Olympic Ads for Beer Collide With Utah's Mormon Morals

Salt Lake's Olympic committee considers beer-ad ban for the 2002 Winter Games

In a time when endorsement contracts have become a vital part of the Olympic Games' financial success, the 2002 Winter Games may find that an official alcohol sponsor is more trouble than it's worth.

A move to ban alcohol advertising during the Games here may not succeed in removing the colorful billboards behind schussing skiers and the human-sized beer bottles ambling through Olympic villages. But the fight is fundamental to Utah's identity.

For 150 years, Utah has had fierce pride in its tradition as a state founded by Mormons on religious precepts. Even though big money is at stake here - Budweiser paid about $40 million to be the official beer of the 1996 Summer Games - the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee would rather forgo it. For many Utahns, it is not an issue of money, but an issue of morals.

"It is who you are; it forms the basis of your values, the way you interact with people," says state Rep. Mary Carlson, one of the few Democrats and non-Mormons in the Utah Legislature. More than "50 percent of our population ... attends church on a regular basis. That's not because of some conspiracy on the part of the LDS [Latter-day Saints] church, that's just the way it is."

And while American society seems to be following Utah's lead - with the rise of religious groups as a force in politics and a less tolerant stance on alcohol abuse - experts say Utah is unique, even in a more conservative America.

The strength and purpose of the Mormon identity, formed on the Mormons' long march west, have set Utah apart from other states, tingeing politics with both a moralistic edge and a pioneering sense of self-reliance, says Peter Van Hook, an Episcopal priest and instructor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

And the alcohol-advertising debate is just one among a score of issues affected by this tradition. It also translates into tight control of liquor sales, a presumption against tobacco use, and a family philosophy that advocates stay-at-home moms. But many worry that, as time has passed, the line separating the Mormon Church and the Republican Party has blurred.

"The intersection of politics and religion was a lot more comfortable when we didn't have a dominant party," says Reba Keele, a Mormon scholar and a former dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. "For years, we had Democratic governors; now ... we have people who believe you have to be a Republican to be a Mormon."

Currently, the lone Democrat in a high state office is the attorney general, and the Legislature doesn't have enough Democrats to even stall GOP bills.

On the other hand, some note that, unlike in the past, the church no longer takes an overt part in politics. It hasn't endorsed a candidate in decades, and church officials don't dabble outside the realm of religion anymore, says David Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.

As the hierarchy has stepped back, the people have come forward. "Utah politics has a distinctive moralistic kind of tone to it, but it is not driven by the hierarchy so much as it is by the belief system widely shared by the population," says Professor Magleby.

Taking up the current anti-alcohol ad fight are both the Utah Parent-Teacher Association and a group called the Utah Alcohol Policy Coalition. They have asked the committee to ban alcohol advertising during the Games, saying it would be harmful to children.

The Salt Lake Olympic committee is in a bind. Spokesman Mike Korologos says there are no plans to have an "alcoholic beverage sponsor," but the committee is beholden to the United States Olympic Committee, which has a longstanding relationship with Anheuser-Busch. The organizing committee must also abide by the law, and the Utah Liquor Commission has been studying a US Supreme Court decision in which a Rhode Island ban on liquor advertising was overturned.

THE endorsement issue has surfaced here before. West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake, turned down Coors Brewing Company's $7 million offer for the right to name the town's new sports stadium. The debate became so rancorous that the city decided to simply call the stadium the "E" (for event) Center.

In a world where the lure of big money increasingly clouds the issue, Utah is struggling with what it sees as a matter of morals.

"A lot of things stem from a connection with the LDS value system," says Representative Carlson. Mormons "don't even think of it as being a religious perspective, and that's why it's difficult for them to understand why other people might be offended."

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