Jan. 9, 2008— -- Ever since the first Mormon temple was built more than 150 years ago, they have been the subject of speculation and suspicion. The temples are imposing structures where private and sacred rituals are performed, and where outsiders are almost never welcomed.
But this week, two of the church's 12 apostles invited ABC News to tour a new temple in Utah. Elder Russell Ballard and Elder Quentin Cook, who are at the very highest level of the church, also sat down for an unprecedented interview.
"We want to be understood, not misunderstood," said Ballard, "and people are defining us in the wrong way. They're defining us without having the facts."
Ballard says Mormons are still maligned as polygamists, and known for discriminating against African Americans.
From a public relations perspective, the last couple of years have been tough for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The presidential candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney focused attention on controversial aspects of the church, including the fact that blacks weren't allowed into the Mormon priesthood until 1978.
More recently, the gay community has launched vehement protests outside Mormon temples, furious about the church's support of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that overturned gay marriage in California.
And then there was the wall-to-wall coverage of the crackdown on so-called "fundamentalist Mormons," polygamists who carry on a tradition the mainstream church outlawed in 1890.
The false impression that Mormons are still polygamists could be further reinforced by the HBO hit television series "Big Love."
Upon arrival at Mormon church headquarters in Utah, a small group of TV, print and radio reporters were treated to a teriyaki chicken dinner in an ornate dining room. Dinner was followed by a freewheeling discussion with former businessman Ballard and former attorney Cook, who, as apostles, are believed to be "prophets, seers and revelators."
"We know the voice of the Lord, we know when he wants us to do something," said Ballard.
Inside Mormon Temple: No Cameras Allowed
The next morning, journalists were packed into a church van and driven south to the town of Draper, where this new temple was recently completed. It's the 129th in the world.
In the weeks before a temple is dedicated, outsiders are encouraged to visit and it's a huge open house.
Once that's over, the only people who can enter are church members who have a bar-coded "recommend" card, which means their local church bishop believes they are living clean, chaste lives.
ABC cameras were not allowed inside.
"The temple is just a great, wonderful place," said Cook. "You're coming out of the world and you're coming into this great peaceful temple."
The highest point in the temple is called the Celestial Room, designed to symbolize the peace and tranquility of heaven.
"When we come to the temple," said Ballard, "we take off our street clothes and dress in white. I would have on a white shirt, white tie, white trousers, white socks and white slippers. ... And everybody then is on a wonderful, equal basis."
"And you're realizing that the workaday world isn't nearly as important as your family," Cook continued.
Family is at the center of the temple rituals. There is a sealing room, where couples are married for eternity and bound together along with their children. In the Mormon religion, the family is the route to eternal salvation.
In another room, the Latter Day Saints perform one of their most controversial rites: "baptisms for the dead."
Members stand in the heated, chlorinated pool and are baptized in the name of their dead ancestors. Those ancestors can be given the option of converting to Mormonism in the afterlife.
"And the people who are deceased, that isn't binding on them," said Cook. "We, in a loving manner, make that available to them and they choose whether or not they want to have it."
But they don't just do this for ancestors of Mormons. Church members have scoured the world, creating a database of hundreds of millions of names, names that are systematically submitted for baptism. This includes, most controversially, Holocaust victims.
Sacred Covenants and Secret Handshakes
"Well, we feel enormous respect for other faiths," said Cook. "And we are just completely respectful of those who suffered during the Holocaust. We just have to make that perfectly clear. And we just see this very differently. We see that in a loving outreach to all the world that we are doing this process of by proxy being baptized for them."
The tour included the ordinance rooms where members make covenants with God to lead worthy lives, and are given the keys that will allow them to enter heaven. This apparently includes secret handshakes, although the apostles didn't care to discuss that.
"We don't get into the details of that," said Ballard.
Cook explained why secrecy is crucial.
"You're going through a process that, if taken out of context, can seem unusual or different, but if you're in the whole, context doesn't seem that way at all," he said.
The apostles prefer to describe the temple as "sacred" rather than "secret." And they point out that, while the 129 temples are members-only, their 18,000 churches and chapels are open to anyone at all.
In fact, the church has 53,000 missionaries out around the world trying to recruit converts to what Mormons believe is the one true Christian church, a church that began in the early 1800s in upstate New York when a teenaged Joseph Smith said he was visited by God and Jesus.
In their early years, the Mormons were violently persecuted.
And it is precisely because of that painful past that critics charge the Mormons with hypocrisy for urging its members, in a letter read from the pulpit in every church in California, to give their money and time to defeat gay marriage in California.
"We were for marriage between a man and a woman because that is the issue that will protect the future of this country and this civilization," said Cook. "It's for the protection of the 5,000-year history of marriage being between a man and a woman."
Prop. 8 and Beyond
The Mormons were a large part of a coalition of religions that supported Proposition 8, but they say they are now being unfairly singled out, but that, in some way they are a victim of their own success.
"Well, that's part of it," said Ballard, "but the other part of it is that when something needs to be done, we know how to do it."
And what the leadership wants now, the reason they brought us to the temple, is to be less timid about defending the faith, a faith based on ideas that many people still find hard to believe.
"Yes, it is a big story, it is a big message, but it's true," said Ballard. "We get beat up out there telling it, but so what? We'll keep doing it the best we know how."