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Polygamy, white booties and fiberglass oxen

August 07, 2005|Diane Winston | Diane Winston, Knight professor of media and religion at USC, can be reached at

OK, CLASS, question for the day: Is the Pope Catholic? Oops, my bad. Let's start again: Are Mormons Christian? If you asked the protesters picketing the recent opening of a new Mormon temple in Newport Beach, the answer would be "no." "Have a nice day," yelled one demonstrator. "It's going to cost you your soul."

It's been a while since the world's fate seemed to hinge so thoroughly on what people think of each others' religious beliefs. And although Mormons aren't visibly involved in any of the ugly, ongoing smackdowns involving Jews, Muslims, Hindus and a variety of Christian sects, it may just be sheer luck.

Still, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provokes strong reactions. Mormons are the quintessential American rags-to-riches story, transforming themselves from despised outsiders to trusted insiders as their membership rolls keep growing -- from six in 1830 to more than 11 million today. Their beliefs and practices differ from Protestants and Catholics, and nonmembers may only enter a temple before it is dedicated. Because there are only 122 temples worldwide, I jumped at the invitation to visit the Newport Beach building with an interfaith group.

You can buy any number of excellent books on Mormonism, but here's the elevator version. In upstate New York during the 1820s, Joseph Smith reported receiving a set of golden plates from the angel Moroni. When Smith translated the plates, written in a language only he understood, they chronicled the North American sojourn of one of Israel's 10 lost tribes. The tribe, visited by the resurrected Christ, became an early Christian community.

Smith's translation of the golden plates was published as the Book of Mormon, and as he expounded on the new gospel and subsequent revelations, the self-proclaimed prophet sought to restore the ancient church, in essence nullifying the last 2,000 years of Christian history. According to Smith, the gold plates subsequently disappeared, making the church's founding narrative, like most other religious scriptures, an article of faith.

At the Newport Beach compound, our tour guide led us to the angel-topped temple, where we slipped on white booties before entering the pink granite building. The dramatic sweep and scale of the exterior architecture had prepared me for an impressive cathedral. But the 18,000-square-foot interior is a warren of offices and small to medium-sized rooms. There is no central worship space. No crosses. No pews or hymnals or prayer request cards.

That's not to say the temple lacks religious markers. Soft-focus paintings of biblical scenes line the walls. Our guide showed us a baptismal pool supported by 12 fiberglass oxen, a gold rococo bridal chamber, the women's locker room (Mormons change into all-white attire at the temple) and a "sealing room" (to bind marriages for eternity). My favorite was the "celestial room," a large chamber that looked like the lobby of a heavenly Marriott Hotel. Refracted light poured through frosted windows, 6,000 crystals danced on a shimmering chandelier, and beckoning clusters of richly brocaded sofas seemed to whisper of eternal peace.

Even more impressive than the tasteful decor, the spotless rooms and the Mormon zeal to baptize every person who ever lived was the reaction of my fellow visitors. No one said a word. Our tour leader's references to sealed marriages and proxy baptisms for the dead elicited nary a question. Surrounded by the radical otherness, no one in our group asked "why?" or even "what's that?" The reaction reflects American scruples about faith as a realm of personal privacy. As a rule, we're very tolerant. A Pew Research Center survey found that though 67% of us believe that the United States is a Christian nation, 75% say many religions -- not just Christianity -- can lead to eternal life.

I'm all for tolerance, but religion is far too important to leave unquestioned. If a president's faith makes him wary of stem cell research, or terrorists believe that killing civilians will land them in heaven, I want to know why.

As for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I still have a few questions hanging. What is the nature and substance of Jesus? Is polygamy practiced in heaven? And where do you buy those cool white booties?

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