In less than a year, the 2002 Winter Olympics will bring 2 millionspectators and 9,000 media representatives to the church's home city.Many of those visitors will want to know about the institution thatdominates the Utah capital as Roman Catholicism does Rome.
The church, which has gained 11 million adherents globally since itsfounding in upstate New York 170 years ago, stands ready to explainitself to the world.
"Every community wants to be seen for what it is," said MichaelOtterson, the church's media relations director. "What we'd like is forpeople to see what we're really about."
As a dominant institution in Salt Lake City, the church is sensitiveto criticism from those who view it as heavy-handed. So when it comes topreparation for the 2002 Olympics, church officials say they've tried toplay an important but not domineering role.
Mostly, observers say, they've succeeded. Still, conflicts havearisen over the use of the Mormon temple as the backdrop to the Olympicmedal stand and over the state's stringent liquor laws, which aresupported by the church.
As with other faith groups, Mormons have difficult issues toexplain. Those include a history of polygamy and racism and a theologythat doesn't always square with traditional Christian orthodoxy. Churchofficials say these issues often have been misrepresented, and they areeager to tell their story.
During the Olympic bid process, the church remained officiallyneutral. Church-owned businesses donated $210,938 to the bid over 11years. Once the games were awarded, church President Gordon B. Hinckleysaid church members would be "good hosts."
The church stresses its contributions were made based on requestsfrom the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, including loaning 80 acres forpark-and-ride facilities in Park City, a skiing venue, and staging freeMormon Tabernacle Choir concerts downtown.
"They've done a very, very good job of making it the Salt LakeOlympics and not the Mormon Olympics," said Jan Shipps, a professoremeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and anon-Mormon scholar of Mormonism.
But the church's most notable contribution to the Games turned intoits most controversial. In August 1999, SLOC President Mitt Romney, aMormon,persuaded the church to loan a block of downtown real estate forthe Olympics medals plaza. The church also agreed to give $5 million todevelop it.
That didn't sit well with Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democratwho said he grew up Mormon but drifted away from the church when he was17. He worried the temple would become the sole Olympic icon and givethe world a one-dimensional view of a diverse city.
The debate that followed illustrated the schism between Mormons andnon-Mormons in Salt Lake City, which has a slight non-Mormon majority.Romney and Anderson settled their differences in November. They agreedto urge NBC to give equal billing to Temple Square and a secular symbol:the century-old City and County Building downtown.
When Romney said the medals plaza would be alcohol-free, it reneweda debate about whether Utah's liquor laws should be loosened toaccommodate the Olympics' party atmosphere.
Mormons are prohibited from indulging in alcohol, and Utah lawreflects that. Restaurant patrons must ask for wine lists becausewaiters aren't allowed to offer them, and most nightclubs requireprivate memberships that run $5 for two weeks.
Romney reasoned alcohol wouldn't be appropriate at the medals plazabecause so many children would be there--and because the site is ownedby the church.
Mayor Anderson, who argues that easing Utah's liquor laws would helptourism and economic development, volleyed back that beer should beallowed. The church issued a statement condemning any changes.
"Salt Lake is going to be here long after the Olympics are gone,"said LDS church elder Neil Anderson. "We don't want to change everythingfor just 14 or 17 days."
Any changes in law appear unlikely. But a compromise was reached. Abeer garden will be installed next to the medals site.
Hinckley took another step toward minimizing criticism of the churchby barring proselytizing outside its main sites on Temple Square duringthe Olympics.
But the church won't disappear during the Games.
Otterson said the church will stage a multimedia "extravaganza"--details have not been revealed--at its 21,000-seat conference center.The church also plans to open a center for journalists working onchurch-related stories and is considering keeping its vast genealogicallibrary open 24 hours a day.