DENOMINATION Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints
BISHOP Bradley S. Owens
ADDRESS 3311 Southfork Drive.
SACRAMENT MEETINGS Sundays at 11:00 A.M.

So, if 2008 hopeful Mitt Romney becomes president, will young men be expected to ride bicycles and wear white shirts while doing two years of rigidly celibate national service? Will Shiner Bock and Starbucks be banned? Or will we simply stay the course for four more fun-filled years of Republican leadership? Since a number of Americans apparently have serious qualms about voting for a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—whose adherents, better known as Mormons, are often identified by their mission work, avoidance of alcohol and coffee, and family centeredness—I decided to look into the matter.

As it happens, Latter-day Saints are easy to locate. More than 260,000 live in Texas, distributed among five hundred “wards,” or congregations. In some locations, including the one I visited in the Houston suburb of Pearland, two or more wards share a facility, meeting at separate times. The church’s temples, of which Texas has four (in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Lubbock), tend to be striking edifices. Local ward buildings reflect a concern for function over form. The Pearland meetinghouse is attractive, but there are no extras: no artwork, no statuary, no stained-glass windows.

The congregation, numbering almost 250, and the service itself reflected this conservative, no-frills approach. Most of the men wore dark suits with white shirts and ties. Almost all of the unjacketed, including boys of no more than twelve or thirteen, wore white shirts and ties. The women, many of them young mothers, were dressed like, well, young mothers. I later learned that the Silverlake Ward, situated in an area filled with young families, has 63 children under the age of three and another 84 between three and eleven. I think nearly all were present that morning, with the babbling and familiar child noises creating a distracting din.

Latter-day Saints gather for three hours each Sunday. Typically, the “sacrament meeting,” which I attended, precedes two hours of classes and comprises a familiar mix of announcements, hymns, prayers, Communion, and homilies. Wards have no paid clergy, and leadership positions change. Bishop Bradley S. Owens, who presides over the service, is an optometrist by profession; when his term as bishop ends, he will assume some other volunteer position, such as head of one of the Scout troops every ward sponsors. The bishop is aided by two counselors, one of whom, a urologist and assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, gave the welcome and made announcements. Several members of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, the lower and higher orders of male church leaders twelve and older, oversaw the distribution of the sacrament.

Most sacrament meetings include two or three brief presentations by members of the church, chosen by the bishop and speaking on topics he either assigns or approves. On this occasion, a teenage girl told of her positive experiences at a church-sponsored girls’ camp, a Chinese American woman spoke of the importance of regular study of the Scriptures, and her husband offered an overview of the church’s distinctive view of Scripture, including the belief that “the heavens are not closed,” so when the church’s president, currently 97-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley, announces a revelation from God, it becomes binding on the church with a force equal to written Scripture. (Such revelations, conveniently coincident with federal law and social pressure, led church apostles to ban polygamy in 1890—it is still practiced only among splinter sects, which are considered heretical by the main body—and to open the priesthood to black men in 1978.)

It is convictions like these, of course, that make many non-Mormons uneasy. While stoutly insisting they are Christians—the sacrament hymn that morning was “God Loves Us, So He Sent His Son” (John 3:16)—Mormons do hold a number of views that diverge sharply from classical Christianity. Most notably, they do not regard the Bible as the only source of religious truth. According to the standard account, an angel named Moroni (whose father’s name was Mormon) appeared in 1823 to Joseph Smith, a seventeen-year-old boy living in upstate New York, led him to some buried gold plates, and later assisted in their translation from an Egyptian-like script into what became the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. In a narrative unsupported by external evidence, the book declares that, circa 600 BCE, a group of Hebrews left Jerusalem for the American continent, where they established complex civilizations, received personal visits from Jesus, and spawned such peoples as the Incas and the American Indians.

Claiming additional revelations, Smith produced two other volumes, Doctrines and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, which, together with the Book of Mormon, set forth a revised version of several major Christian doctrines. The speakers that morning did not touch on these directly, but one example in this system of theology is that God, the Heavenly Father, is remarkably anthropomorphic, with flesh and bones and a wife, the Heavenly Mother. The Heavenly Couple bore us all as “spirit children” who existed as “premortals” in the celestial realm until such time as our earthly parents followed the divine model and we shuffled on this mortal coil. So important is this process that the Mormon version of the Fall has Adam giving up the opportunity to remain sinless in the Garden of Eden in order to join Eve in producing human beings—“Adam fell that men might be.” My guess is that Adam, like Joseph Smith, was about seventeen when he made that selfless choice.

Mormons also take literally a key aphorism: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” Humans who repent of their sins, are baptized, live pure lives, and otherwise follow the precepts of church doctrine can look forward to an afterlife in a celestial kingdom and, eventually, to becoming gods themselves. To extend this benefit to those who have died without having trodden this sanctified path, Mormons practice “baptism for the dead,” a ritual by means of which they can serve as proxies for long-dead relatives, obtaining salvation for them. This belief and the attendant obsession with identifying one’s relatives have led the church to assemble the most astonishingly complete genealogical records on the planet.

Since Mormons are famous for their diligent evangelism, I was surprised that no one made an effort to greet or talk with me before or after the service. Though a sign outside says “Visitors Welcome,” I suspect few actually attend. The service seemed designed to reinforce church teaching for members rather than to explain it to outsiders, and as I listened to the homilies, I pondered the apparent misgivings about Mitt Romney. There are some theological doctrines, whatever the religion, that cause palpable social harm. Think, for example, of the belief that Noah’s curse on one branch of his grandchildren justifies the subjugation of Africans to those of European stock, or that Allah sanctions the destruction of Jews and Christians, or that Palestinians must surrender all claim to the West Bank before the Messiah can come. But in the absence of such dangers, we do well to recall Thomas Jefferson’s observation that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This is explicitly not meant as encouragement to support Romney; it is meant to commend the framers of the Constitution for declaring that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Critics of the church, including some within its ranks, raise legitimate questions about its authoritarian and patriarchal structure, resistance to critical investigation, and theocratic tendencies that may run counter to the framers’ convictions about the separation of religion and government. Insofar as such criticisms are accurate, they are cause for concern, but they do not negate the sincerity, demonstrable goodness, and single-minded dedication that characterize the lives of many Latter-day Saints. America is stronger because of folk like these. Whether in Mormons or Methodists, prophets or presidents, distaste for dissent and opposition to open inquiry are not admirable qualities and do not foster freedom. Mormons need to remember that, but no more than the rest of us.