SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — All roads lead to the Temple in this beautiful city nestled at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.
The Temple of the Latter Day Saints, more commonly referred to as the Mormon Temple, is an imposing structure, with its spires, the golden Angel Moroni blowing his trumpet (to summon the faithful to salvation).
But the inner workings of this enormous compound, which dominates Salt Lake City, are more impressive still. While non-Mormons are barred from the sacred grounds of the Temple itself, the numerous facilities set aside for visitors can make one forget the loss. A detailed model of the structure is on display, complete with the giant baptismal font perched atop 12 oxen.
A touch-screen presentation gives the curious and blow-by-blow tour of the Temple, while numerous stands provide printed materials that aspiring converts can take away and study. You can also sign up to receive books and CDs to instruct you on the ways of the Latter Day Saints.
“When we were little, we would go to the Temple and, as a joke, sign up people we didn’t like to receive all that stuff,” said one native of Utah.
There are interactive video shows for children, where the younger crowd can find answers to the pressing questions, “Does God have a plan for me?” or “What is a Prophet?” and a large screen plays a constant stream of testimonies from African-American doctors, engineers, inventors and others, all beaming as they say proudly, “I am a Mormon.”
Eager guides from many nations are on hand to answer questions, provided that the queries do not stray into uncharted territory.
“I am not authorized to give interviews,” said one young Asian woman, whose nametag said she was “Sister Au-Yeung,” from Hong Kong. Au-Yeung’s parents converted to Mormonism in their 20s, and she was brought up in that faith. She is now in the United States on a two-year “mission,” something that young Mormons routinely do.
“I am not here to convert anyone,” she said, a bit anxiously, after asking that I not take notes. “I am just here to help anyone who wants to find the truth.”
She did, however acknowledge that she had heard of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who is an elder of the Mormon Church.
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Ever since the possibility of a Romney presidency entered the public consciousness, increased attention has focused on the Latter Day Saints.
Mormons, according to Au-Yeung, have “the fullness of truth” that other religions do not.
“Everything in the Bible is true,” she insists. “But the Bible does not contain the whole truth. Some people have taken things out.”
The whole truth is only to be found in the Book of Mormon, said Au-Yeung, extending the tome to her interlocutor. It was written some 600 years ago, she said, and revealed to Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1830s.
“We respect other religions and live in harmony with them,” she said tranquilly. “I hope you can feel the peace here at the Temple.”
But peace is a bit hard to come by in Salt Lake City. There are two kinds of people here, it seems: Mormons and those who poke fun at them, sometimes none too gently.
In Squatter’s Pub and Brewery, just a few blocks from the Temple, one can order a “Provo Girl” beer, named for the town that houses one of Mormondom’s great centers of learning, Brigham Young University. The bottle boasts a scantily-clad lass on the label, a la Germany’s “St. Pauli Girl” beers, mocking both the Mormon prohibition against alcohol and the chaste, modest image of Mormon women.
Sadly, another signature brew was not on offer. Polygamy Porter, the waitress explained, is a seasonal draft, and was only available in bottles to go.
“It’s called Polygamy Porter’ because you always want more than one,” volunteered one aficionado.
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The Mormon principle of “plural matrimony” was officially banned by the Church in 1890, but the custom persists among splinter groups.
“There are probably 50,000 polygamous families here in Utah,” said Joseph Dimick, a retired state judge. “I’m sure you have met some, you just didn’t know it.”
Everyone, it seems, knows families with multiple wives and numerous children, although the practice violates both US law and current Mormon edicts.
“No one is ever prosecuted,” Dimick said. “You are not going to put someone in jail for cohabiting, or for giving birth outside of wedlock. Policemen are not going to ask about it. But if you are open about polygamy, you will be excommunicated from the Mormon Church before you can count to 150.”
Polygamy is something of an obsession with non-Mormons, who often use the concept to tease or condemn the faithful.
In the state liquor store, one can purchase “Five Wives Vodka,” which was temporarily banned in neighboring Idaho, since it might give offense to the Latter Day Saints.
The other beverage that distinguishes the faithful from the blatantly unbelieving is coffee. Salt Lake City is full of cafes and coffeehouses, some of which also take aim at the town’s dominant religion. There are a few Starbucks, but most establishments are local.
On E Street one can get a cup of java at “Jack Mormon,” a popular coffee house. The term is used for lapsed believers, and is considered apt for those who imbibe caffeine.
At Cucina, on 2nd Avenue, a frozen cappuccino comes with the elated advertisement: “the most caffeinated beverage in Utah!”
“People who are not Mormon are a bit aggressive about showing it,” said one Utah resident, whose wine cellar attests to his non-Mormon status. “They want to make sure everyone understands who they are.”
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Utah is the reddest of red states, and will undoubtedly go to Romney in November.
However, while Salt Lake City is considered the Mormon capital, it is one of the few cities in Utah where Mormons are in the minority.
“Salt Lake County went ... for Obama in 2008,” said Ben Smith, who teaches in one of Salt Lake’s private schools. “We have a liberal bubble here.”
Not that it will have much of an effect on the outcome of the elections.
“I will vote because I believe the act itself is important,” Smith said. “But do I think my one vote will matter? No, of course not.”