Last week many of us watched more TV than usual as we cheered our athletes on at the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. But these games were more than about skiing and ice-skating. As the shots of the Mormon Temple behind Bob Costas reminded us, they're also about Mormonism's place in American life.
The Mormon church with 11 million members and estimated worth of 25 billion dollars has an image problem. That's why, as NEWSWEEK puts it, "Mormon leaders . . . regard the Games as a God-given opportunity to flash the many facets of their faith around the globe."
And the key facet the leaders wish to communicate is Mormonism's tie to Christianity. For instance, they want the media to stop using the term "Mormon." Instead, shorthand references to the church, whose official name is "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," should simply be "Church of Jesus Christ."
Films shown to the foreign press emphasize the relationship with Christianity by pointing out the role of the Bible in Mormon faith and practice.
But none of this alters the fact that Mormonism is an entirely different religion. For instance, Mormonism believes in many gods, not just one. Christians believe that God is eternal and is a spirit. Mormons believe that the god of this universe -- like other gods in other universes -- was once as we are. God "progressed" in knowledge and became divine, but retained his body.
God is married to a being the Mormons call "the Mother." The "Mother" is not the same person as Mary, who Mormons believe was impregnated by God physically. For Mormons, Jesus is God's son in a very different sense than that taught by Christianity.
Such an opportunity presented itself to me a few years ago when I spoke at the spiritual seminar of a leading business group. I spoke first. And then it was the turn for a famous Mormon author and self-help guru. He began his lecture by putting up a transparency on the screen. On it, there was a broad curving line coming right down the center.
He then asked one side of the room to close their eyes, and the other saw a picture of a young woman formed by the broad line in the center. Then he did the same thing with the other side of the room who saw a different transparency -- the same broad line, but an old woman. This, the author said, shows that we can see the same thing in two different ways. His intent was clearly to show that Mormonism is the same as Christianity, simply seen differently.
After his presentation, I asked him, "But which way was it, an old woman or a young woman? It can't be both." He got very upset, stammered, and never raised his Mormonism again that week.
Just as the picture was either an old woman or a young one, Mormonism either affirms historic Christianity, or it doesn't. Since it doesn't, it can't call itself Christianity -- a fact that all the good will and public relations in Utah can't change.