A Mormon Moment: America's Biggest Homegrown Religion Is Looking More Christian. but It's Still a Different World

By Woodward, Kenneth L. | Newsweek, September 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Mormon Moment: America's Biggest Homegrown Religion Is Looking More Christian. but It's Still a Different World


Woodward, Kenneth L., Newsweek


Mention "Mormons" and you think immediately of clean-cut missionaries, uniformed like ushers in white shirts and dark suits, canvassing for converts two by two through the neighborhoods of the world. Once a hated, hunted Utah sect, the Mormons are now a global church worth an estimated $25 billion and claiming 11 million members, a slight majority of them living outside the United States. But next February, the world will come knocking on the doors of the Mormon Zion in Salt Lake City, host of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The city expects 1.5 million visitors altogether, including 9,000 journalists--plus the steady eyes of television cameras for two-and-a-half weeks. Some local commentators have already dubbed next year's Games the "Mo-lympics" because the church and its puritan ethos so dominate the city Mormon pioneers created 150 years ago.

Not since the ancient Olympiads were held under the gaze of Zeus and his randy band of gods and goddesses have the Games been staged in a locale so thoroughly saturated by a single religion. Consider: Utah's governor, two senators and three congressmen are Mormons. So are all the state's Supreme Court justices and 80 percent of the state and federal judiciary, 90 percent of the state legislators and at least 85 percent of the mayors, county commissioners and local school officials. Business in Salt Lake is usually done the Mormon way or not at all. Anticipating unaccustomed scrutiny by international media, Gordon B. Hinckley, the church's president and prophet, has promised not to exploit the Olympics to proselytize visitors. But Mormon leaders also regard the Games as a God-given opportunity to flash the many facets of their faith around the globe. "When it comes to doing stories about the history and culture of this place," says Bruce Olson, director of the church's 34-member Public Affairs Department, "that's us."

But what face will Mormons wear to meet the faces that they'll meet? To many outsiders, they appear mysterious and clannish with their secret temple rituals, vestiges of polygamy in rural Utah (despite official church condemnation of the practice), zero tolerance for homosexuality and readiness to press their temperance code on non-Mormon citizens. But for more than two decades now, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has worked hard to alter its image. With an infusion of converts from Latin America, Asia and Africa since the 1950s, it is no longer a white-bread church. Once staunchly separatist, Mormons today cooperate with other churches in providing international relief. Above all, the church now insists it be regarded as a Christian church, albeit one with doctrines about God, salvation and the priesthood that differ radically from traditional Christianity. For example: with Olympic fever heating up, the church's hierarchy recently advised the media that the term Mormon Church is no longer acceptable. Henceforth, officials declared, short references to the church should read: "The Church of Jesus Christ." In this way the church hopes to emphasize what Mormons share with historic Christianity, not what makes them different.

Internally, this emphasis on Jesus has been even more dramatic. Traditionally, Mormon teaching focused on founder Joseph Smith as God's latter-day prophet whose revelations led to the restoration of the ancient Hebraic priesthood and of the one true church. Today more than one image of Smith is hard to find in the church's magnificent new conference center in Salt Lake City. Instead, the walls are lined with huge murals depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. This change in iconography can also be seen in local chapels, called "wards," where Mormons gather every Sunday for three hours. In 1971, images of Jesus appeared only five times in the church's official monthly publication, the Ensign; in 1999, the Ensign published 119 of them. For nearly a decade, visitors to the Joseph Smith Center in Salt Lake were shown "Legacy," a film about Smith and the grueling Mormon trek to Utah. …

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