LDS Church Takes Issue With Article

The Salt Lake Tribune/September 3, 2001
By Greg Burton

Media directors for what Newsweek -- in a cover story hitting newsstands this weekits latest cover story -- dubs "The busiest of all religions" worked overtime Sunday preparing a statement that challenges the magazine's premise that Mormons are becoming "more Christian."

In a seven-page article in this week's issue, Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward examines LDS theology and a subtle shift in pulpit rhetoric that he says "is becoming more overtly evangelical," emphasizing Jesus Christ while de-emphasizing Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormons, Woodward submits, are sounding "almost Methodist or even Southern Baptist. Are the Mormons going mainstream?"

The Newsweek piece is a readable analysis of LDS doctrine and Utah's preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics, but the authors break little new ground. On the magazine's Web site, only one mistake appears -- a photograph of Joseph F. Smith is captioned as that of "Founder Smith." The magazine had not yet reached The Salt Lake Tribune, so it is unknown if the mistake is perpetuated in print.

Other than religion, Newsweek's several-thousand-word treatment of all things "weird" in Utah touches on teetotaling, blacks in the priesthood, polygamy and chastity before marriage.

LDS Church officials, however, took exception only to the misidentified Smith portrait and the supposition that the LDS Church "has been quietly seeking to change its image and appear more mainstream."

In a letter to Newsweek editors, prepared on the faith's normally sacred day off, LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson railed against the assertion that Mormons' emphasis on Jesus Christ is all about image. Such claims cheapen "the real motivation of most members."

"To support his thesis that the Church has a new emphasis on Jesus Christ and is courting public favor, Woodward wonders why the huge new Conference Center and many of our chapels depict Christ rather than Joseph Smith," Otterson writes. "Could it be for the simple reason that these are buildings of worship for a church that has borne the name of Jesus Christ since its founding over 170 years ago?

"But there is no de-emphasis of Joseph Smith. A block away from the Conference Center, the former Hotel Utah, now mostly offices, was recently named the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, and a 9-foot marble statue of the prophet graces the lobby."

Privately, church officials called the article "80 percent correct."

"It actually is not a bad piece of work," one midlevel LDS Church employee told The Tribune. "The problem with religion editors is they try to convey to a secular audience what the church is like. Time [in a 1997 cover story] did it in economic terms, others have examined the social aspects, but neither really captures what goes on in the heads of the average Mormon."

Newsweek's piece falls somewhere in the middle of recent national and international examinations of Utah and Mormons, skimming over questions of the LDS Church's wealth and political power. Woodward estimates the church's worth at $25 billion and concludes that "Business in Salt Lake is usually done the Mormon way or not at all."

Yet to hit newsstands is an in-depth article by the more liberal New Yorker magazine, whose author is less apt to soften his piece for middle America.

"I don't think the examination will hurt," House Speaker Marty Stephens said Sunday. "As people dig into what is going on in this state certainly they will find out there is a preponderance of Mormons and therefore a preponderance of Mormons in elected office. The same is true in the South with Southern Baptists or in the northeast with Catholics. "

Mormons dominate Utah's culture and civic institutions, Woodward writes. Church duties equally dominate members' lives. Male priesthood leaders "rarely see their families because church work is so time-consuming." "Eternal progression to godliness means there is always more work to do," he writes. "Compared with this eternal agenda, the coming of the Olympics to Salt Lake City is a brief diversion."

In a companion piece, reporter Ana Figueroa ponders the marriage of Mormons and the Olympics, asserting that "if the world is going to kick up its heels here" Utah's Mormon-dominated liquor commission "is going to have to let down its neatly trimmed hair a bit and relax the state's blue laws limiting the availability and potency of liquor."

Utah's liquor laws, though, aren't all that different from some other jurisdictions across the country, according to a survey published last month by The Tribune.

And Utah isn't about to tweak the laws just so bartenders can pour stronger drinks during the 17-day Olympic party.

Olympic officials, expecting the worst, likely won't be too displeased about the article's tone, although Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney has expressed frustration that outside journalists are overly focused on the "Mormon Olympics."

That notion doesn't offend others. Maxine Hanks, a feminist author and SLOC volunteer, told The Tribune that "Mormonism is what makes Salt Lake City unique and gives it an identity. Salt Lake gives more personality to the 2002 Winter Games."

As for religion, Otterson suggests that what is changing is not Mormons' sense of themselves but the world's sense of Mormons.

"Increasingly, Americans are getting acquainted with Mormon associates and neighbors and seeing them as an integral part of the rich and diverse fabric of American life," Otterson writes in his letter to Newsweek. "If that is what is meant by 'mainstream,' we welcome it."

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