MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The 2012 presidential election turned on a spotlight on a previously little known religion, Mormonism. Many Americans have heard about Mormon missionaries or baptism for the dead. But on the whole, the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is shrouded in mystery.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports on one aspect of Mormonism that sets it apart from many faiths: It's constantly evolving.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: When asked how he feels about all the attention paid to his Mormon faith in the past year, Patrick Mason pauses a beat.
PATRICK MASON: I think it's a double edged sword.
HAGERTY: Mason, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, says on the one hand, the publicity brought by the presidential election has been good for attracting new converts. On the other hand, the faith has become something of a cultural punch-line in the past few years.
MASON: "South Park" is a great example of this. "The Book of Mormon" musical is a great example of this, where people say, well, with increased attention comes increased scrutiny and there are parts of our past that the people just won't understand.
HAGERTY: Mason says people are skeptical of the church's origins; that in 1823, an angel directed Joseph Smith to some golden plates that revealed a new gospel. They're dubious about other Mormon claims, for example, that God lives on a planet named Kolob or that people can become like God.
And yet, he says, many Americans don't think twice about God sending Jews manna from heaven, or Jesus walking on the water because these stories are so old that they've become part of culture.
MASON: So the story of Jesus' resurrection is now accepted by the vast majority of Americans, but the story of Joseph Smith digging up gold plates or seeing angels is subject to scrutiny.
HAGERTY: Part of Mormonism's problem is that it's a new religion, less than 200 years old, which means that its claims can be easily checked out by modern science. For example, even most Mormon scholars agree that there is no archeological evidence that Jews came to America in 600 BC, as Joseph Smith claimed, or that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
Faced with those evidentiary challenges, some Mormons have felt betrayed and left the faith. Many others, like Joanna Brooks, are trying to reconcile their faith with the science. Brooks is a professor at San Diego State University and author of "The Book Of Mormon Girl." She says she focuses on the basics, such as a belief in God, and in Jesus' role as savior.
JOANNA BROOKS: And other sort of fine points of doctrine, I deal with privately, except for when I'm on the radio, and that's not uncommon in Mormonism.
HAGERTY: It's not uncommon, she says, because Mormonism has only a few non-negotiable beliefs. Unlike traditional Christianity, there are no Mormon creeds, no paid clergy, no theologians who hammer out Mormon doctrine. Because of that, says Matthew Bowman, author of "The Mormon People," their beliefs have a certain fluidity.
MATTHEW BOWMAN: Theology evolves over time within Mormonism. There is no pristine canon of theology laid down that is clear for everyone to go and look at if they have theological questions.
HAGERTY: So how does Mormon theology evolve? Well, on rare occasions, a revelation from God is announced, such as when the church ended polygamy and when it allowed African-American men to become priests. But usually, Brooks says, theological changes are made with no fanfare.
BROOKS: There are older stories that fade away and newer emphases that emerge. There's a very subtle evolution that happens over time with older doctrines dropping out at times.
HAGERTY: For example, church leaders used to condemn contraception, but now couples are told to choose for themselves how many children they have. And church leaders haven't mentioned the planet Kolob, where God is supposed to live, since 1978. Again, Patrick Mason.
MASON: There's a cognizance today of what plays well and what will make Mormons sound strange. And certainly, talking about God living on Kolob is something that sounds strange and is something you won't hear Mormons talk about very much today.
HAGERTY: The most notable shift lately is the attempt, not always successful, to be seen as just another branch of Christianity. You could see this effort to mainstream Mormonism in a series of commercials featuring ordinary and extraordinary believers.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
CHAD LEWIS: I'm a husband, I'm a father, I'm an NFL football player. My name is Chad Lewis and I'm a Mormon.
HAGERTY: Kristine Haglund, editor a magazine on Mormonism called Dialogue, says if there is a central tenet to Mormonism, it is this: What you do is just as important as what you believe.
KRISTINE HAGLUND: So, for instance, I can be a fairly liberal feminist and it's okay, whereas if somebody saw me walking down the street drinking coffee from Starbucks, that would quickly make the rounds of the community gossip chain and be quite scandalous.
HAGERTY: Which may explain Mitt Romney's rhetoric during the campaign. He never talked about what Mormons believe. Instead, he talked about how his faith inspired him to help other Mormons. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.