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.