I had not been to Salt Lake City in many years. The last visit I recall took me right through town on the way to the ski resorts. So I was quite eager to head out there for a story about the Mormon faith and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's run for the white house. And, the fact that polls show a significant number of people say they wouldn't vote for him because of his religion. To be honest, I really didn't know what Mormonism is all about. I'm no theologian, nor expert now. But accept it or reject it, I've come to believe in my travels around the world that it's important and fascinating to learn what people of other cultures and faiths think.
Representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints invited us to meet Jorge Becerra and his family who live in Sandy, Utah. It's a pristine looking, suburban place, with clean streets, shiny cars, framed as you would a scene on a postcard by Utah's still slightly snow-capped mountains. Everything seemed so nice, orderly, spartan. I was envious of the lush lawns and well manicured gardens. We're having trouble getting our grass to grow.
Jorge, an investment advisor, and wife Debbie, a stay-at-home mom, have five children. The couple met during their two years of mission work that all Mormons believe they must do. In fact, their oldest son is away from home on his mission to South Korea, and then the Midwest. It's their "family home evening" night. They began with a hymn, "Choose the Right." Prayer followed. Scripture readings from the Bible, which Mormons believe is sacred yet incomplete. And then, Jorge led a discussion about the importance of faith and making good choices in life. When it was over, they all went outside for a game of croquette, while enjoying a treat together -- frozen popsicles.
"In a lot of ways we're mainstream America," Jorge explained. "The values that we hold dear are what most American's hold dear, family, religion home, education."
"I think that in a lot of ways we are kind of peculiar," Debbie added, the word "peculiar" catching everyone's attention. But then she finished the thought with, "we do kind of cherish values that have become almost extinct in some areas of the country."
They seemed somewhat amused or oblivious to those anti-Mormon polls about Romney. But they admitted being aware many people beyond their faith think of them as, well, a bit odd or unusual. "If they understood us they probably wouldn't think we're that radical," said Jorge.
It's difficult to describe the feeling one gets in the presence of the Mormon community. Orderly is a word that comes to mind. The religion's headquarters stands in the heart of the city. The temple with it soaring spires. The high rise office building. A museum. Visitor's centers. All laced with fountains, flowers, security guards and guides wearing black suits and lots of personality, parents with kids in tow, and the seemingly endless parade of newlyweds, posing for pictures around the grounds, with glowing relatives and friends beaming nearby.
We met with Elder Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, which sits just under the First Presidency in the church's hierarchy. We met in a chapel. [Watch the video of the interview] No stained glass windows. No crosses. It was a very serene and plain sanctuary that seemed purposeful not pretentious. Elder Ballard is a patient, good-humored man, with a ready smile, a grandfatherly air about himself, and eager to talk to yet another traveler who'd come calling trying to demystify Mormonism. He and the two media advisors with him have been sitting for many of these interviews because of Romney.
"We welcome the spotlight," Ballard said, seizing the opportunity to set the record straight.
One huge issue, is the charge by evangelical Christians, who also happen to be core Republicans, that Mormons are not true Christians. Some even maintain the religion is a cult and somehow non-authentic.
"There's no organization more centered in Christ on Earth than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," Ballard said with assurance, not surprisingly sounding like a pastor delivering a sermon.
That other issue we had to ask him about is polygamy, once a part of Mormon culture. Nowadays, pop culture like HBO's series Big Love keeps the association alive. The series is about a fictional husband with 3 wives. They're not openly portrayed as Mormons, but the fictional Hendrickson family just happens to live in the same Utah town as the Becerras. The church maintains it banned multiple marriages 117 years ago. It insists it has no relationship at all with some 40,000 polygamists now living in the US.
"For some reason, that's all they want to talk about," Ballard said dismissively, the "they" referring to reporters like your's truly. "It's amazing why that can't die," he said, finishing the thought, and he seemed to hope, the discussion on that issue.
Ballard, like just about everyone else of the faith we spoke to, insists the problem is that outsiders just don't understand, and stereotypes thrive in ignorance.
Even Romney gets asked about polygamy. He admits it was practiced in his family generations ago -- his great-grandfather. Recently he said, "I vehemently oppose polygamy," adding, "I've been married to my high school sweetheart all my life." On the campaign trail, Romney often makes the point that among the front running Republicans, he's the only candidate who has only been married once.
The Mormon church is relatively young as religions go -- founded in the 1830s. Put simply, Mormons believe God appeared before a young farm boy, Joseph Smith, who was trying to figure out his faith. They believe this happened in upstate New York, and that Smith received a set of golden tablets, which he translated into the Book of Mormon, which they believe is another testament of the Bible.
"It's the dealings of our heavenly father with his children that lived in the Americas," Ballard explains. Christians believe the Bible is the beginning and the end of God's word. "The original church was lost," Ballard explains. "There's been a restoration, there are prophets and apostles on Earth," he adds, explaining why Mormons call themselves "latter day saints."
The church claims more than 13 million members worldwide, more than half of them outside the U.S. The numbers, Mormons say, are similar to the number of Jews. The Mormon church says there are more than 50,000 missionaries, like the Becerra's son, spreading their message around the world, with growth especially strong in Latin America.
But still, perhaps because of their belief in the revelations of Joseph Smith, because of sacred undergarments adults wear to shield themselves, perhaps because they banned black people from the priesthood until the late 1970s, perhaps because so many live in what seem like homogeneous, inward communities, their history has been a fight for mainstream acceptance. Even Joseph Smith, they believe, was persecuted and killed by an angry mob, and his followers fled in huge wagon trains from the Midwest to what was then a barren place, Utah.
Politics is nothing new to the church. Mormons dominate local and state offices in Utah. Fifteen members of Congress are Mormons. Most are Republicans, but so is Senate Democratic majority leader Harry Reid. The church maintains it supports conservative values, encourages its members to be civically active, but stays out of politics. Romney, of course, was elected governor of Massachusetts, a blue state. His father was governor of Michigan.
But so much of politics is perception. I asked the Becerras if they thought Romney's Mormonism would hurt his candidacy.
"It wouldn't be an issue with me if he was Jewish or Pentecostal or Catholic or anything," said Debbie and Jorge, explaining their hope together. "It's not an issue in my mind," said Debbie. "I don't expect that of others."
The Mormon faith encourages its members to share their beliefs with the world. That's why followers of the church, like the Becerras, are thankful the campaign for president seems to be spreading their message as well.