Gordon Hinckley, LDS President, Dies at Age 97 Gordon B. Hinckley, president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died Sunday. He is remembered for changing the way Mormons and their church were presented to the world. Hinckley's counselor, Thomas Monson, is his likely successor.
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Gordon Hinckley, LDS President, Dies at Age 97

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died last night at his home in Salt Lake City. Under Hinckley's direction, the LDS Church enjoyed tremendous growth. He may be best known, though, for his efforts to make Mormonism mainstream to change the religion's image as a non-Christian. Cold efforts are being tested by Mormon, Mitt Romney's campaign for president.

NPR's resident expert Howard Berkes joins us shortly to talk about Gordon Hinckley and the process of selecting his successor. If you'd like to talk with him about how it works and how Gordon Hinckley changed the LDS Church, our number is 800-989-8255, e-mail us talk@npr.org or you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us from his office in Salt Lake City is Howard Berkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent.

And Howard, always nice to have you on the program.

HOWARD BERKES: Thanks for having me back.

CONAN: And, tell us a little bit about the role of the Mormon president?

BERKES: Well, the Mormon president is both a chief executive officer, chief operating officer of what is not only a faith but an institution that owns large businesses and corporations and manages a large staff of thousands of people and oversees the meeting of the needs of the faithful, in this case now close to 13 million people all over the world, and the president of the Mormon Church is also believed by the faithful to be a prophet of God. He has a very strong religious role. And Mormons revere their president as someone who does receive divine intervention and is guided by that.

CONAN: So the prophet of God in other words, here is the word of God, literally?

BERKES: Absolutely. This is not something that is invoked frequently, it's relatively rare, but there will be times in a church a Mormon president's history perhaps when what he speaks will be presented as the word of God. These statements usually come with the words, thus sayeth the Lord. You have to note that Gordon B. Hinckley didn't do that during his term in office but even when he doesn't say that particular phrase Mormons believed that the president of the church is divinely guided.

CONAN: And how is a successor chosen?

BERKES: There's a process in which after the funeral of the late president, the top 14 leaders of the church meet privately, they pray and they vote. Now, there's a tradition here that the most senior member of that group who has served in that high leadership group the longest is traditionally the person who would become the next president, that's Thomas Monson, and that's an unbroken tradition and that's the expectation.

After the vote is taken, an announcement is made and if tradition - recent tradition holds, they'll be a news conference with the new president. But I want to emphasize one thing, Mormons believe that Thomas Monson would not have achieved the position he achieved and would not have been in line to become the next president if God didn't direct process. And so there is this belief that that person who survived the longest and who've served the longest will become the next president of the church.

CONAN: And that suggest that the next leader of the church, indeed, the leadership of the church is an elderly?

BERKES: Yes. Some half jokingly referred to it as a gerontocracy because survival is one way that you ascend in the faith and Thomas Monson is 80 years old, Gordon B. Hinckley was 97 when he died yesterday. Although I have to say that in Gordon B. Hinckley's case, he had all of his faculties up until very recently, at least when we saw him he'd had a - he maintained a robust travel schedule that would tire people 50 years younger than him. He was a very active president even late in age and that's been generally the case. There are times when a person ascends to the presidency and he doesn't have all of his mental faculties and there's a procedure by which the church has still managed in that case. But generally speaking, these are people who rise to the occasion despite advanced age.

CONAN: Our guest is Howard Berkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent who've is with us from his office in Salt Lake City. If you'd like to join our conversation about the past and future leaders of the Mormon Church, give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

And let's begin with Kyle(ph). Kyle, with us, from Sacramento.

KYLE (Caller): Yeah. I'm calling - I'm actually addicted listener of NPR and I really appreciate the coverage that the Mormon Church is receiving. I myself am a member. I just wanted to clarify real quick this idea of how president Hinckley changed the church. I think it's important to understand that the doctrines and beliefs and standards of the church would never change. What I feel that the way the outside world kind of perceive the church he really did an amazing job at presenting the church in its true light and putting himself out there, you know, up against Mike Wallace and Larry King. He held his own and I think that was pretty impressive and, you know, he's going to be long remembered and definitely well loved.

CONAN: And Howard, previous leaders of the church might not have felt so comfortable drawing up against Mike Wallace or Larry King.

