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January 20, 2002
In Olympic Glare, a Quieter Mormon Mission
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY with LAURIE GOODSTEIN
SALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 18 — When the Olympics in Salt Lake City were well
over a year away, Mormon officials met in New York City with NBC
executives and said they were considering spending several million
dollars on advertising time to create a positive impression of their
church during the network's broadcasts of the Winter Games.
The church, after all, had an ideal public relations opportunity with
the selection of Salt Lake City, its headquarters, as an Olympic venue.
At last, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have a
chance to assert its credentials as a welcoming Christian church with
international reach and family values, and to erase its enduring image
as some kind of odd, enormous sect.
Not long after the meeting, though, the church officials contacted NBC
and said they had decided against conducting any advertising campaign
during the Olympics, said Randy Falco, the network's president. A church
spokesman said today that church officials had concluded that a large
advertising campaign would have sent the wrong message.
"We saw no way of doing that tastefully as a religion without looking
like a corporate entity," the spokesman, Michael Otterson, said in a
written statement. "The Church has been careful from the beginning to
walk a fine line between being supportive of the Games and Salt Lake
Organizing Committee, but not acting in a way that detracted from the
efforts of the whole community in Utah, not just Latter-day Saints."
The episode is typical of the challenges the Olympics have posed for
Mormons. A church known for its industrious proselytizing and for its
global army of 60,000 clean-cut missionaries has found itself lying low
in the city it built. A church that has translated its scripture into
hundreds of languages in the hope of winning converts worldwide has
decided not to promote its faith when the Olympics shine a global
spotlight on Utah in three weeks.
The reason is straightforward. Church leaders have made clear that their
eyes are not on the Olympics but on what happens after the flame is
extinguished. If international visitors return home having discovered
the Mormons are in the mainstream — and missionaries should be allowed
in the door when they come knocking — church leaders say they will
consider the Olympics a success.
"If I were in their P.R. department, I would say, `Look, anything that
just gives us even halfway neutral press coverage, particularly in the
East, helps,' " said Rodney Stark, a non-Mormon professor of sociology
and comparative religion at the University of Washington who has studied
the church. "Because in the last 150 years" — practically the entire
history of the Mormon Church — "we have had such bad press."
Until recently, the church seemed eager to play a dominant role in the
Olympics, which were awarded to Salt Lake City in 1995. It mailed
elaborate media kits to journalists suggesting church-related articles.
The Tabernacle Choir was booked to sing at the opening ceremonies. The
church lent organizers a 10-acre parking lot in downtown Salt Lake City
to be used each night to broadcast the medal awards ceremonies. Pictures
from the site will show the spires of the church's main temple rising in
The church also began creating an ornate multimedia extravaganza — the
"Light of the World" — featuring 1,500 actors and musicians, to be
performed free 10 times during the Olympics.
The excitement was natural. Gordon B. Hinckley, the church's president,
told a church convention last year that playing host to the Olympics was
a fulfillment of Brigham Young's prophecy. "We shall build a city and a
temple to the most high God in this place," Mr. Hinckley said, quoting
the early church leader. "Kings and emperors and the noble and wise of
the earth will visit here, while the wicked and ungodly will envy us our
comfortable homes and possessions."
In the last year, though, the church found itself increasingly on the
defensive, with references to the "Mormon Olympics." The Salt Lake
Tribune and other news organizations warning that the church was
planning to use the event to evangelize. That opinion reflected the
sentiments of the growing number of non- Mormons who have moved to Utah
in recent years.
"This community is like a theocratic monoculture," said Stephen Pace, a
local business consultant who organized opposition to the Olympics. "If
Mormons were left to their own devices, they would own the country."
In response to such criticism, the church pulled back. The choir will
still sing and the spires will still receive air time, but the strategy
was recalibrated. Mitt Romney, a Mormon who is president of the Olympic
organizing committee, held a press conference last spring to play down
the Mormon influence. Mr. Romney was brought in as president three years
ago in the wake of the bribery scandal that helped Salt Lake City win
the rights to hold the games but ended in the indictment of two
high-ranking church members.
In an interview this week, Mr. Romney emphasized that the church
contribution to the Olympics should in no way "discount the contribution
of other faiths and religions."
Over the last few months, Mr. Hinckley, the church president, has asked
Mormons not to proselytize visitors at Olympic venues, as they would on
their missions. They will not hand out their scriptures, the Book of
Mormon. They will not walk around the city in the dress of missionaries
— dark suits, white shirts, narrow ties and name tags identifying them
as church "elders."
Further, church officials say efforts to answer questions about the
church and its traditions will be limited to the church Web site, which
includes "100 great story ideas" about the church, and a downtown office
filled with brochures, photographs, books and videotapes.
In addition, the church members who will volunteer at Mormon historical
sites in Salt Lake City have been given "civility training," intended in
part to rein in the members' impulse to recruit.
"We have a heightened sensitivity to being good hosts and to being
helpful to people," said Bruce L. Olsen, a church leader and member of
the Church Olympic Coordinating Committee. "By our very nature, we are
outgoing. The Olympics, themselves, foster some of that. So for us, it's
a fine line to walk."
It is no surprise that Mormons were involved in spearheading the drive
to win the Olympics. The church touches every aspect of life in Utah.
From its world headquarters on 35 acres of central Salt Lake City, it
counts among its members 70 percent of the state's residents, including
most of its elected officials, judges and local leaders.
Some non-Mormons say they sympathize with the church and its efforts to
modulate its profile. George Niederauer, bishop of the Catholic Church
for Utah, compared it to what the Vatican might have faced in 1960, when
the Summer Olympics were held in Rome.
"It's a challenge to be in the majority gracefully and to be in the
minority graciously," Bishop Niederauer said.
As chairwoman of the Interfaith Roundtable, a group representing dozens
of area religions, Jan Saeed said the most encouraging sign that the
Mormon Church has recognized the challenge has been its participation in
the group's meetings.
"I've worked on several interfaith councils, and this is the first time
the Mormons have been there," said Ms. Saeed, a leader of the local
Baha'i Faith community. "I'm sure you'll see some radicals out there as
you would in any faith group. We live in the world center of Mormonism,
and that's not going to be missed by anybody who comes here. But I have
no fear their plans to be respectful will unravel."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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