The New Utah

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The way in to the office of Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Mormon church, leads through long carpeted corridors with wood-paneled walls and security doors that swing open noiselessly with no visible movement from the guards. It is like walking into a David Lynch movie. In these hushed precincts, groups of gray-haired men in identical black suits pass by, beaming smiles like undertakers. Everyone is scrupulously polite, but as a visitor, one feels that one has been dropped into the middle of a plot, without knowing the beginning or the end.

Hinckley, Mormons believe, is in direct contact with God and so presumably is party to the whole plot. Thus the faithful paid close attention last July when the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints stood up to make his annual speech for Pioneer Day. But instead of a soothing homage to Mormon virtues and achievements in the 154 years since the pioneers settled Utah, Hinckley, 91, gave the world's 11 million Mormons a lecture on being good neighbors.

After pointing out that Utah's population had now acquired "great diversity," Hinckley admonished the Mormon majority for being clannish and adopting holier-than-thou attitudes. The speech has become a watershed in Utah, a focus of debate over the church's future. Hinckley, whose smiling bonhomie floats over such controversy, told Time in an interview in his office, "I am an open individual. I think we all ought to be that way—but it is all a process; it doesn't happen in a day." Since becoming president in 1995, the media-savvy Hinckley has been trying to gently nudge the LDS church to be more open. It has not been easy. Even recent proposals to supply condoms to Olympic athletes drew protest. Mormonism is virtually synonymous with Utah, and the conservative religion has shaped the state politically, socially and culturally. But as the church changes, so does the state. Both have seized upon the Olympics, with its anticipated 1.5 million visitors and 3 billion worldwide TV audience, as a dynamic vehicle for highlighting these changes and re-creating their images before the world. "We hope, with so many people among us, it will be helpful in dispelling old prejudices," says Hinckley.

The image of Utah was briefly sullied by the revelation in late 1998 that members of the International Olympic Committee had accepted cash, gifts and college tuition for their children amounting to more than $1 million in advance of awarding the Winter Games to Salt Lake—following an ugly precedent set by other winning cities. Tom Welch, a former president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, and Dave Johnson, a former senior vice president, were indicted on federal charges, including bribery and fraud. The charges were dismissed last year, but the Justice Department last month appealed the dismissal. All along, the Mormon church has tried to keep the scandal at arm's length—Hinckley says he had instructed the church to remain strictly "neutral" in every aspect of the Olympics. The hope is that by the opening ceremonies, the scandal will be largely forgotten.

The puritanical, homogenous white-bread community of Deseret—as Mormons used to designate their geographical base—is going multigrain, with people of different races, faiths and outlooks moving into the state. Governor Mike Leavitt says that when he came to office nine years ago, 8% of the state's population was from an ethnic minority. Today it is 14%, and when his term is up three years from now it will be 17%. The 2000 Census showed a 138% increase in the Hispanic population over the preceding decade, and a 740% increase in people now prepared to declare they live in "same-sex" households. Some 25,000 people attended last summer's gay-pride celebration in Salt Lake City. Church figures reveal that Mormons now account for 73% of the state's population, compared with 77% in 1990, and for an estimated 53% in Salt Lake City, compared with 57% then. Counting lapsed Mormons, others say the true statewide figure is closer to 63%. The city—the state capital, with a population of some 182,000—now has one of the most liberal mayors in the country. Change is coming from the top down, as church leaders see the value in greater openness, and from the bottom up, as the state's demographics shift toward a more diverse mix.

These two impetuses come from the same root—call it Utah's China problem. With the highest birthrate in the country, the state needs to fuel above-average economic growth just to accommodate its growing population. "It is a young state with a workforce growing at twice the national average," says Leavitt. "We need to make jobs for our kids and grandkids. It is clear we will have to attract many new faces to Utah to do that." The old mainstays of Utah's economy—agriculture, mining and military bases—are in decline, so the state has aggressively shifted its energies toward developing high-tech industries, and needs imported experts to do it.

This is no longer the state in which some 120 settlers from Arkansas were killed for being non-Mormons in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. Now the gates to the Beehive State are wide open. Five million people visited its five national parks last year. A record 3.4 million skier days were recorded last season at its 14 Rocky Mountain resorts. And Utah is bending over backward to attract science graduates, software wizards and venture capitalists from across the country.

The original Mormon pioneers came to Utah under duress—their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered in Illinois in 1844, and his followers fled westward to escape persecution. Modern-day non-Mormon settlers will come only because they want to, and the state's leaders know that. So, as if by rote, they recite the advantages of living in Utah: low crime, great mountains, those five national parks, a tech-savvy population with the nation's highest per capita ownership of computers, and 45-min. access to world-class ski resorts from the center of Salt Lake. Yet the image of Paradise Postponed persists. The Mormon presence is always there in the background, a faint theme song that never gets turned off. "My parents think I am insane to live here," says Katherine Glover, 36, an urban planner who moved to Salt Lake last year from San Francisco—and loves the place.

