A Leap of Faith for Utah's 'Peculiar People'

Holy Land

New York Times/February 3, 2002
By Timothy Egan

Salt Lake City -- It was Mark Twain, now riding the revival circuit courtesy of the latest Ken Burns documentary, who said of the empire that the Mormons built at the base of the Wasatch Mountains: "This was a fairyland to us - a land of enchantment and awful mystery."

Less than a week before the start of the Winter Olympics, as Utah opens its doors to the world, Twain's head-scratching over the cryptic nature of the Beehive State still holds. As he said, no outsider can truly comprehend Utah, a state whose history and modern life are cluttered with contradiction.

"I am pleased the games are finally here because it's a chance to dispel all the stories about how weird we are," said Jake Garn, a former United States senator from Utah and an ex-mayor of its capital, Salt Lake City. "What bothers me the most is the constant talk about Mormon this and Mormon that."

Nearly two-thirds of Utah's 2.2 million residents - and all the statewide politicians - are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While Mormon leaders say they will tone down their proselytizing mission as the world's news media focuses on snowboarders and downhill racers, there is no avoiding the continuing story of "a peculiar people," as the Saints often call themselves.

As in most religions, every stage of the Mormon narrative is stocked with miracles - from the sea gulls, now memorialized in statue form over downtown for saving the early settlers from an insect plague, to the appearance and later disappearance in the early 1800's of the golden plates from which came the Mormon bible. It is a home-grown religion, hatched in upstate New York by an itinerant water diviner named Joseph Smith and rooted in the West by a Yankee carpenter, Brigham Young. Today, nearly half of its 10 million adherents are outside the United States.

Among other things, Mormons believe that what is now a parking lot in Missouri was once the Garden of Eden, and that a lost tribe of Israel once settled in America. It is a faith that considers Jews to be gentiles, as it does all non-Saints.

In this city, every stone has a story to tell, beginning with Temple Square, the Mormon Vatican. Outsiders are told they can view but not enter the magnificent, granite- sheathed gothic church in the center of the square, from which emanates all street directions in Salt Lake City. They are directed instead to visitor centers with murals of a blue-eyed Jesus, and to statues and stories of Young.

To the 9,000 journalists trying to decipher Utah while covering the Games, church representatives will speak of how the American dream has never found a better home than here in the Great Basin. But church critics will point three miles up the hill to the husk of old Fort Douglas, where cannons manned by federal troops were trained on Temple Square for much of its history. From the late 1850's to statehood in 1896, Utah was viewed by Washington as a subversive colony, an outpost of kinky sex, incomprehensible ritual and clannish behavior.

The same Brigham Young who believed that the Constitution was divinely inspired also prepared his militia to go to war with the United States. "God almighty will give the United States a pill that will puke them to death," Young said during tensions in the late 1850's.

This history rarely appears in official church narratives. But even today the aftershocks of Young's early experiments echo through Mormon society. Former wives of polygamists say the state still looks the other way while upwards of 60,000 people live in families with multiple wives. They say politicians are loathe to crack down because most families have in their background a great-grandfather who married a handful of teenage brides (Young himself married 27 times).

The church renounced polygamy more than a hundred years ago and today treats the practice like a banished relative. Last year, though, while ex-wives of polygamists tried to lobby legislators to tighten the laws, they bumped into lobbyists from the Allred clan, which has about 3,000 family members in the state, many of whom openly practice polygamy. And recently, the five wives of Tom Green, who last year became the first person convicted of practicing polygamy in Utah in 50 years, have been campaigning to legalize the practice under the banner of religious freedom.

Utah can laugh at its past - up to a point. When a microbrewery here recently introduced a new beer called Polygamy Porter with ads that read, "Why have just one?" and "Take some home for the wives," some billboard owners refused to sell them space.

State leaders will try to use the Olympics to recast Utah's image as a prudish place run by old white men who take their orders from the church. Sure, Utah has a porn czar, and a touring Rodin sculpture was kept in the basement of Brigham Young University because it was seen as too sexy. But just as many people here watch "Friends" or pornography on cable TV as elsewhere. And even though Mormon theology considered blacks a "tainted," second-tier race until about 30 years ago, some of the 60,000 Mormon missionaries are finding success recruiting in Africa (Temple Square displays pictures of recent African converts).

Political leaders insist there is no grand conspiracy between church and state. "In all the years I was mayor and my 18 years in the Senate, not once did the church call me up and tell me what to do," said Mr. Garn, a Mormon.

But non-Mormons say the church hierarchy does not have to be overt because the state's political and business cultures are dominated by Saints. Two weeks ago, when the Legislature opened its session with calls for more ties between church and state, there was nary a peep of opposition. "Religion and strict moral beliefs are an inseparable part of our system of government," said House Speaker Marty Stephens, who called on schools to hang posters declaring trust in God.

Twain's "awful mystery" continues to confound. Utah has the nation's healthiest population, but it also ranks among the top in per capita rates of children born out-of-wedlock and use of the anti-depressant Prozac. Its low rates of heart disease, lung cancer and alcoholism are partly a result of the church's ban on alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. But those restrictions have also fostered an insularity that can make outsiders feel left out.

"What happens if you're a non-Mormon who moves in next to a Mormon, your neighbor will seem friendly and sociable at first, but pretty soon they will stop seeing you," said Dean May, a professor of history at the University of Utah and a Mormon. "Their world is somewhere else. And where people meet and socialize - over a cup of coffee or a beer - is not something they partake in."

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