As Mormons encounter greater media attention and scrutiny, Reuters spoke with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, a church leadership body, in his office at the headquarters of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The following are excerpts from the interview.
REUTERS: As Mitt Romney (a Republican and prominent member of the Mormon church) runs as a candidate for the White House, the church is now under the spotlight - is this something that you are ready for?
CHRISTOFFERSON: I don’t know if we are ready or not. You’ll have to decide that. But we welcome it in the sense that even though the church has grown in recent years to a significant sizewe’re still a largely unknown quantity for a lot of people. So, to the extent that attention can be informative as opposed to pejorative and there’s a sincere interest and honest curiosity I think that’s positive.
REUTERS: Joseph Smith ran for president. Brigham Young was head of the Utah territory and once said he intended to make Utah a sovereign state. The early church history is very political. Given that this was just 170 years ago, what relationship does the church have with politics today?
CHRISTOFFERSON: I think it’s important to distinguish the church’s role as an institution and the roles of its members as individuals. We do as a church encourage members to be politically involved, to the extent that it’s permitted under whatever system they live in At least at a minimum to exercise the right to vote if they have that. By contrast, as an institution the church sees its primary role as teaching the gospel and helping people become better, and influence society through improving people and people’s lives. In other words, we don’t believe political systems change people but rather that religion can improve or enhance people who in turn make better societies, better laws, better governments.
If we have any role in politics it’s indirect one like that except in situations where we have a position on something we think is of moral significance - a piece of legislation or a proposal that has some particular moral significance where we want to take a position - we feel we are free to do that and petition government as any ordinary citizen or organization is permitted to do. But to try to direct members in their political choices, no; to oppose or promote candidates, no; to try to dictate to members of the church who happen to be government officials, no.
In our view, the first loyalty of a member of the church in his role as a government official is to the nation and his constituency. As a church member, he’s obligated to be honest, uphold high moral standards in his own life, to exercise his best judgment but he’s not required to vote in a particular way or act in a particular way with regard to his duties or his political activity.
REUTERS: Or put God above the law?
CHRISTOFFERSON: No, his first duty is to his constituency and nation. Even where the church has taken a firm or vigorous position on something, which we do occasionally, if a member as a government officer votes in a different way or contrary to the church’s position there’s no church censure, there’s no church discipline applied.
A recent example would be the proposed constitutional amendment on defense of marriage. We had senators voting both ways. In federal funding for stem cell research, we’ve got senators going both ways. Both members of the church. In the one case, the church took a position. The church favored the defense of marriage amendment. In the other case they took no position, but what I’m saying is that either way we say be honest, be of high moral standards and govern yourself that way but vote according to your best judgment.
If we were to try and dictate to members how to vote or how to act who had political office we would contravene a very fundamental doctrine and the whole idea of pluralism and religious freedom that we value so much.
REUTERS: That said, is the Romney campaign exciting for Mormons?
CHRISTOFFERSON: I think it is for many members. I’m sure there are many who support his candidacy and others who don’t. It’s not going to be 100 percent in either direction. But it’s of interest obviously because it’s a fellow church member who is in a prominent political race in this country. It’s a matter certainly of interest here.
REUTERS: On Romney, is it problematic for a Saint to use Baptist language to describe their faith, as Romney is now doing as he seeks the vote of evangelicals. He says, for example, that Jesus is his personal savoir - but that means two different things for evangelicals and Mormons.
CHRISTOFFERSON: I don’t think so. I’m guessing but I’m presuming he’s trying to be understood - to communicate in a language that other people understand. Much of the problem we found in the past with religious conflict is people talking past each other. They don’t understand each other’s vocabulary. And many times there’s not the level of disagreement or conflict that there appears to be just because the terms and phrases and how people understand different things so if he can make himself understood by the use of vocabulary that other people understand that’s alright. It doesn’t cause me any problems.
REUTERS: Do you believe that the LDS faith is the “One True church”? Is that a fundamental underpinning of the church?
CHRISTOFFERSON: It is. We believe that this is the New Testament church that Christ restored in modern times. In that sense you could say we are as traditionally Christian as it’s possible to be. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s conflict with any other faiths or feelings of antagonism. We feel like we have a divine mandate to teach what we know. But that’s where the obligation ends in essence in making the invitation, so to speak.
In humanitarian efforts we really make no distinctions when it comes to need. We are very happy to collaborate with any agency that can help. The Catholic Relief Services is a common partner and Islamic Worldwide Relief is a frequent partner.
REUTERS: Do you believe in Evolution?
CHRISTOFFERSON: I don’t know. That’s a very intriguing question. I can’t think of a doctrinal statement by the church on evolution. We do believe certainly in a divine hand in creation. And one of our scriptures says there is a lot yet to be revealed.There’s not much that’s frankly been revealed on the religious side regarding it. You’ve got a basic account of creation over different periods - we’re not talking necessarily about 24 hour days but periods in which God directed creation. The hows, the details, I don’t know, to be honest with you. We don’t claim to know.
We do believe that more is to be revealed. One of our articles of faith is that we believe all that God has revealed, all that is now revealed and all that is yet to be revealed.
I think it’s important to admit on the scientific side there are limits to what we know and on the religious side there are limits to what we know.
REUTERS: Does the church believe Intelligent Design should be taught in schools.
CHRISTOFFERSON: Not necessarily. We teach in the church as our doctrine as our scriptures teach that the creation was directed by God, that we are his children, not just creatures of happenstance. But we teach whatever science has discovered at this point in school at Brigham Young University and anywhere else. You’ll find discussion of what we know that goes under the rubric of evolution, science classes, biology classes at BYU as you would just at any other university
We’re not pushing that schools teach Intelligent Design but rather that they teach honest science and at church we teach what we know. Eventually they will come together.
