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A Utah-based church spreads its arms

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MORMON AMERICA: The Power and the Promise By Richard and Joan Ostling HarperSanFrancisco

Mormon America: The Power and The Promise," co-authored by Associated Press religion writer Richard Ostling and his wife, Joan Ostling, won't make anyone comfortable. The Ostlings wanted to produce "a candid but nonpolemical overview written for non-Mormons and Mormons alike." Their carefully researched book, however, will elicit less than happy reactions from many Mormons, while startling the formerly oblivious into sudden awareness of the identities, beliefs, and practices of a rapidly growing church.

"Mormon America" lays out the essential components of today's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: a clearly defined theology and scripture that inspire either devotion or skepticism - and a lifestyle that stresses traditional marriage, family life, hard work, disciplined self-reliance, obedience, and subordination to church authority.

Central to the way a reader will evaluate the significance of modern Mormonism and its increasing influence is the Ostlings's characterization of founder Joseph Smith (1805-44). Church-sanctioned literature invests Smith with the aura of a divinely inspired prophet, chosen by God to restore His true church in America. In contrast, the Ostlings describe a man of spiritual, but also disturbingly human, dimensions.

Smith was a product of America's rural frontier - spiritually inclined and bright, but attracted to divination and the occult. "Mormon America" reports not only the church's views but also dissenting scholarly opinions about the origin and authenticity of Smith's "Book of Mormon." Smith vowed that the text was a translation from ancient gold plates whose location was given to him in an angelic visitation.

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