( Reuters ) - The Mormon Church is well prepared to deal with nearly unprecedented scrutiny resulting from the White House bid of one of its followers despite the death of influential church leader Gordon Hinckley.
During his 12 years as church president, Hinckley surpassed goals for building new temples, saw the faith become one of the world's fastest growing, launched a strategy to reach out to an American public largely ignorant about the religion and oversaw a rise in church assets to at least $25 billion.
The 97-year-old Hinckley, who died on Sunday evening, has probably left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a good position to deal with the attention generated by Mitt Romney's quest for the Republican presidential nomination, said Terryl Givens, an author of several books on the church.
Hinckley "laid the groundwork for much more interfaith dialogue and for a much more effective public relations sensibility," Givens said. "All the pieces are in place for the church to feel that they're well prepared for this Mormon moment."
Hinckley gave numerous interviews to major news media and took part in a torch relay when the 2002 Olympic Winter Games came to Salt Lake City -- an event that also thrust the church into the limelight.
"The church is really accustomed to having the spotlight on it and anxious to respond" to questions on doctrine and history," added Givens, professor of literature and religion at Virginia's University of Richmond and author of "The Latter-day Saint Experience in America."
"It allows them to tell their side of the story," he said of the tasks facing Hinckley's successor.
The faith, founded in 1830 and for years isolated on the frontier in the U.S. mountain west, is one of the fastest-growing and most affluent religions, with an estimated $25 billion in assets in 1999 and more than $5 billion in annual income.
More than half of its 12.9 million members live outside the United States, with a flourishing flock in Latin America.
Romney's White House bid has thrust the faith into a new level of scrutiny as many evangelical Christians -- a key Republican base which Romney has tried to woo by changing tact and embracing opposition to abortion rights - tend to view Mormonism as a cult.
The path for picking a successor from among the church's senior leadership is well fixed in church history but the actual process is not likely to happen until after Hinckley's funeral.
Tradition suggests the longest-serving member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church's second-highest governing body behind the First Presidency, would become the next president. If that happens, 80-year-old Thomas Monson would become the next leader of the church.
President George W. Bush said on Monday he was deeply saddened by Hinckley's death, adding that he had "the heart of a servant and the wisdom of a leader a tireless worker and a talented communicator who was respected in his community and beloved by his congregation."
Romney told reporters in West Palm Beach, Florida, that Hinckley was "a man of great character and courage" and "one of the great leaders in our faith."
He said he had spoken to Hinckley as he mulled a campaign for the White House and "he smiled and said it would be a great experience if you won and a great experience if you lost."