Mitt Romney's presidential bid has generated unprecedented interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prompting the media to dub this the "Mormon moment."
This week, the church will open up on network television's biggest stage about the subject of heaven.
The church dispatched Elder William R. Walker, a general authority who oversees the temple department, to New York City for a historic sit-down interview with Barbara Walters at the Manhattan Temple site last month. The interview will be part of a two-hour special titled "Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there?" that will air on ABC stations throughout the country Friday night at 8 p.m. MDT.
The "Heaven" special originally aired back in December 2005 and featured interviews with religious leaders from virtually all of the leading world religions. But the LDS Church was not among those featured.
With nine out of 10 Americans claiming to believe in heaven, the show was one of the most-watched programs in the history of network television.
"We felt the program was so good and so strong we wanted to rerun it," Walters said. "And with Gov. Romney running for president, we felt it was very important to include the Mormon point of view this time."
Elder Walker definitely delivered the Mormon point of view in a wide-ranging exchange with Walters that covered everything from what goes on in Mormon temples to the practice of baptizing for the dead to the concept of eternal marriage. The interview was groundbreaking and showcases the Mormon faith to millions of Americans through a mainstream television program. It also marks the first time that Walters has interviewed a Mormon about Mormonism.
"My responsibility is over temples and I work with the First Presidency on temple matters," Elder Walker said about his experience being interviewed by Walters. "So it meant a lot to me personally to do this interview next to the temple with Barbara Walters — a remarkable, seasoned journalist who has interviewed leaders from all over the world. The opportunity to stroll with Barbara on the grounds of the temple was a wonderful experience that added to the dignity and serenity of what took place."
What took place will translate into captivating prime-time viewing for Mormons throughout the country. Walters asked about many hot-button issues that non-Mormons want to know about Mormons. But most of her questions focused specifically on what Mormons believe about heaven and what it takes to get there.
"Elder Walker said that Mormons believe our lives will be evaluated on how we live," said Walters in an interview from her office last week. "And if we live with a love for others and we contribute to society and we keep the commandments of God, we will have a better opportunity to go to heaven. He said that Mormons believe that our lives will be evaluated on how we lived them. That is reasonable and optimistic."
The "Heaven" special was written and produced by Rob Wallace, a nine-time Emmy Award-winning senior producer who has worked for ABC since the mid-1970s. ABC is dedicating the special in memory of Wallace's daughter Lindsay, who passed away two weeks ago.
Wallace said the chemistry during the interview was "quite extraordinary."
"I think our viewers will find the exchanges between them both captivating and informative," said Wallace, who specifically requested that the interview be conducted at the site of the Manhattan Temple.
The most humorous moment in the interview took place when Walters asked Elder Walker whether non-Mormons will make it to heaven. After he insisted that people of all religious persuasions will be in heaven, Walters asked him to put in a good word for her. Laughing, Elder Walker offered to do what he can.
"I found her lovely, fascinating and articulate," Elder Walker said. "It seemed more like a conversation than an interview. Perhaps that's one of the reasons she's such a remarkable interviewer."
After the interview, Elder Walker gave Walters a brief tour of the building and walked along Columbus Avenue with her, which drew a crowd of spectators.
"Elder Walker was perfectly charming and delightful," Walters said. "I think he could convert anyone."
When it was time for Walters to leave, a cab pulled up to the temple to pick her up. A light rain had started to fall and Elder Walker instinctively grabbed a coat that he held above Walters like a makeshift umbrella. Then he escorted her to the car.
As she ducked into the back of the cab, Walters turned to him and said: "See you in heaven."
Jeff Benedict is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 11 books. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.
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