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A look at Mormon theology and practice

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Since he entered the race, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has faced questions about his Mormon faith. Last week, the former Massachusetts governor said the questions had gone too far.

He accused rival Mike Huckabee -- a Southern Baptist minister -- of attacking his religion by suggesting that Mormons believed Satan and Jesus were brothers. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, promptly apologized.

Huckabee has said he knows little about the Mormon faith; he's not alone. Many Americans are unfamiliar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here's some background on Mormon theology and practice.

How did the Mormon Church get started?

In 1820, a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith Jr. knelt in the woods near Palmyra, N.Y., to ask God which church he should join. He later reported that he saw two glowing figures who told him that all the churches of the day had fallen into apostasy, believing false doctrines. It would be up to him to restore the truth. Over the next several years, Smith said he was visited by an angel named Moroni, son of Mormon, who directed him to golden plates buried in upstate New York and helped him translate them from a language Smith called "reformed Egyptian." The Book of Mormon was published in 1830; the church was founded that year with a handful of believers. Since then, it's grown to 13 million members worldwide, including nearly 5.8 million in the U.S.

Do Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers?

Mormon theology holds that the savior and the devil are both sons of God. Therefore, an official church website explains, "Jesus was Lucifer's older brother." But as former Mormon Bishop Scott Gordon points out, the faith also holds that all human beings are sons of God, which would make everyone a sibling of Christ (and of the devil). Mormons believe that Lucifer was not born evil but turned into a power-hungry glory-seeker. He opposed God's plan for mankind and was cast out of heaven.

Do Mormons believe in the Bible?

Yes. Mormons consider the Bible the word of God, though they do not take every verse literally. They generally use the King James version; there is also a translation and commentary written by Joseph Smith.

Mormons also revere three books of additional scripture. The Book of Mormon tells of Christ's sojourn in North America; Smith (who taught that the Garden of Eden was located in rural Missouri) prophesied that Christ would return to the New World one day.

A second book, "The Pearl of Great Price," is said to contain writing from Moses and Abraham.

And the "Doctrine and Covenants" includes the rules that govern everyday life, such as the prohibitions against Mormons drinking alcohol, coffee or tea.

What do Mormons believe about God?

Mormons believe the Heavenly Father is the same species as man; he has a body of flesh and bone -- only more perfect than we could imagine. He's married to a Heavenly Mother. Mormons do not accept the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity; they view God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as three separate beings.

What do Mormons believe about heaven?

Mormons believe that men and women can become like God in the afterlife. This does not mean that they will replace God; he remains more perfect and reigns over all. But men and women can achieve some degree of deification and become "joint heirs with Christ," said Gordon, president of a Mormon theology group called FAIR.

Heaven is divided into three kingdoms. The top, "celestial," tier is where God dwells and is reserved for men and women who have been baptized and married in a Mormon temple and who have done good works on Earth. The second tier is open to anyone who accepts Christ on Earth or in the afterlife, and the third tier -- which is still glorious but removed from God's presence -- can include non-Christians, Gordon said.

Those who have accepted Christ but then willfully turn away from their faith are banished to the "outer darkness."

Why do Mormons baptize the dead?

Mormons say they want to give everyone a chance to enter the most exalted realm of heaven. So they perform "baptism by proxy," in which young Mormons (generally teenagers) step into a baptismal font while the names of the dead are recited. The dead, hovering in a spirit world, then have a choice to accept or reject the Mormon faith.

Because only couples who have been married, or "sealed," in a Mormon temple can achieve the highest realm of heaven, there are also rituals for posthumous weddings.

Why can't non-Mormons go into a Mormon temple?

Everyone is welcome to attend regular Sunday services in Mormon meeting rooms, known as wards. But Mormon authorities aim to keep their temples sacred by excluding nonbelievers. (They won't allow outsiders even to attend a son's or daughter's temple wedding.)

Practicing Mormons must be screened every two years by their bishops, who will ask questions such as: Do you believe in God and Christ? Are you giving 10% of your income to the church? Are you chaste? Are you honest? Do you smoke or drink? Those who pass get a "temple recommend" that allows them to participate in sacred rituals.

What are those sacred rituals?

Men and women of good standing undergo a ritual cleansing ceremony when they reach maturity, usually about age 20. They also go through an "endowment session" when they are instructed in rules for faithful living. The temples are also used for weddings and for baptism, marriage and endowment ceremonies for the dead.

Don't Mormons have to wear special underwear?

At the time of their ritual cleansing (known as "washing and anointing"), both men and women are given temple garments, which look like a boxers-and-T-shirt set embroidered with sacred symbols. Mormons are expected to wear their garments daily, though not every minute. The garments are supposed to remind them of their promises to God and thus provide spiritual protection.

Who can become a Mormon priest?

The Mormon Church has no paid clergy. Most boys in good standing are named deacons at age 12. (They act like altar servers in a Roman Catholic church, passing bread and water used in communion.) At 16, most boys become priests and can bless the sacrament. At 19, they're ordained as elders and generally sent off for two years of missionary work. Women can serve as missionaries but are never priests.

The church is led by a president who is considered a living prophet, a member of an unbroken chain of prophets including Joseph Smith and stretching back to Jesus Christ. The president governs the church with two counselors and 12 apostles, all males. All can receive divine revelation. In 1978, for instance, the church president said God revealed a need to end the practice of excluding blacks from the priesthood, even though the Book of Mormon describes dark skin as a divine mark of disfavor.

What was Romney's role in the church?

Romney served two years as a missionary in France.

In the mid-1980s he was the bishop of his church in Belmont, Mass. In that role (which is unpaid but hugely time-consuming), he would have organized Sunday services, counseled members in crisis and distributed charitable funds. He conducted the interviews to determine who could enter the temple.

Romney also served nine years as "stake president," a largely administrative role that involved overseeing about a dozen local churches.

He no longer has a formal position in the church, but continues to practice faithfully and tithe 10% of his income.

Do Mormons practice polygamy?

Joseph Smith taught that men could take multiple wives, and some early Mormons did. Non-Mormon authorities vigorously fought the practice, and the church officially ended it in 1890. Members who take more than one wife are excommunicated.

Are Mormons Christians?

Many denominations do not consider Mormons to be Christians. Some call the faith a cult. Mormons say they are Christians because they accept Jesus Christ as their savior.

Where can I get more information about the faith?

The church sponsors two websites, www.lds.org and www.mormon.org. The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, a group that defends Mormon theology, offers details at www.fairlds.org.

stephanie.simon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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