February 05, 2002 19:15
LDS officials competing to be top-rank Olympic hosts, not faith promoters
SALT LAKE CITY _ If proselytizing were an Olympic team sport, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be a medal-round favorite. But church leaders have declared they will not compete this month when the world visits the hometown of the faith best known as "Mormon."
Officially, the Book of Mormon will not be distributed at Winter Olympics sport venues when the Games start here next weekend. Dark-suited young men primed to talk about their faith will not be sent to the streets. Special ads promoting the church will not fill the airwaves.
In fact, more than 5,000 church volunteers have been trained not to push their faith at Olympics visitors.
Yes, the church has refurbished its visitor centers, put a huge amount of new material on its website and prepared "100 great story ideas" for visiting journalists. But the intent, church officials say, is to inform only when asked and not to seek new members.
"I think it's a huge paradigm shift for a number of good, solid members of our church," said Michael Otterson, the church's English-born director of media relations.
This is a church that sends 61,000 missionaries around the globe every year who are known for knocking on strangers' doors. Members of other faiths consider Mormon television commercials to be the gold standard for religious marketing. Why would this church pass up a chance at approaching hundreds of thousands of visitors on its doorstep and millions of television viewers around the world?
Church officials have a simple answer: "We just wouldn't be good hosts if we did that," said Ray Beckham, an LDS representative on the official Olympics Interfaith Roundtable.
Church officials acknowledge that a heavy-handed approach during the Games would be a public-relations disaster. Even non-Mormons in Utah point out that the LDS church won't need to bang on doors to get its message across this month.
This is, after all, the headquarters for an 11 million-member worldwide faith that is largely unknown to most people _ making it an irresistible story.
With hundreds of thousands of visitors and hundreds of journalists flooding into the state, the LDS church can't help but benefit, said June Evans, a Presbyterian elder and a leader of the evangelical Utah Games Network.
"They have prepared the town to showcase themselves to those who come," she said. "They won't have to stand on street corners."
Many church members agree.
"I think a lot of people said that getting the Olympics was providential," said Andrew Lambert, a fifth-generation Mormon who handles public relations for a state-run park devoted to Mormon history. "This will allow the church to get its message across to people who have never heard of it."
The Mormons aren't the only ones temporarily banking their missionary zeal. Five years ago, the Utah Games Network was formed by local leaders of several evangelical denominations to temper the kind of hard-sell evangelism that took place at the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996 and the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. That approach won't work on Mormons in Utah, Ms. Evans said.
The Southern Baptists had their annual national convention here in 1998 with the explicit intention of confronting Mormons at home. But that event left problems behind for all Utah Christians who want to convert LDS members, she said.
"Where I had been accepted completely before, they began to question what my approach was," Ms. Evans said. "It built up walls."
Only by request
Local Southern Baptist leaders are among those who have joined the network. And, like LDS officials, members of the Utah Games Network say they're prepared to talk about their faith during the Olympics _ but only by request.
Despite the lower-key approach advocated by some religious leaders, religion will be a large part of the background to these Games.
From the scenic spires of the downtown Mormon Temple a few blocks from the Medals Plaza to the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the opening ceremonies to the thousands of hospitality bags that will be distributed at a Christian coffeehouse on Main Street to the multifaith chaplain service available to the athletes, religion and religiously motivated people will be hard to avoid.
Most of the religious influence will be Mormon _ about 70 percent of Utah residents are at least nominal members of the church. That includes the governor, the entire congressional delegation, most elected and appointed state officials and the head of the Olympic organizing committee who took over after the widely publicized bribery scandal.
But Mormon culture may not be obvious to a casual visitor. A beer company billboard welcomes visitors on the main road from the airport _ in spite of church opposition to alcohol. Caffeinated drinks, also prohibited for devout church members, are widely available. Nightclubs featuring loud music and fully stocked bars are liberally scattered about.
Less than half of the residents of Salt Lake City are Mormon, and the local Yellow Pages contains six pages of church listings _ from Assemblies of God to Vineyard. The book also lists six synagogues and a mosque.
And church and Olympics officials have taken great pains to stress that this is not the "Mormon Olympics." The Salt Lake Organizing Committee's official Interfaith Roundtable includes Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims and is chaired by a Baha'i.
Faith in the air
But in Utah, the faith of the Latter-day Saints is like the air: It may be invisible, but it's pervasive. Even the addresses in this part of Utah link to the dominant church. All the local streets are numbered from Temple Square. So the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, at 8575 S 700 E, is about 85 blocks south and seven blocks east of the Mormon Temple.
"Even if you define yourself against it (the LDS church), you're still using it to define yourself," said Good Shepherd's pastor, Jeff Nellermoe, co-chairman of the Utah Games Network.
A poll taken last fall by the Salt Lake Tribune, the local paper not owned by the church, reported that 86 percent of state residents say the influence of the church in Utah was either "immense" or "considerable."
