Mormons Open Doors to Discuss Religion

Unprecedented access inside a temple shows glimpse of controversial religion.

ByABC News
January 9, 2009, 5:37 PM

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.