Mormon scriptures on Indians show objectionable side of Olympic hosts

(By Suzan Mazur, Financial Times; Feb. 9, 2002.)

SALT LAKE CITY - As 6,000 accredited members of the media arrive in Salt Lake City this weekend to report on the XIX Winter Olympics, an equal number of unaccredited journalists are expected in town.

Utah's authorities hope this uninvited group will focus on the geography of Great Salt Lake and the scenic canyon lands. But it is more likely they will feast on the controversies surrounding Mormonism, particularly Utah's robust polygamous subculture and the religion's hotly disputed scripture.

Polygamy was written into Mormon doctrine by its founder, Joseph Smith, in 1843, and then officially abandoned in 1890, following a demand by the federal government. However, despite federal and state laws, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning all plural marriages, polygamy has remained etched in the Mormon culture, and the laws have been largely ignored and unenforced for more than half a century. Last year's trial of bigamist Tom Green was the exception.

Green is serving a five-year sentence in Utah state prison at Bluffdale, a few bus stops from the Olympic Village, and, ironically, home to the Allred polygamists. Green's wife, Linda, has been lobbying lawmakers in Washington to decriminalize polygamy.

An estimated 50,000 people still live in plural marriage groups in and around Utah amid accusations of brainwashing, of young women being forced into marriages with older men, and of them being trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependence.

Utah officials say "there's a lot happening" to tackle the problem, but there has been only one legal development of note since the Green trial -- a court order to pay $290,000 to two women from the Harmston fundamentalist Mormon sect for the Church's breach of contract in failing to produce Jesus.

Utah residents opposed to polygamy say they will use the Winter Games to publicize their cause through press conferences, radio broadcasts of secretly taped activist conversations with officials from the attorney general's office, and bumper stickers reading "Utah's Other Olympic Sport ? Polygamy" and "Utah's & Arizona's Secret - Child Brides."

Tapestry Against Polygamy, a non-profit watchdog group, will hold a press conference and distribute sweat-shirts and coffee mugs with its logo. The American Civil Liberties Union has helped arrange protest zones where activists will be welcome to demonstrate in an orderly fashion. In response, pro-polygamists on the Utah-Arizona border have prepared press packets.

Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, thanks to its network of 60,000 missionaries and powerful proponents. Singers Donny and Marie Osmond and U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and presidential candidate, are among the most high-profile. But others include Brent Scowcroft, former President George Bush's national security adviser, and significant numbers in the FBI and the CIA.

About 70 per cent of Utah's population are Mormons, and state officials are concerned about the image millions of visitors and viewers around the world will have of the state as it comes under the microscope. Polygamy is not their only concern. Controversy also surrounds the origins of Mormonism and its scripture.

The Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints state: "We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes, that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent ? "

And Mormon founder Joseph Smith claimed an angel in upstate New York in the 1820s revealed to him that ancient Israelites interbred with Native Americans. "(The angel) said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham."

Tom Murphy, an anthropologist and "latter-day Mormon skeptic" at Edmonds College in Washington, accuses the Church's theology of bordering on cultural genocide. He says millions of faithful Native American Latter-day Saints pay the Church at least 10 percent of their income because they are "led to believe the Book of Mormon is an historical record of their ancestors who were reportedly cursed by God with a dark skin for their wickedness." They are told that, if they give up their own traditions and convert to the Christian gospel, they can again become "white" or "pure."

Many theories have been put forward as to where Smith found his ideas for the Book of Mormon, which he is said to have translated from writings on ancient metal plates delivered to him by the angel.

The book tells of two tribes, the Nephites and Lamanites, who migrated from Israel to a region in present-day Mexico and Guatemala, where, after a violent war, the victorious Lamanites interbred with the local Indians.

But Neil Bradman and Tudor Parfitt, who have found a DNA link to the ancient tribes of Israel among the Lemba people of South Africa and elsewhere, rule out such a link between Native Americans and ancient Israelites.

And most scientists who have looked at Indian origins, including Oxford's Bryan Sykes and Russian molecular geneticist Miroslava Derenko, agree the Indian gene pool is Siberian, not Middle Eastern.

Many Native Americans are unhappy at the efforts to remake them as Mormons. "If this is what Mormons are up to, we consider this to be ethnocidal indoctrination and we will take appropriate action," said Tom Goldtooth, national director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has lost its understanding of sacredness."

The Mormon viewpoint is unlikely to change. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, supported by the Mormon Church and part of the faith-based Brigham Young University, vigorously promotes sales of titles related to the Book of Mormon, with the proceeds aiding further research. And Brent Hall, a foundation director, confirmed it planned to pursue the genetic link through research.

This means that, long after the Winter Games caravan has moved on from Salt Lake City, the controversy will be raging. But how many of the world's journalists will still be around to report on it?

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-2002. Reprinted with permission.