SALT LAKE CITY — When the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics unfold next month, the world will see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir starring at the Opening Ceremony, the Mormon Temple soaring above the nightly medal presentation, and a Mormon bishop, the Games' affable organizer, welcoming athletes and guests from all over the globe.
The XIX Winter Olympics will be a showcase for both Salt Lake City and the institution that dominates the city: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known.
But the games also pose a dilemma for a religion with 60,000 missionaries. How to capitalize on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote its message to an international audience yet avoid a heavy hand lest they offend visitors in town just to watch the curling competition?
To combat criticism that the church may turn the Games into a prime-time bully pulpit, Mormon leaders have already dramatically lowered the church's profile in its hometown.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Utah population--A story in Section A on Sunday incorrectly stated that 80% of Utah's population lives in Salt Lake City. In fact, nearly 80% of the state's population lives in the Salt Lake Basin, which runs from Ogden to Provo and includes Salt Lake City.
The Mormons banished their dark-suited missionaries from downtown streets, forbade them from going to the airport or Olympic venues, and instructed the 200 "missionary guides" who work at the downtown Temple Square to refrain from proselytizing.
Stephen Pace, head of a citizens group concerned about the public cost of the Games and one of the church's critics, laughed when asked if the church would have a high profile during the Games.
"From a local perspective, the question is, 'Why would it be any different during the Olympics?' " said Pace, a local business consultant. "The church has never shown much of a gift for having a light touch with anything. Utah is a theocracy. The reason they don't go overboard in their excesses is that you have this complication called the U.S. Constitution."
The Mormon Church is an inescapable fixture on Utah's landscape. This city and the state have been, for more than 150 years, headquarters for what is now the world's fastest-growing religion and its massive network of missionaries in 162 countries.
More than 70% of the state's 2.2 million population is Mormon (1.8% of the U.S. population is Mormon), although in Salt Lake City the figure is less than 50%. The state's entire congressional delegation is Mormon, as is the governor and 90% of the state Legislature, all of the state Supreme Court justices and 85% of Utah's mayors and county officials. Even the local television station that will broadcast the Games is owned by the church.
The church's influence in Utah's secular life is a subject of constant debate; Mormon leaders are not reluctant to weigh in on political issues. Some say the line between church and state is blurred.
"The church is a major player regarding legislation in Utah," said Dan Wootherspoon, editor of Sunstone, a magazine of independent Mormon thought. "Just 10 days ago, a delegation from the church met with some legislators in a pre-legislative session to talk about tightening alcohol laws. Certainly they have a right, like any big corporation, to make their views known. The difference here is that there is a reluctance on the part of the legislator, when it's his faith, to go against the wishes of his leaders."
Although the church was officially neutral during the bidding process, church-owned businesses donated $211,000 to Salt Lake City's campaign to host the Games. Since then, the church has donated millions of dollars and loaned substantial tracts of land to the Games.
"Clearly the reputation of Utah, the reputation of Salt Lake City and the reputation of the church is tied up together," said Michael Otterson, the church's chief spokesman. "Because this community is so strongly identified with the Mormon Church, we have to try and debunk the Mormon Games thing. We understand why it's there, but it's not fair or accurate. This is a religious organization. It's not a commercial organization looking to market its goods."
The stage is certainly set for extraordinary exposure. The church loaned the 10-acre site in front of the massive tabernacle and the majestic temple for the Medals Plaza and gave $5 million to transform the former parking lot into a pedestrian mall. As many as 100,000 people are expected to gather there every night, not to mention the anticipated 3 billion people watching on TV.
It amounts to free advertising for the church, critics say.
"Uninformed nonsense," Otterson said, adding that news organizations are going to include shots of church buildings in their coverage anyway, as part of the city skyline, much as the Opera House in Sydney was a lasting visual impression of the 2000 Summer Games.
"We're not going to throw a shroud over" the temple, he said. "It's going to be a widely seen image, with or without the Medals Plaza."
Mitt Romney, the head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and a Mormon bishop, wants the temple to play a symbolic role during the Games.