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An Interview With Gordon Hinckley

Gordon Hinckley 13:44

The original segment aired on April 7, 1996.

The president and prophet of the Mormon church, Gordon B. Hinckley, died last Sunday at age 97. He was buried Saturday in Salt Lake City. The church broadcast his memorial service around the world in 69 languages.

President Hinckley presided over the global expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, and the fourth largest religion in the United States. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

The church used to be known for polygamy, but it gave up the practice more than 100 years ago when Utah became a state. Faithful Mormons don't have premarital sex, and they don't smoke or drink-even coffee is prohibited. And heads of the church did not give interviews, until Hinckley decided to sit down with Mike Wallace 11 years ago. Their conversation began with the beginning of the church: Mormons believe that God and Jesus appeared one day in New York state, before a 14-year-old farm boy.

"Your church says God and Jesus spoke with your founder, Joseph Smith, back in 1820 and told him to start this church. You believe that?" Wallace asked.

"Yes, sir," Hinckley replied.

"He was 14 years old... a backwoods farm New York state?" Wallace asked.

"That's the miracle of it," Hinckley told Wallace.

You'd expect the head of the church to believe it, but so does Bill Marriott, chief of the Marriott hotel chain, a hard-headed businessman, and he's a Mormon.

"Fourteen years old and God and Jesus come to see him? You believe that?" Wallace asked Marriott.

"Yes, I do. We believe that the early church of Jesus Christ faded away, and that it came back to Joseph Smith," Marriott explained.

And the senior U.S. senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, believes it, too. "We believe that we know that this happened," the senator said.

What began with God, Jesus and a single farm boy has now become a worldwide religion with more than nine million members. But more than a religion, Mormonism is a lifestyle, an island of morality, they believe, in a time of moral decay. Hinckley acknowledged it is not easy to follow the Mormon faith, and called it the most demanding religion in America.

"It is demanding, and that's one of the things that attracts people to this church. It stands as an anchor in a world of shifting values," he told Wallace.

For example, Mormons adhere to a very strict health code: no alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks. They're supposed to eat meat sparingly, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.

And the result? Mormons live several years longer than most other Americans. Another reason they live longer, Mormons say, is that they suffer less from stress because they have strong, supportive families. Many Mormons marry early and have lots of children.

Premarital sex, as we said, is forbidden among Mormons; so is adultery. Mormons don't even go to R-rated movies. But students at Brigham Young University insisted that having high moral standards did not prevent them from having a good time.

"We like to have fun. We like to go on dates. So we like to do just normal things," one student told Wallace.

"But you don't fool around?" he asked.

"No," the student said. "It's not something that I think is fun. A guy I remember, he told me, 'You know, you'd be so much fun if you'd drink. You would have, you know, you'd be looser and everything.' And I'm like, 'You know, I like to have fun knowing what I'm doing, being completely in control and just having fun with life.'"

And while these young Mormons stressed self-control, they themselves are controlled, to a remarkable degree, by the church. In fact, Mormons who break the rules of morality or health are not allowed to enter sacred Mormon temples.

Living as a devout Mormon is not easy. In addition to what you cannot do, there's a lot you are supposed to do. You're expected to read scripture daily and to read scripture together as a family at least one night a week; students attend daily religious courses.

Sunday services last three hours. But beyond that, church activities take several more hours each week. All of those hours and all of those rules are too much for some Mormons, who fall away.

Steve Benson left the church to become one of its most outspoken critics, even though his late grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, President Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, had been a church president.

Benson complains that by enforcing conformity, the church stifles independent thought. "The cultural mind-set in the church is when the prophet has spoken, the debate is over," he said.

"And the prophet is?" Wallace asked.

"Gordon B. Hinckley would be the prophet. When he has pronounced the church's position on any issue, it is incumbent upon the members of the church to pray, pay and obey," Benson claimed.

Hinckley's reaction? "Well, that's a clever statement from Steve, whom I know. Now, look, our people have tremendous liberty. They're free to live their lives as they please," he said.

"Are they? Really?" Wallace asked.

"Oh, absolutely. Surely. They have to make choices. It's the old eternal battle: the forces of evil against the forces of good," Hinckley replied.

The critics acknowledge they represent a tiny minority of Mormons. Still, they say that too many Mormons look and act like they came off an assembly line. But the young Mormon missionaries look that way on purpose.

"You all look alike, white shirts, some a little wrinkled; ties. I look at you, I look at your faces and think of your age and I'm inclined to say, 'Well, you're not much to look at, but you're all the Lord has,'" Hinckley said.

Many young Mormons leave college for two years, at their own expense, to be missionaries. Every day, 50,000 of them go door to door in America and 150 other countries.

The missionaries have helped Mormonism achieve its phenomenal growth: half its members are now from outside the United States. But until its expansion into Latin America and Africa, church membership had been overwhelmingly white.

"From 1830 to 1978... blacks could not become priests in the Mormon Church, right?" Wallace asked.

"That's correct," Hinckley acknowledged.


"Because the leaders of the church at that time interpreted that doctrine that way," Hinckley said.

"Church policy had it that blacks had the mark of Cain. Brigham Young said, 'Cain slew his brother and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin,'" Wallace remarked.

"It's behind us. Look, that's behind us. Don't worry about those little flicks of history," Hinckley said.

