In less than a year, the 2002 Winter Olympics will bring 2 million spectators and 9,000 media representatives to the church's home city. Many of those visitors will want to know about the institution that dominates the Utah capital as Roman Catholicism does Rome.
The church, which has gained 11 million adherents globally since its founding in upstate New York 170 years ago, stands ready to explain itself to the world.
"Every community wants to be seen for what it is," said Michael Otterson, the church's media relations director. "What we'd like is for people to see what we're really about."
As a dominant institution in Salt Lake City, the church is sensitive to criticism from those who view it as heavy-handed. So when it comes to preparation for the 2002 Olympics, church officials say they've tried to play an important but not domineering role.
Mostly, observers say, they've succeeded. Still, conflicts have arisen over the use of the Mormon temple as the backdrop to the Olympic medal stand and over the state's stringent liquor laws, which are supported by the church.
As with other faith groups, Mormons have difficult issues to explain. Those include a history of polygamy and racism and a theology that doesn't always square with traditional Christian orthodoxy. Church officials say these issues often have been misrepresented, and they are eager to tell their story.
During the Olympic bid process, the church remained officially neutral. Church-owned businesses donated $210,938 to the bid over 11 years. Once the games were awarded, church President Gordon B. Hinckley said church members would be "good hosts."
The church stresses its contributions were made based on requests from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, including loaning 80 acres for park-and-ride facilities in Park City, a skiing venue, and staging free Mormon Tabernacle Choir concerts downtown.
"They've done a very, very good job of making it the Salt Lake Olympics and not the Mormon Olympics," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and a non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism.
But the church's most notable contribution to the Games turned into its most controversial. In August 1999, SLOC President Mitt Romney, a Mormon,persuaded the church to loan a block of downtown real estate for the Olympics medals plaza. The church also agreed to give $5 million to develop it.
That didn't sit well with Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat who said he grew up Mormon but drifted away from the church when he was 17. He worried the temple would become the sole Olympic icon and give the world a one-dimensional view of a diverse city.
The debate that followed illustrated the schism between Mormons and non-Mormons in Salt Lake City, which has a slight non-Mormon majority. Romney and Anderson settled their differences in November. They agreed to 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 renewed a debate about whether Utah's liquor laws should be loosened to accommodate the Olympics' party atmosphere.
Mormons are prohibited from indulging in alcohol, and Utah law reflects that. Restaurant patrons must ask for wine lists because waiters aren't allowed to offer them, and most nightclubs require private memberships that run $5 for two weeks.
Romney reasoned alcohol wouldn't be appropriate at the medals plaza because so many children would be there--and because the site is owned by the church.
Mayor Anderson, who argues that easing Utah's liquor laws would help tourism and economic development, volleyed back that beer should be allowed. 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 everything for just 14 or 17 days."
Any changes in law appear unlikely. But a compromise was reached. A beer garden will be installed next to the medals site.
Hinckley took another step toward minimizing criticism of the church by barring proselytizing outside its main sites on Temple Square during the 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 on church-related stories and is considering keeping its vast genealogical library open 24 hours a day.
Susana Rivera, 23, a Mexico-born missionary serving on Temple Square, views the Olympics as a chance for the church to educate, not convert.
"Sometimes we're not even considered Christian," Rivera said. "That's something I hope will be clarified, because we do believe in Jesus Christ."
The church's harshest critics call it a cult, pointing to the church's strong, centralized leadership and unorthodox beliefs. LDS spokesman Otterson puts it this way: "We're Christian, but we're different."
The early church was different in one way that set it apart from the rest of America: Men had multiple wives. The practice was one reason Mormons were driven from Ohio to Illinois to Utah. Congress outlawed plural marriage in 1862.
That didn't stop the LDS church from practicing what it considered to be a guaranteed religious freedom. Under mounting pressure, the church disavowed polygamy in 1890. As a condition of Utah's statehood in 1896, plural marriage was barred by the state Constitution. Some polygamists went underground.
"For the Mormon church, which is kind of the poster child for being good American citizens and upholding the law, polygamy is an embarrassment and we'd rather just not talk about it, even among ourselves," said Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon journal.
But with 9,000 journalists arriving in a year, the church knows it must talk.
"We have something to say about it, even if that's only that it's part of our history for which we do not apologize," Otterson said. "But of course, it hasn't been an active part of our history for over a century."
Nearly a century after it disowned polygamy, the church faced another firestorm about its theology. Beginning with the church's founding during the slavery era, black men were barred from entering the Mormon priesthood. The church dropped the prohibition in 1978 when prophet Spencer Kimball said he received a revelation. Neil Anderson, the church elder, said that's just how the church works.
"This is quite irritating to our critics, because they don't like the fact that through revelation, and what we believe is the answer to prayers to God, that policies of the church can change," he said.