Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Day 9 - Cedar City, UT to Salt Lake City, UT

The Mormons
I don't remember anything about the drive to Salt Lake City. But I remember touring the Mormon Temple grounds once we got there.

If you crossed a really devout Christian church with a very successful corporation, you'd end up with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Don't kid yourself that the Mormons are a glassy-eyed bunch of cultists who can't chew gum and praise Jesus at the same time. These people have their act -- collectively and individually -- together. They're smart and powerful and have a lot of money behind their cause and are more than likely staunch Republicans, too.

Which can put a couple of middle-aged alterna-lifestylers from Chicago who are just touring Temple Square for laffs a bit on edge.

Everyone was nice. Nothing was out of place. Everything worked. The men all wear suits and white suits and ties; the women all dress just as conservatively. All the buildings had video screens and interactive exhibits and audiovisual delights everywhere you looked. It was all religious, but high-tech and a bit futuristic, like I've always imagined the Republic of Gilead is in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Visitors are encouraged -- by every employee -- to take the guided tour, and Jonathan and I soon found ourselves starting a chaperoned walk about the grounds.

First stop, the just-a-few-years-old Convention Center, which is where the Church holds it regular big meetings. This picture is just a small slice of it. The Center has 21,000 seats, and I think one of our guides said it was the largest auditorium in North America. A little fact-checking could verify that statement, but I do not doubt the truth. The place is enormous, and busts and paintings of Bible scenes and Church notables are everywhere.

Next stop is the North Visitors center, where sightseers are walked up a spiral ramp leading to a large domed room. A white statue of Jesus stands in the center, the dome around and above him painted with pictures of the Earth and Moon, planets and galaxies and, inexplicably, little fluffy clouds. It's Jesus in Space.

This is where the tour -- which up to this point was pretty low-pressure on the sales front -- got serious. We were seated on benches looking up at Jesus. Our guides kindly asked us to refrain from taking pictures and to open our hearts to a special message from Christ -- then kindly interrupted one woman who was too busy taking pictures to hear what they'd just said.

Then the lights dimmed and Jesus spoke. I don't remember exactly what He said. His voice boomed out from hidden speakers with a message of love and family, and the whole time I was sure the Mormons were beaming a secret signal beneath the audio, something I'd be powerless to resist.

Then it was over and the lights came back up, and instead of filing all of us into a giant processing center for debriefing and assignment of our new identities, we were escorted back down the ramp without further incident. We saw the Tabernacle, where the Choir lives, and then received cards onto which we could write our addresses and phone number, or those of our enemies.

And then it was done.

Jonathan and I looked around for a couple hours more. Each of us had a somewhat probing question about the Mormon faith. Jonathan's had something to do with what I think he called the apostolic division; I wanted to know what's up with the magic underwear. But each time we worked up our nerve to ask someone, something would happen to divert their attention. Once, one of our guides ran into some people she hadn't seen in years. Another time, the Elder I'd just introduced myself to had to answer the phone. It was like God knew we were both troublemakers and wasn't having any of it.

One of the creepiest things about it for me were seeing these groups of men -- all in suits and ties and white shirts -- participating in what looked like very private conversations. Some were young, some were middle-aged or older, but all of them were so clean cut they looked like you could eat off them. It was a bit like walking past the five biggest executives at the company you work for as they discuss the issues right after a big meeting -- you get the feeling they're making decisions that will affect your future and yet, somehow, it's still none of your business.

The Mormon Church is interesting. On the whole, they're as Christian as they come, no question there. I'm all for their support of the family (as far as what I know about it, which isn't much) and I think there's something fascinating about a uniquely American religion with its roots in the pioneering spirit and the kind of determination it took to settle this great land.

Yeah, there are some things that don't quite make sense. The golden book from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon conveniently disappeared, along with his cohort in the Church's founding. (He later came back, yet no one really talks about him much.) There's the whole alcohol/caffeine thing and the special garments.

But these things aren't that different from Buddha finding enlightenment under a tree or Moses parting the Red Sea. They're things you have to take on faith, and that, it seems, is the whole point to begin with.

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