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Leaders of the Mormon faith took an unusual step this week. They invited a few national reporters to join them for a chat and for a tour of a new Mormon Temple opening soon in a Salt Lake City suburb. The Mormon leaders are alarmed by two years of negative publicity. It stemmed in part from Mitt Romney's presidential bid and from Mormon support of the measure that banned gay marriage in California. They also want to challenge their reputation for secrecy. NPR's Howard Berkes was among the invited reporters.
HOWARD BERKES: We began with dinner 10 stories high in a meeting room in a Mormon Church office building in Salt Lake City, with a picture-window nighttime view of the State Capitol Building. It's a dead ringer for the nation's capital, and it was the mix of politics and faith that brought us together.
Unidentified Man #1: Plates are hot, so don't burn yourself.
Unidentified Man #2: Where do you feel the churches and the media and...
BERKES: Eating the teriyaki chicken was a challenge for the two Mormon leaders at the table, with four reporters there asking questions. But Russell Ballard and Quentin Cook patiently responded. They're two of the 12 apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they're responsible for the Mormon image, which they've tried to address with reporters and editors in the last two years.
Mr. QUENTIN COOK (Apostle, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): We were astounded by people saying, you're secret, we don't know what's going on, and that they felt like that there was a level of secrecy which we just don't think exists.
BERKES: The notion of secrecy originates with Mormon temples. Don't confuse them with the 18,000 chapels Mormons pray in every Sunday; they're open to all. But the 129 temples around the world are reserved for the faith's most sacred practices, and only worthy Mormons can enter after they've been dedicated to religious use. New temples open for public tours before dedication. The newest temple is in the Salt Lake City suburb of Draper.
Mr. RUSSELL BALLARD (Apostle, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): When a temple is dedicated, it's then dedicated to the work of the Lord. It becomes a house of the Lord.
BERKES: Ballard stands in the lobby of the new temple. It, and the rest of the building, is ornate with crystal chandeliers, limestone floors, stained glass windows and cabinets, paneling and doors cut from Central African wood. Images are posted at npr.org. Ballard and Cook want to show that the temple is not secret but sacred.
Mr. BALLARD: We're in the baptistery, and what we're looking at is a baptismal font that sits on the back of 12 oxen. The Savior said that everybody had to be baptized to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The purpose of this is to provide proxy baptisms for those who are deceased.
BERKES: This sacred practice is controversial. It first stems from the Mormon belief that Christianity went astray after Christ and that the Mormon faith is Christianity restored. Baptisms since essentially didn't count. So, Mormons are out to baptize those who didn't have these restored baptisms, and that has included deceased presidents, scientists, entertainers and victims of the Holocaust. Some see this as insulting, especially for those who died for their faith. But Mormons believe the dead can reject the attempt.
Mr. COOK: This baptism is not binding on them unless they accept it. But they are given the opportunity, so we consider this a great effort of love to accomplish our father in heaven's plan for his children that are deceased.
BERKES: We head to another sacred room, which also facilitates a fundamental Mormon practice.
Mr. BALLARD: We're in a sealing room, where husbands are sealed - or married - to their wife and the wives to their husbands for time and for all eternity.
BERKES: That sense of eternity is symbolized by two massive mirrors on opposite walls. Couples look in them and see cascading reflections that seem infinite. Eternal marriage for Mormons always involves a man and a woman. That's God's intention, Ballard says. It's the only way to bring children into this world from what Mormons believe is a pre-life existence, and it's why Mormon doctrine conflicts with gay marriage. Ballard answers a political question: Is there room in Mormon theology for gay partners, shared health and death benefits and protection from discrimination?
Mr. BALLARD: There is some very careful study, very careful evaluation being made as to what would be appropriate and what isn't, doctrinally. But if it interferes with the basic, fundamental principle of marriage being between man and a woman, doctrinally we're locked in.
BERKES: There is one more room we visit. It's too sacred, I'm told, for questions inside. So, we stand outside and peer in. It's called the Celestial Room, and it represents a Mormon impression of the glory of heaven. Bright and three stories high, it has the biggest chandelier and stained glass windows, along with plush couches and chairs for contemplation. Ballard's already planning another tour when the next temple is ready later this year.
Mr. BALLARD: We want to have the facts come from us and not perceived facts. That's what's driving this; we want to be on the front end of the conversation about what the church is.
BERKES: Ballard admits that some of what takes place in the temple is too sacred to share, and he won't say how much this or any other temple cost. There are still secrets. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.