Salt Lake City wrestles with its Mormon roots

From its hilly northern reaches, Salt Like City spreads south like an engineer's dream. Not only do its streets run straight and true to the compass, they are also unusually wide, laid out by early religious pioneers who wanted to be sure ox carts could turn around.

But as this city adorns itself with Olympic rings for the winter Games of 2002, its religious traditions of order and utility are under some attack.

Built and dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City is unrolling its welcome mat amid something of an identity crisis.

Is this a Mormon town, or a modern American "everycity" that is ready to party?

Most everyone here agrees it is more of the former than the latter. Yet with the city population now evenly split between Mormon adherents and non-Mormons, an outspoken liberal mayor, and sharp criticism of state policies from a spectrum that ranges from the American Civil Liberties Union to the state's largest corporation, the path to Olympic festivities so far includes a fair bit of soul searching.

"When you put a spotlight on a place, contrasts show up," explains Jan Shipps, author of "Sojourners in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons."

The battles include what critics say are antiquated liquor laws, charges of discrimination, and complaints that the church stifles basic freedoms.

"It's a mix of religious and cultural issues," says Carrie Moore, religion editor of the church-owned Deseret News. "It's really about the city growing up."

That process of growing and changing has been longstanding. Completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s began chipping away at the city's Mormon homogeneity, transforming it into a place that today is "pretty polyglot," says University of Utah historian Dean May.

And while the Olympics are throwing a spotlight on some of the divisions that naturally occur in a "polyglot" community, there are also those who hope it will force the community to bridge some of its divides and emerge more whole. "We believe there is the opportunity to be a stronger community at the end of this experience," says church spokesman Mike Otterson.

For a majority of Utahns, the Olympics are a welcome event. Memories of the 1999 scandals that clouded Salt Lake City's bid for the games have faded, and though concerns remain about the long-term economic impact, as well as construction annoyances, church members see the event as a golden opportunity to show the world that Mormons, as church president Gordon Hinckley has emphasized, are "not weird."

Non-Mormon residents are also in a welcoming mood, for different reasons. Ric Cantrell, a member of the church, explains the divide this way: "The [Mormons] want the Olympics to correct misunderstandings about the church. Others want Salt Lake City to be seen as a typical American city." Given the gulf between the two, he adds, "the tension is overt."

Celebration comes hand-in-hand with the Olympics. For many, that means alcohol - harder to find in Salt Lake City than in most cities of this size. Bars here serve only beer. Buying something stronger requires going to a state-run liquor store, joining a private club, or ordering a drink with food in a restaurant.

While beer will flow more freely than usual during the Games, the state's liquor laws are a subject of constant criticism.

Bruce Albertson, president of Iomega Corp., the state's largest public company, lashed out at Utah's restrictive liquor laws in a recent interview with Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News. Referring to the church, which prohibits drinking by members and supports the state's strict liquor regulations, he said, "I just wish they wouldn't run other people's lives."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ross "Rocky" Anderson, another critic of the liquor laws, is evidence of the city's restless mood.

Salt Lake has always been more Democratic and moderate than the state as a whole. But Mr. Anderson's election in November 1999 pushed the dynamic even further to the political left. An unabashed liberal and former president of the local ACLU, Anderson is trying to change the city's buttoned-down reputation.

"We are bound and determined to open up this city so the world will see it as a very diverse place," says Anderson, who has tripled the city's number of outdoor restaurants and encouraged more street artists, among other things.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is supportive of Anderson's efforts to revitalize the downtown, if not always his tactics.

Indeed, one of the disputes that has roiled the city in recent years pits the church against the ACLU, where Anderson used to provide legal help.

Geographically speaking, Salt Lake City's epicenter is the church's headquarters, an incontrovertible fact accepted by most residents. But when the church got city council approval in April 1999 to buy a block of prime downtown property that included one of the city's main traffic thoroughfares, critics felt the church had overstepped.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit claiming the city had "sold the public's First Amendment rights" by turning public space into church property that prohibits demonstrating, picketing, or assembling. The suit to thwart the Main Street Plaza deal failed and is on appeal. "The bigger fear is that the whole of Main Street will eventually constitute a company town," says Carol Gnade of the ACLU.

The way many analysts see it, Anderson's election was a clear sign that many in the community want a counterweight to the political might of the Mormon church.

The desire for a dissenting voice is also evident in ongoing legal battles between the church-owned Deseret News and the Salt Lake City Tribune. The recent and disputed sale of the Tribune to W. Dean Singleton's MediaNews has aroused fears the paper's independent voice could be muffled.

Perceived prejudice doesn't run just one way in this heated environment. Another case drawing attention is that of a Mormon student who claims she was forced from the University of Utah's acting program because she refused to recite dialogue she considered offensive. Her lawyers went so far as to ask the state legislature to tie the university's funding to a commitment to end alleged bias against Mormons.

Part of Salt Lake City's growing diversity is ethnic. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is growing most rapidly outside the United States, bringing in a steady stream of Mormon immigrants from South America, Asia, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the church itself continues to try to shed its perceived separateness, born both of its roots as an isolated kingdom in the intermountain West and practices, such as polygamy, that while outlawed are still practiced by some in Utah.

A top church official recently told The New York Times that the church is stepping up efforts to drop the term Mormon from references, preferring to be called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or simply the Church of Jesus Christ.

"This is a big move," says Ms. Shipps. "It's an effort at cultural mainstreaming."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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