Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whom Mormons believe to be a true prophet of God in the same sense as all those guys you read about in the Bible, died last night at the age of 97.
For anyone reading this who doesn't already know, I am not a member of the LDS Church, even though I was born and raised at Ground Zero for the Church -- the Salt Lake Valley -- and most of my family and friends are Mormon. I didn't revere President Hinckley, and I personally don't believe he was a literal prophet. However, I did respect him as a human being, and I do believe he was a good, kind-hearted man with a refreshing sense of humor about himself and his religion.
Speaking as a self-identified outsider, many of the Church authorities come across as, well, less than friendly to people like me. They often have an air of unshakable smugness, as if there is absolutely no question of their superiority over the misguided gentiles of the world. (Yes, Mormons refer to non-Mormons as "gentiles," a fact that greatly amuses the Jews of my acquaintance. And no, I'm not saying that the Church authorities I speak of actually believe themselves superior, only that they give that impression. There is a difference, and I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.)
President Hinckley was different. He had a way of disarming defensive heathens like myself. Partly it was his willingness to laugh instead of taking offense when someone poked fun at the Church. (See local humor columnist Robert Kirby's elegy for an example.) But it was more than that. He appeared to genuinely care about the beliefs and opinions of people who weren't exactly like him. He always projected absolute certainty in the correctness of his own beliefs, but he wasn't dismissive or contemptuous of those who didn't happen to share those beliefs. That's a trait a lot of people could stand to learn.
I know Mormons tend to have close emotional ties to their leaders, even when they don't know them personally. My friends Cheno and Steve both speak from this perspective in their blog entries on this event. To them and anyone else who is mourning President Hinckley today, I'm very sorry for your loss.