02/25/2013 03:42 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

The Importance of Understanding: My Experiences With Mormonism

Last week, I went to a Mormon church to try to understand.

It's too often in our society that we fear what we don't understand. Even given the prominence of Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential candidate last fall, I still too frequently hear Mormonism dismissed as "a cult" or "some weird evangelical religion with polygamy." Mormons consider themselves Christians, but few other Christians recognize or even understand Mormonism as a religion.

It frightens me that in our country, we all too often interpret religious tolerance as just that: religious tolerance. We confine ourselves to the knowledge of our own faith, attend the same church all of our lives, and never seek to expand our horizons even to see how or why other faiths believe what they believe. We prefer to think of our religions in absolute terms and all other religions as "other," instead of even recognizing the similar goals and values that seemingly starkly different religions can have. The people that we interact with in school, at work, who hold different faiths and practice different customs are merely accepted and held at bay in the name of mere "tolerance" instead of true understanding.

But I don't just want to accept people in spite of their faith -- I want to understand it. And that's why when my friend Maddie invited me to an event at her church, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, I said yes.

Maddie is a fairly evangelical Mormon, contagiously enthusiastic about every school or church event, and always open to answering questions about her faith. So, seizing the opportunity, I asked her some of my questions.

"What don't most people understand about Mormonism?" I asked, comfortably settled on the normal couch in the normal suburban house.

Maddie's younger sister was fixing her makeup and gossiping with a friend loudly upstairs. Her mother was speaking sternly to her toddler brother. I gazed at a small whiteboard hung on the wall of the living room, assigning duties for "Weekly Prayer Night," ranging from the prayer to the snacks.

Maddie thought for a moment. "I think most people see what we do," she answered, "But they don't know why we do it." She cited the strict rules of Mormons against coffee and tea, against shoulder-baring clothing for girls, against premarital sex. I had seen all of these in our interactions. But there was why to it -- because they believed that God had prohibited false stimulants and sought to maintain the sanctity and chastity of eternal marriage. Maddie's eyes lit up at the thought, and I couldn't help but find the idea beautiful in its own way: a sacred, eternal marriage, blessed by the temple, into the afterlife and beyond, taking our conception of true love into the religious sphere.

As we entered the official church building, I noticed the smiling demeanors of men in suits and a surprising amount of diversity that ran contrary to stereotypes. There was a newly-immigrated Columbian family and a few African-American groups, as well as some Asian-Americans as well. Perhaps not Manhattan, but certainly just as diverse as many Protestant and Catholic churches in the suburbs. Like any other religion, Mormonism isn't easily generalized to.

Listening to the brief sermon, for a moment, I didn't try to use scientific knowledge or doubt to question what the pastor was saying. As he told the story of Joseph Smith, the young boy inside each one of us looking for that personal connection with God, how he found the miraculous golden tablets that would become the Book of Mormon, and found that personal evidence that God had been waiting for him, Mormonism didn't seem so foreign or frightening after all. I glanced at the attentive faces of the audience members, regular people differentiated by their belief that Jesus came to America, united in their faith.

Other things I noticed: They called each other "sister" and "brother," like priests and nuns in the Catholic church. They believe in the concept of "living prophets" that continue to interpret the word of God each day, with a "president" much like the Pope and a hierarchy much like that of the Catholic Church. Young people serve on two-year mission trips that most anticipate excitedly, hoping for assignments to foreign countries or exotic locales, but having faith that whatever their destination, it was the will of God. None of these things -- the terms, the prophets, or the mission trips, seemed all that radical or cult-like.

For the record, polygamy in the LDS church has been abolished since 1890. Any violators today are excommunicated.

Some of the stories were a bit harder for me to grasp, including the concept of different levels of heaven or God having once been a man just like us or the Battle of Heaven, in which one-third of human souls had followed Lucifer in the fall. But on the car ride home, as Maddie explained in a low, even tone, full of conviction, it seemed better to have understood than to have never even tried to learn.

"I feel God's presence in my life," she said, looking straight into my eyes, "And I know that He is looking out for me."

And then I thought of the story that was told -- the story of Joseph Smith, who was looking for God, wandered into the woods one day and found the buried gold tablets, that personal revelation from God that he was looking for. I thought about the Bible, and each apostle's testament to his experiences with Christ. And I thought about the Muslim prayers towards Mecca, five times a day -- masses of people, all around the world, facing the same direction. And I thought about Judaism, of the displaced people scattered and persecuted, waiting for the Messiah to lead them home. And I thought about the atheists and agnostics, wandering in this world without a faith, still trying to do the right thing. You see what they do, but do you know why they do it?

I went to a Mormon church last week. I resolved to keep trying to learn and to understand.