When I heard on the radio that Thomas Monson died Tuesday, I immediately knew who he was, even before the newscaster identified him. Not just for the reason many do—he is cited in a line in "I Believe," a song in the wildly-popular 2011 musical "The Book of Mormon"—"And I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God"—but he also has a cameo in "The Quest for Pie," my as-yet unpublished memoir of traveling out West with my boys in 2009. We pull into Salt Lake City and, of course, head directly to the Mormon Temple, where soon we were treated to Monson's take on pornography.
“Let’s get started,” said Sister Cross, a missionary from Australia, a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered woman with reddish brown hair who looked like an Olympic swimmer.
“Welcome to Temple Square,” chimed in Sister Sarah, a missionary from Japan, petite and dark-haired. Both wore long skirts, short-sleeved white blouses under sweater vests, kind of a demure 1950s schoolgirl look.
We had arrived at downtown Salt Lake City perhaps an hour before.
The young woman behind the desk at the Peery—and wow, these Utah gals are good-looking—tapped at her computer, and happily welcomed us a day early. The boys got their own suite—I had one a floor above. Suddenly, everything was gravy. The car was safely parked—on the street across from the hotel, no parking problems here, apparently—we decided to walk to the Mormon Temple, the lone point on our agenda. Because really, what else is here?
We walked the six blocks from the hotel—pure blue skies ahead, the streets wide and completely empty of pedestrians. Walking must be an exotic practice in Salt Lake City. Lots of construction going on, cranes everywhere. Kent, charmingly, thought the Mormons were a brand of Jews, since they had a temple, which I only realized after he pointed out a large Jewish star worked into the architecture. I did my best to explain what Mormonism is—a funky outshoot of Christianity, with golden plates and Joseph Smith. Many people consider them strange, but in my view they are only unfamiliar. All religions other than your own are strange when you first learn about them, and it is one of those tragic ironies of human nature that a person can cleave to the most rococo faith, jammed with the most elaborate rigmarole and hushed mystery hoo-ha, which of course are believed sincerely as merely the ineffable will of the Lord God Almighty made manifest, and that person can nevertheless turn with a snarl to mock someone else for belonging to a bizarre cult.
That’s a big reason religious conservatives are often so hostile to other faiths—not because they’re so different, but because they’re so similar, and it’s a short leap from seeing how ridiculous other beliefs seem to beginning to suspect how ridiculous your own are, too. Thus other faiths must be ignored or trivialized or suppressed because respecting them will, eventually, cast doubt upon your own. It’s easier to burn others than to question your own.
Our guides engaged us—a strategy to draw the marks in. What, Sister Cross asked the boys, did they know about Mormonism? I stepped in, offering that I had tried to explain Mormonism to them in the car on the way over.
She smiled, indulgently.
"What did you tell them?" she asked.
I told her I had said that, in the same way Catholicism is Christianity with an overlay of distinctive Catholic trappings—the pope, the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation and such—so Mormonism takes a base of Jesus-worship and festoons it with the specifics of Mormon history: Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the Angel Moroni, golden plates, a genealogy fixation. . . .
She said nice try, but no cigar. The key aspect of Mormonism, she said, is that unlike other religions, it has a living prophet, still, to this day, Thomas S. Monson, the 16th living prophet, who traces his ancestry directly back to Jesus Christ and is in regular communication with God.
The Visitors Center at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City dwarfs the one in Los Angeles, and is filled with large painted murals from moments in Mormon history and idealized depictions of life—“Our Heavenly Father’s Plan For Families” — with happy white people sowing grain, marrying, teaching their children, their faces awash in joy and light, frozen in ecstasy. It reminded me of North Korean propaganda. Even the occasional black or Asian or Hispanic person thrown in for minimal racial balance looked bled white in this setting. The boys and I delicately picked our way over the place—beautifully designed, Smithsonian quality, with maps and mannequins, artifacts, videos, tableaus, models—then signed up for the tour.
Sisters Cross and Sarah explained to us how God had led Brigham Young to the present location in the 1840s, where he stuck his cane in the ground and decreed this was the spot where he would build his church.
We were walked through the enormous hall where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs. Music has always been an important part of Mormonism and, given the chilly reception the idea of Mormonism gets in the rest of the country, the choir is something of a goodwill ambassador, or was when I was growing up. Now they don’t seem as big a deal, or perhaps its presence is just overwhelmed by the rising din of society.
Kent admired the scale model of Jerusalem—Mormons tend to like Jews, even more, it sometimes seems, than Jews like Jews. Ross—who always pays close attention at museums—strayed from the group, going into the little glassed-in booths off to the side where snippets of taped lectures from Monson, the latest prophet in an unbroken line from Young, were being played on TV screens.
“Be strong, be clean around such degrading and destructive content at all costs,” Monson was saying, in a talk entitled, “Be Clean.” “I add particularly to the young people, my beloved friends, under no circumstances permit yourself to be trapped by the viewing of pornography.”
“Of all Christianity, this is my favorite faction,” said Ross.
The missionaries were obviously poised for us to express interest in Mormonism—maybe whisk us off to a special chamber for further instruction, or that baptism I had waved off in Los Angeles. Yeah right, I thought, that’s going to happen. It’s an insult, really, how these folk expect you to readily drop whatever dogma you’ve believed all your life, and your forebears before you, and accept their faith based on some murals and a few lines of ballyhoo. But I suppose it does happen. Soft-willed visitors must sign up on the spot. I wondered if it goes the other way, wondered how many guys try to corrupt the missionary spokeswomen—that must happen too. At least the attempt must happen; I doubt many missionaries are led astray, though you never know. Not the sort of thing I would attempt, though it was entertaining to ponder the concept—they seem to feel entitled to pressure you into considering their way of life, why shouldn’t turnabout be fair play? Maybe God wants you to do whatever the heck you want.