What's the lowdown on the secret Mormon underwear? Also, can they baptize people posthumously? Do they baptize babies with blood? Is there a secret room in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake where they can convert anyone to Mormonism from afar without their knowledge or consent? I fear my wayward grandkids may turn me into Orrin Hatch. --W.J.S., Evanston
What timing--the Straight Dope just began running in Utah, giving me the rare opportunity to PO an entire state. And people wonder why I love this job. Mormonism strikes most Gentiles (i.e., non-Mormons) as a little strange, mainly because it is a little strange. But let's not get nutsy about this--they don't baptize babies in blood. On the other hand, secret underwear is definitely part of the picture. That's right: holy underwear. Another interesting fact is that the angel who appeared to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, went by the name of Moroni. It probably occurs to you that there is an incredibly witty way to pronounce this. Well, I didn't pronounce it that way. I am mature. I pronounced it as in "I gotta girl named Bony Maroney / She's as skinny as a stick of macaroni." But it turns out that isn't right either. It's really more-oh-NIGH, which is a lot more dignified. Much of Mormonism lends itself to this kind of comical misinterpretation. Joseph Smith could have used a good PR consultant.
But to return to underwear. Mormons get their "garments," as they call them, upon receiving their "endowments," a "temple ordinance" (sacrament) that's basically a rite of passage into adulthood. I gather the garments at one time were a sort of union suit, but now they come in two parts, a T-shirt and knickers that stop just below the knee. The garments have ceremonial markings on the breast, navel, and knee, and you're supposed to wear them at all times, except when participating in sports. I'm told this makes sleeveless women's dresses a tough sell in Utah. The garments protect you against all sorts of wickedness, including (it was once thought) bullets. Even today you'll hear young Mormons claim the garments protected them from premarital sex. I don't doubt it. If I were in a clinch one night and found my partner's erogenous zones decorated with weird symbols, it'd certainly give me pause.
Mormons do in fact baptize the dead. They're great believers in the family, so they make a big deal out of digging up the names of all your pre-Mormon ancestors so you can baptize them by proxy, for which purpose they maintain the most extensive genealogical records in the world. Baptism enables the baptizees to achieve "exaltation," the highest level in the Mormon afterlife. (See below.) To achieve the top level you also have to be married, so the Mormons at one time used to go in big for proxy marriages ("vicarious ordinances") for their relatives, although I'm told this is less common than it used to be. But don't worry, you have the opportunity to say no (at least to baptism) if you'd rather rot until the end of time. Baptisms and so on are conducted in Mormon Temples (not the Tabernacle, which is just a meeting place). Non-Mormons are forbidden to enter.
About those levels. The Mormons have three levels of heaven: telestial, terrestrial, and celestial, just like Sears has good, better, best. Telestial heaven is where you go if you're "carnal, sensual, and devilish." A lot of people may be tempted to stop right there. But suppose you're a little more ambitious. If you live your life as a decent non-Mormon, you may aspire to terrestrial heaven. You can't get into celestial heaven, though, unless you join the Mormons. Celestial heaven is best of all because it enables you to "progress toward godhood."
This requires some explanation. Though Mormons don't like to talk about it, Mormonism is not, strictly speaking, a monotheistic religion. There are, among other things, certain oblique references to "gods" in Mormon texts. What's more, one of the tenets of Mormonism is that as man is, God once was, and as God is, so man may become. One can interpret this to mean that if you play your cards right, you could become a junior deity yourself. This definitely opens up some interesting career possibilities. Get your own little universe, have the masses adore you--listen, I could deal with it. I'll admit actually achieving godhood is no simple matter, but hey, we all need goals. Becoming God (OK, a god) is challenge enough for me.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.