in 2001. The Joseph Smith Papers project has been a monumental undertaking, and the City Creek Center will literally remake downtown Salt Lake City. The number of temples built or planned reached 151 during the decade.

In 2006 the debate over the Church Plaza on Salt Lake City's Main Street was resolved with the church getting full ownership, although peripheral issues have continued to bubble to the surface.

And in 2008, President Gordon B. Hinckley died and President Thomas S. Monson was sustained as the new president.