The Inner Sanctum

I had just finished up with a tour of the new Mormon Temple in Newport Beach when I came face to face with Kathleen. Forthright, with a shining smile, straight shiny hair and the physique of a beach volleyballer, she seemed to embody the ideal of young Mormon womanhood.

Kathleen grew up just blocks from where the temple now stands, and is looking forward to a life in its embrace. After spending three hours at the temple, I had a lot of questions, and Kathleen had answers.

The tour was part of a public open house that all temples hold just once. After a temple is officially consecrated, its inner sanctum is open only to Mormons in good standing. You need a bar-coded card, good for one year at a time, to get in after that.

But for a week before consecration, non-Mormons, called gentiles, are allowed to visit. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of people did. I joined in with a group from the American Jewish Committee, which has worked to enhance interfaith relations with the LDS Church.

The beautifully landscaped temple grounds were filled with tour groups; the parking lot seethed with cars and tour buses. The gleaming buildings, the immaculately laid out gardens and paths and the unfailingly cheerful tour guides in sensible dresses or suits and ties gave the day an efficient, theme-park feel. A dozen Jews at a synagogue Kiddush couldn’t maintain that kind of order.

To the uninitiated or unprepared, Mormon theology is weird. Not bad weird, or wrong weird, just strange to those who are used to God’s revelation coming to a close with Deuteronomy. Founding prophet Joseph Smith began receiving his revelation in 1823 in the form of a book of gold pages, presented to him on a hill in upstate New York by the angel Moroni.

The book detailed a strange and fabulous story of the former inhabitants of North America. Having left Jerusalem 600 years before the birth of Jesus, two tribes of Israel, the Nephites and the Lammanites, battle for supremacy until Jesus comes to America to make peace between them.

He leaves, then the Lammanites eradicate the Nephites, whose leader was Moroni’s father, Mormon. The Book of Mormon imparts this bloody story as well as Mormon’s wisdom, though Smith and his followers continued to receive divine messages.

The revelations led to strict codes of conduct: no alcohol, no caffeine, no tobacco, clear lines of patriarchal authority, a solemn and powerful church hierarchy and tithing — about half of all Mormons tithe 10 percent of their pre-tax earnings to the church.

The Mormon Church abandoned polygamy in 1890, and entered mainstream American religious life with what author Jon Krakauer, in his excellent study, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” called, “stunning determination.” They were the Lord’s Elect, or Latter-Day Saints (LDS), with the mission of establishing the One True Church, and preparing the way for the Second Coming.

What’s fascinating to me about the LDS Church is not its fabulistic ur-text. These are narratives, like the Bible and Quran, that believers take on faith. What’s almost unbelievable is the church’s newness. Now, 150 years after its founding, the LDS Church has 13 million members worldwide. There are about the same number of Jews in the world. (True, millions of us were murdered, but we also had a 4,000-year head start.) Now, the race for hearts and minds really isn’t even close.

Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates the LDS Church will grow to 265 million members by 2080. At any moment, about 60,000 Mormon missionaries are spread around the globe, proselytizing on behalf of their faith. “No other American religious movement is so ambitious,” wrote professor Harold Bloom in “The American Religion.” “And no rival even remotely approaches the spiritual audacity that drives endlessly toward accomplishing a titanic design.”

To the extent organized Jewry is organized and has anything approaching a “design,” it is merely to stop what is seen as the inexorable attrition of Jewish souls. Meanwhile, some 300,000 people join the LDS Church each year, the largest growth rates being in Africa and South America.

Touring the sanctum santorum of Mormon belief, I tried to divine what accounts for this appeal.

The rooms are large, though not cathedral grand. They have reproduction French furniture and crystal chandeliers. Large clerestory windows pour light onto simple religious-themed paintings and murals.

Other than the baptismal room, which features a Jacuzzi-like pool supported on the backs of huge oxen statues, the other rooms are — just nice rooms, decorated more like the Century Plaza Hotel than Lourdes or the Crystal Cathedral or, for that matter, Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

In these rooms, Mormons engage in distinct, personalized rituals — baptizing themselves or deceased ancestors in the True Church or sealing themselves in eternal marriage. One room, the Ordinance Room, is painted with bright murals of California landscape. It could be a Hollywood screening room — and it is, in fact, where Mormons sit and watch a movie about the founding of Mormonism.

Since that recent beginning, the LDS Church has splintered into numerous sects, some of which, as author Krakauer documents, can be as unbendingly fundamentalist as the Taliban. But within the mainstream movement, orderliness abounds. The ideals of 19th century America — hierarchy, the patriarchal family, charity, temperance, personal revelation — are enshrined.

“Salvation,” one Mormon leader told our group, “is a family affair.”

After the tour, when I found myself face to face with Kathleen, I asked her what happened to the golden tablets, which Joseph Smith said he translated from their original “Reformed Egyptian.” She explained that they had been lost.

I also had another question on my mind. I explained to her that a large segment of Jewry believes that while our holy books reflect eternal truths, they are not necessarily literally true. I wondered: Did Latter-day Saints believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon?

Kathleen’s smile didn’t waver, and her voice was strong and sure.

“I understand metaphor,” she said, “and I understand history. My degree is in history. But we believe in the revelation of the prophet as it is written.”

Combine that powerful belief with a duty to proselytize, and it’s no wonder this new religion will soon fill a far larger portion of the world and the religious firmament than our own.