`Land of enchantment' opens for Olympics, public relations

Utah sees Winter Games as time to dispel myths

February 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SALT LAKE CITY - It was Mark Twain who said of the empire that the Mormons built at the base of the Wasatch Mountains: "This was fairy-land to us, to all intents and purposes - a land of enchantment, and goblins, 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 U.S. senator from Utah and a former 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 its 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 focus on snowboarders and downhill racers, there is no avoiding the continuing story of a "peculiar people," as the Mormons often call themselves.

As in most religions, every stage of the Mormon narrative is stocked with miracles - from the sea gulls, memorialized in statue form in Salt Lake City, that saved the early settlers from an insect plague to the appearance and later disappearance in the early 1800s of the golden plates, from which came the Book of Mormon.

The religion started in upstate New York with an itinerant water diviner named Joseph Smith and was rooted in the West by a Yankee carpenter, Brigham Young. Today, nearly half of its 10 million adherents are outside the United States.

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 1850s to statehood in 1896, Utah was viewed by Washington as a subversive colony, an outpost of 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 1850s.

This history rarely appears in official church narratives. But even today, the aftershocks of Young's early experiments echo through Mormon society. The church renounced polygamy more than 100 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 ran into lobbyists from the Allred clan, which has about 3,000 family members in the state, many of whom openly practice polygamy.

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.

Political leaders insist that there is no grand conspiracy between church and state. But non-Mormons say the church hierarchy does not have to be overt because the state's political and business cultures are dominated by Mormons.

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