Stereotypes always linger behind the curve of change. Visitors to the state that is known for polygamy and tough liquor laws may be surprised to find that it produces a beer called Polygamy Porter (advertising slogan: "Why just have one!"). Salt Lake has a thriving bar and club scene. The state's liquor laws are gradually easing up; since last August it has been legal for the first time to advertise liquor. According to Governor Leavitt, there will be 1,305 places to buy a drink "within the confines of the Olympic area"—twice as many places as in the two previous Winter Olympics venues of Lillehammer and Nagano combined, he says. And the clean, crime-free, wholesome society envisioned by the founders of the Mormon church produces spike-haired, nihilistic punks (depicted in the movie SLC Punk!), black-clad goths and the highest rate of Prozac consumption in the country. Despite the strong antipathy of the Mormon church to homosexuality, Salt Lake City has an internationally known lesbian underground scene.

"To live in Utah is to live in a state of paradox," says Terry Tempest Williams, one of the state's best-known writers. Utah is hardly Brigham Young's Promised Land of milk and honey. It is mostly infertile desert, rock and a lake that is too salty to support even fish. Out of this apocalyptic landscape of blood-red rock and sulphur-colored plains, the pioneers hacked a difficult livelihood, struggling with biblical droughts, a plague of grasshoppers and overpowering summer heat. In other Western states such hardships bred a cantankerous individualism. In Utah the LDS church fostered a tightly knit communitarian approach. This lingers today in the "clannishness" that Hinckley criticized in his Pioneer Day speech, and has led to the polarization of society that persists even as much else in the state is changing.

"Non-Mormons have always felt they are an oppressed minority in the state; Mormons feel they are an oppressed minority in the country," says Michael Zimmerman, a Salt Lake lawyer who served on Utah's Supreme Court for 16 years. "Both groups' self-images are true and false; both sides are deluding themselves." Like many long-term residents, Zimmerman sees many changes in Utah but thinks the relations between Mormons and non-Mormons remain more or less the same: "The way Utah is changing is through urbanization, rather than by the Mormons being more inclusive." A recent poll for the Salt Lake Tribune found that 3 in 5 Utahans perceive a social, cultural and/or political divide between Mormons and non-Mormons. Even the everyday use of the term non-Mormons exposes the divide—nobody talks about the non- Catholics of Boston or the non-Baptists of Atlanta.

Extremes create extremes. Jackie Biskupski, a state legislator and prominent member of the local gay community, says the gay scene has become so visible "partly out of need. The community here can be so oppressive, it almost creates the need for a thriving gay and lesbian community." Outsiders visiting Utah are frequently shocked by the degree of anti-Mormon sentiment that is expressed in conversation by non-Mormons, often quite openly. "People say things about Mormons that they wouldn't dream of saying about blacks or Hispanics or Jews or whatever," says Zimmerman.

But if social relations are evolving slowly, urbanization is happening in a hurry. Some 1.7 million people now live on the Wasatch Front, an almost uninterrupted suburban strip along the I-15 highway from Ogden through Salt Lake down to Provo. The entire valley often has a blanket of brown air hanging over it, the legacy of years of unchecked growth. Now the consensus on unlimited growth is being challenged—from within the state.

When Stephen Goldsmith was 17, he won a high school oratory contest with a speech on "Why I want to be a black transsexual." It was an act of defiance. Goldsmith, who is Jewish, remembers being roughed up almost every week on the way home from school in Salt Lake City when his classmates would turn off to go to the nearby Mormon church and he would continue on straight to go home. Goldsmith, now 47, is the city planner for Salt Lake City, hired by the controversial new mayor, Rocky Anderson, to revitalize the downtown area, block strip-mall developments and open up bike trails and green spaces in the city. But his agenda is broader than that. "We are working on cultural change in a big way," says Goldsmith, a sculptor and former activist who developed affordable housing for Salt Lake's less privileged population before the mayor recruited him to his new job. "Our motto for the Olympics is 'Strength Through Diversity.' Diversity brings vitality." Goldsmith knows that much of what he is proposing to change in

His boss, Anderson, was elected with 62% of the vote against a Mormon opponent in 1999, and Utahans have been rubbing their eyes ever since. Anderson has a yellow-naped Amazonian parrot in his office whose screeches and wolf whistles echo down the corridor of the City County building; Anderson's politics are no less jarring. Now 50 and twice divorced, he left the Mormon church at 18 over "theological issues." He was a trial lawyer for 21 years, including a stint at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Anderson's liberal policies are causing screeches in the conservative state legislature. He champions the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gas emissions, anathema to conservatives. He blocked plans for a megamall on the outskirts of the city, tirelessly campaigns for enlarging the mass-transit network and has put out hundreds of red flags at street crossings for pedestrians to carry, making them easier to spot by drivers. He was outspoken in the fight—which he won—to have beer served at Olympic events.

If Anderson's main battle is with the conservative Republican establishment of the state, he has not missed the calls for greater tolerance from the leadership of the Mormon church. "This is a very important transitional time," he says. "Now we need the same opening from the other side—those in the minority can exercise the same kind of bigotry as they have complained about suffering themselves."

In the end, the plot comes back to the Mormon church. It is impossible to know what kind of debates are going on inside the church, and whether Hinckley's drive for greater openness will be maintained by the next president.

"There is a strong sense in Utah of the inside [the Mormon faith] and the outside," says the writer Tempest Williams. "The vitality of this state is right along that border—the place of greatest reward, but also the place of greatest risk." That is where the plot is still being written. Like all David Lynch movies, it will have many strange twists before the end.

—With reporting by Peta Owens-Liston/Salt Lake City