From the time he was a child in Peru, the Mormon Church instilled in Jose A. Loayza the conviction that he and millions of other Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.
"We were taught all the blessings of that Hebrew lineage belonged to us and that we were special people," said Loayza, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "It not only made me feel special, but it gave me a sense of transcendental identity, an identity with God."
A few years ago, Loayza said, his faith was shaken and his identity stripped away by DNA evidence showing that the ancestors of American natives came from Asia, not the Middle East.
"I've gone through stages," he said. "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness."
For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error...
Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.
Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.
Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.
"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."
Interestingly, the person who made the discovery is a former Bishop in the church.
In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.
Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.
Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.
Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.
In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.
The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.
"They can't admit that it's not historical," Southerton said. "They would feel that there would be a loss of members and loss in confidence in Joseph Smith as a prophet."
Echoes of Orthodox Jews reinterpreting Genesis abound:
Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.
"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.
"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.
Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.
The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.
The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.
"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."
Southerton said the new interpretation was counter to both a plain reading of the text and the words of Mormon leaders.
"The apologists feel that they are almost above the prophets," Southerton said. "They have completely reinvented the narrative in a way that would be completely alien to members of the church and most of the prophets."
The church has not formally endorsed the apologists' views, but the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — http://www.lds.org — cites their work and provides links to it.
Reactions have varied among the faithful. One said, "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers. I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week." Phil Ormsby, a Polynesian who grew up believing he was a Hebrew had a different reaction: "Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity. I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."
(Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted, via digg)