A while back I toured the new Mormon Temple in Rancho Cordova with some friends/coworkers. This was one of those “facing your fears” things for me, since I am seriously freaked out by religion. And I was plenty scared from beginning to end. Everyone – every single Mormon person there – had a permanent smile. Everyone said “Welcome!” and “Thank you for coming!” to us, over and over. It was unnerving because it seemed so unnatural and forced. This wasn’t easygoing, natural kindness; it was an explicit order to behave politely.
Mormon temples are closed to outsiders (a fact that does nothing to demystify this religion and makes it seem even more cultlike) but a brand-new temple is a cause for celebration, plus it gives church members an opportunity to present themselves in a good light to their new neighbors. Thus, this building was opened to the public for a few days. I would’ve loved to take pictures, but I seemed to recall being warned that cameras were forbidden on the tour.
The architecture of the temple is a vague mix of Egyptian and art deco with a hint of romanesque, yet it has a modern simplicity that belies its classic appearance. Temples are always built on hilltops, and since no hilltop could be found in Rancho Cordova one had to be manufactured. In order to reach the temple we had to climb a slope that hadn’t been there a few years before.
We were asked to take off our shoes and don paper slippers prior to entering the building. This in itself was no big deal – the place had brand-new carpet and it made sense that they wanted it to remain clean. But this simple act was turned into a ritual of obsequiousness on the part of church members. These Stepford Wives and Husbands and Children knelt before us, carefully removed our shoes and put the slippers on our feet – an act I found embarrassing, not only for myself but for the smiling Mormon who did it for me. Humbling oneself in front of a stranger seemed, to me, to be a carefully scripted act designed to make the visitors feel indebted to these selfless people. It just made me feel icky.
I was surprised by how many folks took advantage of this chance to see the inside of the temple before it was closed to outsiders. Hundreds of people lined up for tours on a Friday afternoon. We were split into groups of twenty and taken on the tour by a member guide, and each group was peppered with more church members. They were also stationed at every door and at the tail end of every group, probably so nobody would wander off into forbidden territory. I felt that every offhand comment made by visitors was overheard and answered by a church member. This effectively quashed any jokes, negative opinions or spurious asides. It was a calm, nearly-invisible form of censorship.
Our group was herded into a small room in the chapel and shown a 10-minute video about the importance of temples, then we went into the building itself. It reminded me of a sterile, high-end hotel. It was extremely tasteful, low-key, expensive-looking and utterly devoid of personality. “Designed by Caucasians, for Caucasians,” I thought. The tight-butt blandness made me wonder what happened during services in this environment. No hand-clapping, gospel-singing, snake-handling or speaking in tongues, for sure.
We were shown the baptismal pool (about the size of a jacuzzi), a dressing room and a “sealing room” where weddings are performed. We also viewed three “ordinance rooms” (where members are given “instruction,” we were told, whatever that means), including the blindingly bright Celestial Room. The lack of windows in two of these rooms bothered me. I wondered what kind of screaming, crying and misery went on in there. The first one featured a mural of the Sierra Nevadas that completely covered three walls (the front wall was white) and an oppresively low ceiling. It contained about 50 theater-style seats and a small altar at the front. The second room was white and had a high ceiling, but again, same seating, same altar, no windows. The third ordinance room was the aforementioned Celestial Room, which was dazzlingly bright from the huge windows, massive chandelier and numerous crystal sconces on the walls. I got the idea that beginning Mormons have to sit for their “instruction” in that claustrophobic mural room, then if they succeed in whatever they’re supposed to learn they can move to the white room, and if they’re really, really obedient they get to sit in the blinding Celestial Room, where sofas and chairs are arranged like a hotel lobby rather than a classroom. A simple view of the outside world was used like a carrot dangled in front of churchgoers as a reward for learning the ropes.
We didn’t have any opportunity to explore as we were led down tastefully decorated halls and around corners and through rooms, and I got the distinct feeling there were other rooms we weren’t shown. I mentioned this to my friend and – as if on cue – a church member immediately assured us we’d seen everything. I’m not so sure.
We were invited back to the chapel for refreshments and the opportunity to ask questions. I had a lot of questions but I was afraid to ask them so we left. I sensed that all my questions would be neatly answered with stock responses with no room for ambiguity or disagreement. Mainly I wanted to know about the expense of building this temple. They told us they were obligated to build the finest temple possible to honor God, but they also said part of their religion was following Jesus’ teachings and giving “service” to others. I wanted to ask them, if you had $10 million and you asked Jesus what to do with it, would he say A) build a temple or B) donate it to the Loaves and Fishes shelter so nobody in Sacramento would be homeless and hungry? Seriously, LDS, WWJD?
At the end of the tour we were allowed to remove our slippers and put our shoes back on with no interference from overly-helpful members. I’m glad I went because I now know I won’t burst into flames if I set foot inside a church, but it didn’t make me feel more comfortable or knowledgeable about the Mormon religion. If anything, it reminded me why I cannot belong to any church. There are a lot of questions out there, and I don’t want to be spoon-fed the absolute, undeniable answers.