"Skeptics will suggest, 'Well, look, if we're going to expand, we can't keep the blacks out,'" Wallace said.

But Hinckley called that "pure speculation."

Now that blacks can be priests, the current issue is whether Mormon women will ever be priests.

Asked why men hold the priesthood, Hinckley told Wallace, "Because God stated that it should be so. That was the revelation of the church. That was the way it was set forth."

Fact is, most Mormon women don't want to be priests. They accept that men control the church and dominate Mormon society. And this has triggered complaints about how the church handles child sexual abuse. Child abuse among Mormons is surely no greater than among non-Mormons, but a study has found that many Mormon women who went to their clergymen for help believe the clergy were just not sympathetic.

"A sociologist tells us that the root of the problem is the fact that men, in effect, in your church have authority over women so that your clergymen tend to sympathize with the men, the abusers, instead of the abused," Wallace told Hinckley.

"That's one person's opinion. I don't think there's any substance to it. Now there'll be a blip here, a blip there, a mistake here, a mistake there. But, by and large, the welfare of women and children is as seriously considered as is the welfare of the men in this church, if not more so," he replied.

Hinckley said the church had been teaching its clergy how to handle abuse more effectively. "We're working very hard at it. There are cases. They're everywhere. They're all over this world. It is a disease. It's an illness. It's a sickness. It's a reprehensible and evil thing. We recognize it as such," he told Wallace.

Mormon clergy are not professionals. They are not paid; their church work is in addition to their regular jobs outside the church.

Whatever their jobs, just being a Mormon is expensive: Mormons are expected to give 10 percent of their salary to the church.

The church reportedly takes in several billion dollars a year and has never had a major financial scandal. Most of the money, they say, is spent building 375 chapels a year all around the world.

"We're reaching out across the world. We're not a weird people," Hinckley told Wallace.

"A weird people?" Wallace asked.

"Yes," Hinckley said.

Mormons know that some outsiders think they are weird. Why? Well, for one thing, devout Mormons wear sacred undergarments for protection from harm, cotton undershirts with undershorts that reach to their knees.

Bill Marriott also said he wears the sacred undergarments. "And I can tell you, they do protect you from harm," he told Wallace.

"I was in a very serious boat accident, fire. The boat was on fire. I was on fire," Marriott explained. "I was burned. My pants were burned right off me. I was not burned above my knee. Where the garment was, I was not burned."

"And you believe it was the sacred undergarments?" Wallace asked.

"Yeah, I do, particularly on my legs because my pants were gone. My undergarments were not singed," he said.

Steve Young, the star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers is also the great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, one of the Mormons' early leaders.

"And do you think that the sacred undergarments have kept you from harm on the football field?" Wallace asked Young.

"I actually take them off to play football. The sacred nature of them, I find that the nature of football and the sweating and so forth, I actually take them off. And I think that's probably prevalent with athletics in the church," Young said.

"But my teammates have enjoyed it," he admitted. "When, you know, you're getting dressed and you're putting your garments on, they think they're pretty cool, a lot of them. 'Hey, where'd you get those?' And I'd always tell them they're way too expensive."

Another curiosity: the church owns more than 3,000 acres in northwest Missouri, where Mormons believe that Jesus will return for his Second Coming. Hinckley preferred not to talk about Jesus returning to Missouri or about sacred undergarments. He said that those points miss the point. He wanted to portray Mormons as mainstream, not extreme, and for that Hinckley had hired a Jewish-owned public relations firm. Mormons hiring Jews to help spread the Word?

Makes sense to Senator Orrin Hatch, but then he wears a mezuzah on a chain around his neck. A mezuzah is often put at the entrance to a Jewish home as a reminder of their faith.

"It's typical of Mormon people to love all people, but especially Jewish people. I wear a mezuzah just to remind me, to make sure that there is never another Holocaust anywhere. You see, the Mormon Church is the only church in the history of this country that had an extermination order out against it by Governor Lilburn Boggs of Missouri. We went through untold persecutions," Sen. Hatch said.

To escape the persecutions, Mormons moved west. And when they reached Salt Lake, their leader, Brigham Young, pointed and declared it their promised land. And now Temple Square is their Vatican.

In Salt Lake City, the church owns a TV station, a radio station, a newspaper, a department store and a lot of the land downtown. Utah is 75 percent Mormon, and the church could wield political power if it wanted to, but President Hinckley told Wallace, "Unlike the religious right, the Mormon church does not have a political agenda."

"We urge our people to exercise their franchise as citizens of this nation, but we do not tell them how to vote and we do not tell the government how it should be run," Hinckley said.

Gordon Hinckley said he never intended to become president of the church, but that, one by one, all the other church leaders with more seniority died.

"There are those who say, 'This is a gerontocracy. This is a church run by old men,'" Wallace remarked.

"Isn't it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment who isn't blown about by every wind of doctrine?" Hinckley replied.

"Absolutely, as long as he's not dotty," Wallace said.

"Thank you for the compliment," Hinckley said.

Mormons believe that after they die, their families will be reunited and will live together forever in heaven. "We know it's there. We have an assurance of that," Hinckley told Wallace.

"There's a lot of us that don't," Wallace replied.

"Yeah, I know that," Hinckley said. "But you could."

"I've thought about it. I've not been able to persuade myself," Wallace said.

Hinckley's reply? "Well, you haven't thought about it long enough."
Produced By Robert Anderson

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