Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has sparked curiosity and even raised some old suspicions about his Mormon faith, a religion founded in 1830 and now claiming more than 13 million members living in 176 countries. Indeed, some Mormons feel that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially called, now faces closer scrutiny than Romney's political record. Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the church's governing body, the Council of Twelve Apostles, recently discussed some of the more contentious issues, while making it clear that, apart from urging its members to vote, the church remains strictly neutral on matters of politics.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about your church?
One is that some people say we Mormons are not Christians. We can't comprehend that, when Jesus Christ is the center of everything we teach and believe. He's the head of the church, as far as we're concerned.
The other thing is that some people say the Mormons are a cult. We don't understand that. We're a very strong Christian organization that's doing great things and trying to relieve human suffering, to increase knowledge of the gospel truths, to lift and inspire and bless the lives of our Heavenly Father's children.
And what about your sacred Scriptures?
We also get that one: "Well, Mormons don't believe in the Bible. You have your own Bible." Which is ridiculous. We think the Bible is a miracle. We accept the Bible, and we also accept the Book of Mormon. We use them hand in hand as Scripture and guidance and doctrine. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon has more references to Christ and his teachings and his words than are in the Bible.
We probably wouldn't have had this discussion of Mormon theology 40 years ago when George Romney, Mitt's father, made a brief run for the presidency. But the evangelical upsurge and the return to orthodoxy in recent years have made people more aware of creeds and beliefs. As a result, there are many Christians who call themselves orthodox, whether Protestant or Catholic, who consider your theology heretical, even in some of the same ways that the beliefs of ancient Gnostic Christians were thought to be heretical. How do you respond?
We have spoken very clearly on what our position is. They don't listen. They say, "There can't be a restoration, there can't be a [new] prophet [Joseph Smith, the church's founder], there can't be Apostles. The heavens are sealed. What we have is what we have; therefore, it's heresy that anyone would come forward and say that there's more knowledge, that God isn't dead but is alive and has the capacity to speak." That's where the conflict, part of the conflict, comes from.
You say there were four centuries of uncertainty after the death of the Savior when you had Apostles that taught in the New Testament and then you have the Nicene Creed, and are we back at New Testament Christianity? Yes, we are. Using the word gnostic doesn't help. We see ourselves as New Testament Christians, organized the same way, with Apostles—and a prophet brought this back, just like prophets in the Old Testament.
And the doctrine of the Trinity?
Let's put it in simple terms: God the Father, Jesus Christ, Holy Ghost—separate individuals. God is the father of all our spirits. Jesus Christ, son of God, savior of the world, is separate and distinct. We find that most people think they're separate and distinct. When you go door to door, as we did as young men, and talk to the average person—the theologians might have a different view—but people think of them as distinct.
How do you address the perception that there is a lot of secrecy in the Mormon faith?
We have just a few things that are sacred, like temples. If you were to come to any of our church buildings—some 3,000 around the world—you would be welcome to come inside and attend services. We also have 126 temples around the world, and the temple, before it is dedicated to the special services or the special sacraments we perform in them, is open for the public to walk through. We don't allow the general public—or even Mormons who don't have a temple recommend[ation]—in those temples after they've been dedicated, but that's because it's sacred, not because it's secret. So we feel we get labeled as being "secret" when what we're trying to do is just be sacred about certain things.
Has Mitt Romney sought any suggestions from you, or have you advised him in any way to talk about the church? Have you urged him to give the "Kennedy speech" and talk more directly about his faith?
No and no. There's a real brick wall between the campaign and the church. He's going to have to make that decision about the "Kennedy speech" all by himself.