Baha'i News -- In Olympic Glare, a Quieter Mormon Mission Sunday January 20 09:16 AM EST

In Olympic Glare, a Quieter Mormon Mission

By MICHAEL JANOFSKY with LAURIE GOODSTEIN The New York Times

The Mormon Church has made a conscious decision not to promote its faith when the Olympics shine a global spotlight on Utah in three weeks.

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 background.

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 warninged 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

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