REUTERS: Are there documents about the church’s history that are purposely being concealed from the public, hidden in archives or vaults, as some historians assert? If so, what are these?
CHRISTOFFERSON: .There are, as with any institution, confidential records that are not public. We store minutes of meetings with church officers and so on. Those are private matters, as they would be with a company’s board of directors, and we store those in our archive here. And we have the vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon which we use for genealogical information and that kind of confidential church records just for preservation.
But you raise an interesting question. I don’t know if every document ever produced that’s not private and confidential has ever been published, I’m not sure. There is no particular effort to hide things that could legitimately be public just because that never works. Somehow it always comes out, so what’s the point? So there’s not a hidden secret vault of things that contradict what we teach as far as the church’s history is concerned or other things that we are afraid of seeing the light of day. That’s not true. But there are confidential records, that sort of thing. Some of them are deemed confidential for the rights of individuals. We have disciplinary councils of the church
I am confident to say there is no secret document that would blow the church out of the water that’s been held at a secret vault.
REUTERS: Women cannot enter the lay priesthood if I understand that correctly. Can you imagine a time when that might change? Is that conceivable?
CHRISTOFFERSON: I don’t know. I really don’t know. We do honestly believe in the reality of revelation. Both in the past and the present and the future. We think the scriptures came by revelation. We think the Lord continues to reveal His will. It wasn’t just a thing in one period in the Earth’s history, but that God has always acted that way and there’s no way he wouldn’t continue.In that sense it would be conceivable. It happened in regard to blacks (in 1978). In that case, there was a time when God’s view for whatever reason was that it was not permitted and a time now when it is. I’m not saying He changes his mind. I’m just saying that for whatever vision of eternity he has and he wants to time things in a certain way that’s up to Him. He can reveal his will and he does.
REUTERS: Does the LDS church believe that the second coming of Christ is imminent? Is that an accurate characterization?
CHRISTOFFERSON: Probably not in the way most people understand imminent. One of the prophesies that you find in the New Testament, Matthew, is that the Gospel has to be preached in all the world before that happens. We’re making every effort to do that but we’re far from accomplishing it. There are places where you can’t go, period. There are other places where we are in an infant stage, so to speak, in that process. So we don’t pretend to know but we think it’s some years away. Imminent just doesn’t sound right We do believe (Christ) is coming and we do believe he will come again. We do believe in that. But we don’t pretend to know when. And I don’t think it’s imminent in the way most people understand imminent. But we sense a need to be active and are preparing, doing our duty to teach the gospel in all of the world. We’re just going as fast as resources and circumstances permit. We figure He’ll handle the rest.
REUTERS. Turning to polygamy. I realize the church banned the practice in 1890, but is it true that LDS temples across the world continue to conduct ceremonies where men are sealed to multiple wives who would only become their spouses in the afterlife? Does that happen?
CHRISTOFFERSON: Yes, when someone’s spouse has died for example and they remarry; they could be married in a temple for a second time, sealed as we say. How that sorts out in the afterlife we’ll leave in the Savior’s hand, but we permit people to marry again when there’s been a death or a divorce.
REUTERS: The Woodruff Manifesto, which banned polygamy in 1890, never revoked section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants - Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation on plural marriage - why?
CHRISTOFFERSON: It’s consistent with biblical teaching, with Book of Mormon teaching, and that is to say, to use computer language, the default mode is monogamy. That was divinely established at the beginning of time with Adam and Eve and it continues unless God for His own purposes, for whatever reason, permits, or authorizes or directs in this case the practice of plural marriage, and there have been times when He has, if you look at Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the old patriarchs of the Old Testament. And this instance here in the early (LDS) church history.
As I said earlier, we believe in this continuing flow of revelation and it’s His right to authorize or de-authorize - to turn it on or turn it off. But unless God were to specifically reveal to the Prophet this must be done at this time, it’s not, it’s wrong without his direction. That’s where we think that those who have left the church to pursue a polygamous lifestyle have gone terribly wrong. They assume their right to choose that and to authorize it when there is only a divine sanction possible to authorize that. No one has that right to assume Well okay some others have done it in the Bible I’m going to do it now’. No that requires direction through those who possess the authority - the prophets, the apostles - by divine revelation.
We see them (polygamists) as in violation of civil law and in violation of church law. In fact, for someone who is coming out of a polygamous family and now wants to join the church, he would have to undergo a review and receive permission at the highest levels of the church to be baptized, to be sure that he totally rejects that philosophy or practice before he could be baptized.
REUTERS: We have one last question and we raise this because it seems obvious that there is going to be a lot more scrutiny of the church. There is historical evidence that suggests Joseph Smith took a 14-year-old bride, Helen Mar Kimball, when he was 38 years old. In today’s terms, that would make him a pedophile. Does this bother you or other LDS church members?
CHRISTOFFERSON: It would depend on what all the facts were and the context. In those days, of course, was that it was not so uncommon in the society of the time. Today that would be statutory rape. A different standard applies. What I look to, I’m telling you about my personal approach, is: what do I know through study and through prayer concerning Joseph Smith and at root my witness is that he was divinely called. That’s the foundation. Now whatever questions might arise — as to whether he erred or stumbled in a certain matter — throughout his life he wasn’t perfect. We don’t claim perfection in the human being. I don’t know what he was responsible to before — God I don’t know frankly. But as to his prophetic calling, his prophetic mission and what he achieved in that goal, I’m convinced of that. So the fruits of what he accomplished I think are evident.
Some people will say you don’t believe in the Nicene Creed therefore you are not Christian, for example. We’ll say well we are comfortable in our skin as far as what we believe’. What our faith is. And if by someone’s definition that doesn’t qualify, then we are comfortable in our own faith concerning Him, concerning the prophecies called and all that flowed from that.