That influence plays out in unexpected ways. Consider two signs recently on display at the Albion Grill in little Alta, Utah. The ski resort town is less than an hour and more than three-quarters of a mile above Temple Square in the Wasatch Mountains.
One sign, a brightly colored poster, touts a real beer called Polygamy Porter ("Why just have one?"). It jabs at Mormons for a practice officially read out of church doctrine 112 years ago and vehemently condemned by modern church leaders _ but still practiced by as many as 40,000 self-described Mormons.
The other is a modest laminated notice alerting imbibers that the beer they're drinking may be hazardous to their health. The state-mandated sign reflects the still-current church teaching against drinking alcohol.
Involvement in Games
Olympic memorabilia offers another indication of how tightly the LDS church is wound through these Games.
One of the official pins, emblazoned with the Olympic insignia, features two young men riding upright bikes, their thin black ties caught in the breeze. Even Sherpa mountain guides in Tibet could probably identify them as Mormon missionaries. But the pin is sold under the name "bicycle safety."
Another pin is decorated with a whitish-green lizard that glows in the dark. Olympic marketing officials say this is a Utah desert gecko and is one in a series of animal-theme pins. But on the streets of Salt Lake City and on the Internet, this pin is called the "White Salamander" and is considered to be a sly reference to an infamous anti-Mormon hoax called the "White Salamander letter."
Many people believe those pins _ along with the "Mormon muffin" pin, the Brigham Young pin and the "green Jell-O" pin (the gelatin is the official state snack food) were planted by the church to generate positive publicity.
"The pins are not us," LDS church spokesman Dale Bills said with a hint of a sigh. "We had nothing to do with them."
Church officials say they have tried for years not to overshadow the Games. They take their cue from church president Gordon B. Hinckley. He famously declared that his church would stay officially neutral during the Olympic bidding process and, after Utah got the Games, quickly declared them an evangelism-free zone.
Hinckley is more than the head administrator of his church. Mormons believe that their church president is a literal prophet, no less so than Isaiah or Jeremiah. So when he speaks with his full authority about something as specific as how to behave during the Olympics, members simply should obey.
That's one of many differences between the basic tenets of his church and those of mainstream Christianity.
Edict mostly ignored
The Book of Mormon, considered by LDS members as authoritative as the Bible, is named after one of the faith's own prophets. Church officials have tried to discourage use of the widely known nickname of "Mormon" as applied to the church _ an edict mostly ignored even by many church members.
At the same time, the church has tried to emphasize the "Jesus Christ" in its name and stake out a position as a Christian church. But mainstream Christian leaders point instead to the substantial differences between their doctrines and that of the LDS church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints teaches that God instructed a small group of Israelites to head west about 2,600 years ago _ all the way to what is now America. There, the church says, they created a mighty civilization and were visited by Jesus after his resurrection.
The civilization collapsed four centuries after Jesus' visit, but the sacred texts of its prophets were saved on golden plates. In 1823, an angel revealed the plates to Joseph Smith, the son of a farmer in upstate New York. LDS doctrine says that Smith translated the plates and used the text to reconstitute God's only true church on Earth in 1830 with six members.
That claim of exclusive truth _ plus the doctrine of polygamy _ made Smith and his growing band of followers the target of persecution as they were driven to Missouri and to Illinois. After Smith was killed by a lynch mob, Brigham Young led the Mormons west in search of a place far enough from any potential attackers. They stopped near the Great Salt Lake, which in 1847 was pretty much the middle of nowhere as far as whites were concerned. (American Indians fared no better with the Mormons than with other white settlers.)
During the church's early history, leaders tried to maintain separation from nonmembers. Mormon merchants tried to supply all the needs of the settlers. Brigham Young even created a new phonetic English alphabet. For many years, new Mormon converts were encouraged to move to Utah, the new Zion of the faith.
But these days, the church is trying to cooperate with other faiths and cultures around the world and in Utah.
Figuring out how to work with other faiths and other cultures is a serious challenge for his church, said Andrew Lambert, marketing manager for "This is the Place" Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. The name is derived from Brigham Young's comment when he entered this valley: "This is the right place."
The park is run by the state, which means it must cover Mormon history without preaching LDS theology. But some discussion of the religion is unavoidable, Lambert said.
"It's so inextricably combined that you can't separate it," he said.
Faith, culture tangle
An example of the tangle between faith and culture is being built on the park property. A replica of the home of Heber Kimball, a famous Mormon pioneer, is being paid for and built by the many Kimball descendants. Ed Kimball, Heber's great-great grandson, is a professional contractor and an expert on restoring old buildings and is supervising the construction.
The work, he says, is his mission for the church. He'll be working through the Olympics and will be prepared to answer questions about the home and his ancestor from park visitors.
"There are those of us who resent the invasion here, especially in terms of what it's done to land values," he said. "But it will open doors that would not have been opened otherwise."
©Copyright 2002, The Dallas Morning News