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Rheta Johnson: Saints and sinners

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

SALT LAKE CITY -- Everybody talks about religion here, though people come at it a couple of ways. Nobody seems to shy from the subject, though only about half the city is Mormon. 

 

It would be like avoiding the subject of football in Birmingham, Alabama, to ignore Mormonism in the shadow of the iconic temple. 

 

"He is LDS," someone will mention, meaning a member of the principal branch of the Latter Day Saint movement of Restorationist Christianity. That's a mouthful, but then to those of us not used to identifying the LDS and non-LDS it is easy to slip and say ." 

 

In Birmingham you'd say, "He's an Auburn fan," or, "He's a Bammer." 

 

Religion even rears its head in the state-run liquor stores, where you can buy Five Wives Vodka distilled in Ogden, Utah. Then there are the breweries where Polygamy Porter teases "Why have just one?" and suggests that consumers "Take some home to the wives!" The label is a lascivious scene of a near-naked man surrounded by three nearly-bare women. 

 

If you sit down for a meal, however, and order a drink, the waiter, by law, must ask, "Do you plan to eat?" 

 

Fortunately, for me, the answer was always an emphatic "Yes." 

 

I went downtown to Temple Square -- it's what you do in Salt Lake City -- which is behind a wall and across the street from a church-owned shopping mall. The mall houses major chains, which, by contractual agreement, cannot open on Sunday.  

 

Behind the wall, the grounds are immaculate and impressive. Flowers and statuary and tourists with cameras are everywhere. Outsiders can't tour the temple -- not even all Mormons can go inside, as I understand it -- but you can visit the famous tabernacle where the choir sings. 

 

Inside the tabernacle, visitors are given a demonstration on the remarkable acoustics. A missionary stands a football field away at a lectern and tears a newspaper and drops a pin in a plate and you can hear both without any amplification. 

 

When the domed-roof tabernacle was built in 1864, there was no electrical amplification, but Brigham Young was determined that everyone hear his sermons. I guess it wasn't as easy to be a far-reaching spiritual leader in the days before microphones and telephones. Jimmy Lee Swaggart would still be behind a plow in Ferriday, Louisiana. 

 

Young missionaries are all around Temple Square, smiling and guiding and being so polite you eventually grow suspicious. It's a nice and dramatic change to see youth acting solicitous to their elders. Nobody slams a door in your face or runs over you when you're walking too slowly on the sidewalk. 

 

At first I decide it might be something other religions could add to their tenets -- subservient youth -- but by the end of the tour it makes me more than a little nervous. No young men are hitching up their low-rider jeans, and no young women have tattoos. All of a sudden it's eerie. 

 

Greeting-card racks in regular old convenience stores have cards that congratulate new missionaries, and some of them are even funny. One I saw depicted two young women surveying a mountain of luggage and saying, "That's about all I need for the mission trip." 

 

I think about buying one for its novelty, but then realize that's not kosher. I think I'm more comfortable where football is the religion. 

 

 

 

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