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Mormon theology is striking in its differences

December 07, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

In a much-anticipated speech about his Mormon faith, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney avoided discussing theology -- except for this:

"I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind."

That is an accurate statement of Mormon belief, and with it, Romney could claim common ground with evangelical Christian voters. But as he noted in the very next sentence: "My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths."

Indeed, the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded on the premise that all other Christian traditions are false. A teenager named Joseph Smith said he received that revelation in a vision in 1820.

Over the next seven years, Smith said, he was visited several times by an angel named Moroni, son of Mormon, who guided him to gold plates buried in upstate New York.

With the help of "seer stones" given to him by Moroni, Smith said he translated the plates into English. The nearly 6 million Mormons in the United States consider that translation, the Book of Mormon, a holy text, on par with the Bible. Its theology has some striking elements:

Mormons hold that God and Christ have physical bodies. They believe that man can become God-like after death, a concept called ultimate deification. They also believe that heaven has more than one tier; only those baptized and married in a Mormon temple can achieve the most exalted realm.

Faithful Mormons -- Romney among them -- do not smoke or drink alcohol or coffee. Many men serve a two-year missionary term, donning dark suits and knocking on door after door in an effort to spread their faith.

Another defining feature of Mormonism is the belief that God communicates through the modern-day prophets who lead the church.

In 1978, for instance, the church president said God revealed a need to end the practice of excluding blacks from the priesthood, even though the Book of Mormon describes dark skin as a divine mark of disfavor. Romney has said he wept with joy upon hearing that revelation.

Another practice endorsed by Joseph Smith -- polygamy -- was ended by the church more than a century ago, in 1890.

Non-Mormons often find Smith's testimony hard to accept, and that may affect voters' attitudes toward Romney.

When a candidate "believes things most Christians believe to be heresy -- doctrinally, just plain wrong -- that poses problems for [voters'] comfort level," said David Gushee, an evangelical theologian at Mercer University.

But Mormons counter that they accept the same fundamentals as other believers -- namely, Christ as savior. And they say it's unfair to brand Smith crazy.

"The foundational story of Christianity, that [Christ] was raised from the dead, is also not rational," said Scott Gordon, president of a Mormon theology group called FAIR. "We consider ourselves Christian. What right do you have to say we're not?"

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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