Mormons take media beating

When the Mormons fled to Utah 150 years ago, they thought they had escaped religious persecution, scorn and contempt for their way of life.

Before the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City are finished, they may decide to flee again. The Games don't begin until Friday, but already Utah and its Mormon denizens are absorbing a media beating that outweighs anything endured by past Olympic venues like Calgary or Nagano.

Descriptions of Utah include "the strangest state in America," "puritanical," "a theocracy," "holier-than-thou Hicksville" and "Dullsville." A trip to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' President Gordon Hinckley's office is like "walking into a David Lynch movie," according to Time magazine.

Over the weekend, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" ran a skit showing two Mormon missionaries trying to convert a downhill skier during her run. Somewhere in Utah, someone is thinking: For this, we weathered a bribery scandal?

"Get used to it, Utah," warned the Salt Lake Tribune in Monday's edition. "This Olympic thing hasn't even officially started yet and already much of the world's media is ripping on us, dredging up the old Mormon cliches, reinforcing the stereotypes."

Meanwhile, most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, are trying to maintain a sense of humor over the onslaught.

"Some of our people had a good chuckle over that," church spokesman Mike Otterson said of the "Saturday Night Live" spoof.

"We're just going to be who we are," Mr. Otterson said. "I think anyone who thinks we can control the media coverage is in never-never land. It's our intent to be welcoming and then hope that people have integrity."

More integrity, say, than an Australian reporter who asked two young Salt Lake City missionaries to tell her about the church, then poked cruel fun at one who was breathing with the help of an oxygen tank.

However harsh the early publicity, most Utahans are convinced the Olympics will do their image more good than harm. Working in the state's favor are the grandeur of the Wasatch Mountains, millions of dollars spent on road and beautification projects and an army of well-educated, well-mannered and bilingual volunteers, most of whom happen to be Mormon.

"It's a way to reintroduce ourselves to the world," said former state Rep. David Zolman, who is Mormon. "We've gotten an unfavorable image over the years on some issues, but now we've got our best foot forward. This is our coming-out party."

The hope is that once people meet them, they'll see that Utahans "aren't as weird as people in the press portray them," said Lee Martinez, managing director of the University of Utah's global business program.

"There's no doubt that this is a big public-relations coup for Utah and the Mormon church," Mr. Martinez said. "[Mormons] are very, very image-conscious, but they're getting both the good and the bad - you're seeing polygamy stories but you're also seeing stories that tow the party line."

In many respects, Utah is an easy target. About 70 percent of its residents are Mormon, a religion whose beliefs include abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

Much of the hue and cry has been over whether the hard-drinking press corps will be able to find a decent beer because Utah law prohibits bars from selling drinks with an alcohol content exceeding 3.2 percent.

Those seeking stronger spirits will have to join one of the city's drinking clubs - or go European. Several European diplomats have hit upon the idea of setting up temporary consulates where they can sell liquor tax-free.

The state rivals Idaho as the nation's most conservative and most Republican, facts that don't sit well with the mainstream media. The Mormon church worked to pass the Defense of Marriage Act in California and has denounced homosexual "marriage," a move that is expected to spur a demonstration before the Games are over.

Then there's the polygamy issue. Although the church banned plural marriage more than 100 years ago, about 30,000 polygamists still reside in Utah, an irresistible story for most press.

Last year, in an effort to crack down on the practice, outspoken polygamist Tom Green was convicted on four bigamy charges.

Instead, the tactic backfired, prompting polygamists to demand legalization as part of their right to religious expression.

Green's five wives are expected to steal some of the spotlight during the Games, as is Tapestry Against Polygamy, which wants to see stronger enforcement of anti-polygamy laws.

Famous for its persistent black-suited missionaries, the Mormon church has been hurt by criticism that it plans to use the Olympics as a venue for proselytizing.

If you want to find a missionary at the Olympics, Mr. Otterson said, you'll have to visit Temple Square, the church's headquarters, because they won't be stationed at the games or airports.

Contrary to published reports, the church was never on the verge of introducing an ad campaign during the Olympics, he said. But the church has enhanced its media center with 350 volunteers to help journalists seeking tours and information.

Mormons say those who arrive for the Olympics expecting to meet a strange and foreign people may be in for a disappointment. "At church on Sunday, one guy said he'd been hosting a salesperson from out of town, and at the end of the week, he asked, 'Where are all these Mormons?' p" said Marie Cornwall, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University.

"The man told him, 'You've been talking to one all week,'" she said.

Once visitors and television viewers get past the early publicity on Utah's quirks, residents hope they'll form their own opinions. "The hope is that they'll view Utah not as weird, but as a neat and beautiful place," Mr. Martinez said. "Someplace they'd like to come again."