New Mormon Leader Monson Meets the Press

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At an initial news conference, the new leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says he sees no major changes ahead for the Mormon faith. Thomas Monson, 80, did emphasize the church's global reach by naming a German to be the only non-American among the church's highest leaders.

STEVE INSKEEP, host

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Mormons welcomed a new leader yesterday when Thomas Monson was named president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His predecessor was in his 80s when he ascended to the helm almost 13 years ago, as is Thomas Monson - who is 80. He spoke to reporters at a news conference in Salt Lake City.

NPR's Howard Berkes was there.

HOWARD BERKES: The apostles of the Mormon faith filed into the lobby of the church's skyscraping headquarters and sat before a mural depicting Christ and his apostles. In the mural, the chosen wore robes and listened intently. In the lobby, though, Mormon apostles sat in dark business suits, also listening intently to the man they believe is a prophet of God. Thomas Monson referred to the 12 years he just spent at the side of Gordon B. Hinckley, his predecessor.

Mr. THOMAS MONSON (President, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): President Hinckley and I met together in various meetings nearly every day as decisions were made and goals and objectives for the future were considered. It is inevitable that our thinking would be similar. Therefore, there will no abrupt change from the courses we've been pursuing.

BERKES: That's a wise message for someone emerging from the shadow of Hinckley, whose funeral and viewing were attended by 80,000 followers. Hinckley steered the faith outward, doubling the number of sacred temples and spreading the Mormon gospel to 176 countries. Monson emphasized this global reach by naming Dieter Uchtdorf, a German, as the only non-American among the highest-ranking church leaders. He also addressed reporters.

Mr. DIETER UCHTDORF (Elder, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): My wife said, you don't have to worry about your accent because more than half the church is speaking with an other-than-English accent. So the church is - the church membership is going all across the world.

BERKES: This is a challenge for the church because of its American roots and its association with American values and culture, says Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon historian who has studied the religion for four decades. Shipps says Uchtdorf's appointment sends a clear signal.

Ms. JAN SHIPPS (Historian): That the international church is taking its rightful place in the minds of the people at the highest levels of the church.

BERKES: Shipps noticed something else significant in Monson's news conference. There was a question about the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney and the series of polls that show a significant number of respondents reluctant to put a Mormon in the White House. That exposes, Shipps says, a negative perception of Mormons that the church considered part of the past. And Monson did not address it.

Ms. SHIPPS: He turned the question aside. He didn't deal with it directly, and that could be that he didn't want to answer it, but it also could be that church authorities are just having to come to grips with reality.

BERKES: The biggest reality Monson seemed concerned with was the comfort of the faithful during a time of transition. He said nothing new or controversial, showed no inclination toward change, and spoke in soothing platitudes. This is how he closed his first appearance as Mormon prophet.

Mr. MONSON: You can rest assured we'll be giving due attention to the present and the future, but not forgetting the past, for the past is prelude to the future.

BERKES: And with that, Thomas Monson and the Mormon apostles filed out of the room past the mural of Jesus and his apostles. On the way out, Monson waved and gave thumbs-up to TV cameras, which were broadcasting the news conference in 69 languages to thousands of Mormon chapels around the globe.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.

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