BERKES: Previous leaders of the church weren't comfortable talking to any reporters. It was very rare for previous church presidents to speak with reporters; certainly, none held a news conference in which they took questions openly like a Gordon B. Hinckley did. And Kyle's absolutely right. That's - the way I think about it is that Gordon B. Hinckley both aggressively presented a new phase, perhaps a more benign phase of the Mormon faith to the rest of the world by being not only aggressive in doing interviews and in taking questions from reporters, but doing do with his personality that he has that has made him to loved by Mormons - very grandfatherly, joking with reporters really disarming them. And he made, you know, tough-guy Mike Wallace one of his biggest fans.

Mike Wallace just absolutely loved Gordon B. Hinckley and considered him a friend, really felt very comfortable with him despite tough questions. Gordon B. Hinckley handled them superbly, really set a standard for interaction between a Mormon president and the rest of the world that might be tough to maintain because it requires the skill that Hinckley had. He also, by the way, helped to strengthen the faith of Mormons by focusing on their history. And under his tenure, there was a new emphasis on Mormon historical sites and an encouragement of people making pilgrimages to those sites, getting people to focus more on the roots of their faith. And so it was both from the inside and the outside that he had great impact.

CONAN: Thank you, Kyle.

KYLE: Well, thank you.

CONAN: And just to - curiously, Mr. Monson, if he does succeed to the job, how much does he get paid for it?

BERKES: Oh, boy, that's a good question and I don't know the answer to it. You know, generally speaking, the lower-level leadership, they're all volunteers, I imagine, the higher leadership gets something but that's a figure I'd never seen. And I doubt we would be able to get.

CONAN: Let's get a call in from Greg(ph). Greg with us from Salt Lake.

GREG (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm in the same boat as (unintelligible) with their message knows to our mayor in Salt Lake City. But I just wanted to say that one of the things that Gordon B. Hinckley did not do during his tenure as president of the church was address the issues of the Mountain Meadows massacre that happened back in 1857 where, I believe, there was over a hundred and fifty people were massacred by Mormons. And no one has brought this up. I mean, right now, where he has - you know, passed away it's a condolence thing but that issue still is a very soft spot for a lot of people. He, in fact, he said that at a memorial, at the Mountain Meadows massacre that he would not - the church would not accept responsibility for that, and I just to kind of want to have that, too. And I mean, although, you know, it's a sad day for a lot of Mormons that there were things that you certainly could have done but didn't.

CONAN: Howard?

BERKES: You know, yeah. I would not quite characterize it the way Greg did. He is absolutely correct in pointing out that when Gordon B. Hinckley did try to resolve the still very bitter feelings about this massacre that occurred more than a hundred years ago, a local Mormon militia in Southern Utah attacked a wagon train of pioneers from Arkansas headed on the way to California. Women and children were killed, the deaths were brutal. There's no question about any of that.

Gordon B. Hinckley did actually tried to resolve those bitter feelings by rebuilding the monument to the Mountain Meadows victims down in Southern Utah and reaching out to them. But Greg's right. When he gave a speech at the dedication of that monument, he inserted a phrase that said nothing that we do or say here today shall be an admission of guilt on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And some of the people who are relatives and survivors of that massacre and victims of that massacre - even today, you know, decades and decades later, are still bitter and they were disappointed that Gordon B. Hinckley didn't go further except some responsibility and move on.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much. And finally, Howard, let me ask you, we heard earlier today Mitt Romney expressing, of course, his shock and sorrow at the death of President Hinckley. Nevertheless, saying that he did play a role in his decision to run for president. Is that unusual?

BERKES: Well, the way it's been characterized by church officials is that Mitt Romney paid a courtesy call to the president of the church, to Gordon B. Hinckley, to ask him what he thought about running, whether that would be a bad thing for the church, bringing, you know, more scrutiny upon the church and Hinckley's reported response was don't worry about it. Go ahead and do it. We can handle whatever's coming, basically, that's my summary of what he said. Is that unusual? Mormon politicians have been seeking the guidance of the church for as long as I've been covering the church more than 25 years. Sometimes, directly, sometimes indirectly, the church had a role in Mitt Romney being appointed to rescue the Salt Lake Olympic organizing committee after the bidding scandal. His name was floated with church officials as well as politicians here. So it's not unusual in Utah and Mitt Romney may have been, you know, paying that courtesy of finding out what his church thought about the attention that they would have received.

CONAN: Yeah. Howard, thanks very much.

BERKES: Sure.

CONAN: Howard Berkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent, as he mentioned, covering the LDS church for more than 25 years now. He joined us from his office in Salt Lake, City.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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