An Interview With Gordon Hinckley

A Look Back At Mike Wallace's 1996 Interview With The President Of The Mormon Church

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.

Why?

"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."