Thousands of reporters received promotional packages from the Mormon Church (LDS) before the 2002 Olympics. A small suitcase embossed with the new LDS logo held a list of story ideas proposed by their public relations office, with photos of the Salt Lake Temple, Mormon Tabernacle Choir and various Utah points of interest. It also included a booklet, which offered LDS-guided tours and said, "No other place in America has a story to tell like that of Salt Lake City -- a sanctuary founded by religious refugees from within the United States' own borders. And none can tell that story better than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Some reporters joked about the promotional mailings and there were apparently follow-ups sent out. But some were offended. Someone even suggested, maybe this will be the "Mormon Olympics." Many felt the effort was thinly veiled proselytizing and/or religious self-promotion. University of Maine sports historian William Baker, author of the book "If Christ Came to the Olympics" said, "Proselytizing has gone on at every Olympics since 1964, but what the Mormons are doing is much more complex than merely people witnessing and trying to win converts. It's so calculated, almost selling by providing information, trying to get reporters to talk to bishops."
At a reception, which was part of the 2002 media "familiarization" tour, reporters were introduced to William and Sidney Price, "directors of media hosting" for the public affairs department of LDS. Other faiths were not invited to the reception. Candus Thompson of the Baltimore Sun said, "They gave us all those calendars, media guides, and told us they were there to tell us about the Mormon church and answer questions we had. They made us uncomfortable."
Elaine Lafferty, wrote the following for The Irish Times about her LDS-guided tour. "When I agree to the tour, Sister Pope clasps her hands together in apparent gratitude and Sister Wouden rasps a squeal. In the next hour, I will learn something about determination and zealotry and single-mindedness as these two women confidently tell me all about God and His Purpose for our lives."
The Mormon church had its own media center set up for reporters. They also encouraged reporters to do stories on Mormonism and offered interviews with "a typical Mormon family." Obviously the Mormon church was taking full advantage of the "Olympic spotlight." Dean May, history professor at the University of Utah said, "If you think of other world events in Utah history -- the arrival of Mormons in 1847, the arrival of the federal army to install a non- Mormon governor in 1857, the 1880s controversy over polygamy -- there have been a lot more events focusing world attention on Utah that were negative than positive, but the predominant attitude has been, 'If people only knew us, they'd like us.' The Mormon leadership is thinking exactly that now."
National Public Radio Salt Lake City correspondent Howard Berkes said he believed the LDS Church's interest in the Olympic games was due to a goal regarding its missionary efforts. Berkes remarked, "That is a huge driving motivation, and part of it is to stop being treated as a cult and aberrant religion, and so holding the Olympics means we've arrived in Utah." We are not so weird after all, we can do something, we can prove something. Which is why those people were so desperate to get it."
LDS President and "prophet" Gordon B. Hinckley made this same claim during a 1996 interview on CBS "60 Minutes." He said, "We are not a weird people." But a critic of Mormon assimilation, Utah native and historian Bernard DeVoto, mocked this concept perhaps prophetically in 1926 when he wrote, "'We are a peculiar people,' long Zion's boast, becomes the plaintive, 'We are no different from other people,' "
There seems to have been an escalating "Irrepressible Conflict" internally within Utah for some time between Mormons and non-Mormons. This ahs included everything from beer billboards to the expansion of Temple Square. The LDS has even tried to "shape the management" of the Salt Lake Tribune. Some have said this is a "cultural war."
There is also a subculture within Salt Lake City. A reporter for the European newspaper The Economist took his own unguided tour of downtown and found gangs, tramps and prostitutes "tattooed and asking for change." One downtown cinema was even showing a film titled "Orgazmo," about a Mormon missionary turned porn star. That same reporter later wrote, "For years, Brigham Young's city in the Great Salt Desert has been trying to get rid of its image as a holier-than-thou-Hicksville. Now it has managed it: the Olympics scandal has made it a byword for bribery and corruption."
Salt Lake City bid boosters, many of them Mormons, spent millions on gifts, scholarships and cash payments to International Olympic Committee members and their relatives to get the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. A church spokesman bristled when questioned by reporters about this apparent bribery. "Nobody calls the Vatican and asks why most of the Mafioso are Catholic," he told The Washington Post. However, supposedly devoted Mormons engaged in influence peddling didn't look good for the church. KTVX reporter Chris Vanocur who broke the scandal put it this way, "My argument is no, not the most moral people, but maybe the most self-righteous."
A Sydney Morning Herald reporter Andrew Jennings wrote this about polygamist Tom Green. "Mr. Green, now threatened with prosecution for statutory rape of underage girls, or 'wives' as he terms them, was one of many keepers of traditional local values assuring me that the Olympic corruption in his state was worse than anything he ever got up to. Welcome to Utah." Tom Green was later convicted.
Timothy Egan of the New York Times wrote instead, "The church that shocked polite society by sanctioning marriages in which an older man could take a dozen wives or more -- some of them half his age -- is now a public guardian of strict family values no more experimental than Beaver Cleaver's. The founders of perhaps the most successful attempt at American socialism have given way to the competent capitalists who run an empire worth more than $25 billion. And the descendants of political radicals who proudly defied the constitutional separations of church and state with their theocracy in the desert now hold up those once-scorned democratic ideals as divinely inspired."
The LDS has attempted to counter its image problems. In 1995 it hired a New York City public relations agency and redesigned its logo, which an enlargement of the words "Jesus Christ." Two years later the same firm helped the church orchestrate a promotion of the sesquicentennial Mormon Trail wagon train to Utah. Their latest 2002 PR campaign is "all in-house" though, according to LDS spokesman Michael Otterson. Through that effort reporters were urged to refer to the LDS as "The Church of Jesus Christ" (on second reference) instead of "LDS Church or "Mormon Church." Otterson saw the 2002 Olympics as "a good opportunity" for this revised spin to be promoted.
Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute for Religious Research (IRR), an organization whose editorial advisory board includes Bruce Hafen, a member of the LDS Church's First Quorum of the Seventy, wrote in the IRR Journal "There is the poignant and persistent insistence of Mormons, 'We really are Christians!' Sometimes that claim means that they really are Christians and the rest of us are not."
University of Utah historian and author D. Michael Quinn explained, "I don't think the church will ever break out of its persecution complex. The headquarters of the church is only two steps away from a siege mentality. It's imbedded within the psyche of the culture."
Notes: This article was based upon "The Olympic Mission" published by The Salt Lake Tribune, March 18, 2001