As the security personnel depart Salt Lake City, so it seems does much of the collective self-doubt that ensued in the months before February 2002, when everybody from bar owners to LDS temple workers were speculating on whether the world would "like us" as we are.

Though a bit of the pre-Olympic angst may linger as public discussion continues over whether Salt Lake City needs more of a night life and Mayor Rocky Anderson pushes his "party-on," it remains to be seen just how much change the Olympics' success bodes for Utah's future.

Yet there is no question that Utah changed the future of the Olympics, according to a longtime observer whose research on the growth of the LDS Church has snagged more than passing notice. And that change had much to do with the uniqueness of the state's moral standard.

Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, said though Utah's conservative populace took a lot of hits from the media early on, that influence had much to do with cleaning up some of the graft that has traditionally been a part of seeking and hosting the Games. A scholar of many faiths, Stark is not a Latter-day Saint but has closely observed the church for more than two decades.

"Where but in Utah would that (international figure) skating committee have gotten in such trouble?" Despite a history of questionable judging practices, International Olympic Committee head Jacques Rogge had already seen what a scandal in Salt Lake City could do, and he stepped in to put a quick stop to the agitation, Stark noted.

"You have this huge moral tone sitting there. Why was the Olympic committee caught in this bribery scandal? It didn't happen anywhere but in Utah. You have some guys there who blew whistles because it made them feel guilty." Yet the cleanup had an ugly beginning.

Utahns were embarrassed when local talk of the Salt Lake bid committee's "gifts" to IOC members and their affiliates became worldwide news. Reporters jumped on the irony of it happening in Utah, postulating that while Latter-day Saints may not drink, some of their number didn't mind dishing out bribes.

"For years, Brigham Young's city in the Great Salt Desert has been trying to get rid of its image as a holier-than-thou Hicksville. Now it has managed it," opined The Economist in February 1999, shortly after the bid scandal surfaced.

Still the same story noted that the city's largest resource — "the Mormon Church" — "remains a vital force in the local economy." It predicted that after the Olympics ended, "the fashion for skiing will wax and wane. But the thing that guarantees that Salt Lake City will continue to grow is precisely what built it in the first place: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

So as the pre-Olympic media focus on polygamy, alcohol and unfulfilled predictions of LDS proselytizing have faded, replaced by mostly favorable news coverage of Utah and its people, Stark finds more than a little irony in the slant of some New York-based media who have pushed the "provincial" label.

"In many ways, Utah is an enormously sophisticated population," he said. noting among other things the state's highly educated labor force, its burgeoning high-tech industry and its pool of foreign language skills and cultural experience inherent in former LDS missionaries. "The most provincial city in America is New York. And what makes it provincial? That no outside media have any impact on it. When we were growing up, we all knew what the kids in New York were doing but they didn't know anything about what we were doing."

Stark noted in particular "Time magazine's snottiness" about Utah in its pre-Olympic analysis. "That was awful. 'Dullsville, Hicksville,' they say. Why is it that flowing Scotch whiskey makes you an international intellectual?"

It's a question many believe will continue to surface locally in one form or another for the foreseeable future as Utahns of all faiths, political parties and lifestyles come to understand in what ways the state will never be the same again and examine just how to manage their differences.

The Economist summed it up this way on Feb. 9: "It is still unclear whether (the church) can rid itself of the . . . feeling it elicits, however unfairly: hostility toward what is different."

Will the Olympics continue to point up the state's cultural differences? It's a story yet to be written, and the conclusions will differ depending on the source. But as the push and pull of public sentiment over Salt Lake politics continues, for the LDS Church the Olympics will be nothing but an asset, Stark said.

A researcher who projected that because of its focus on missionary work, the LDS Church would rise to become "the next world religion, the first since Islam," Stark predicted — to some scholarly scorn — in 1980 that LDS membership would hit 10 million by the year 2000. And it did.

In subsequent years, he has predicted membership of 267 million by 2080, a projection noted in The Economist's Feb. 9 issue. The magazine talked to him about it, and there's no reason to revise it now, he said.

Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said long before the Olympics arrived that the church's greatest challenge is growth. As Utah's image has taken a step up, he and other top church leaders have said they don't expected a boom in conversions, but they do hope the media coverage will help open some doors that have been heretofore closed to the faith.

Stark agrees with that assessment.

"I don't know that publicity will matter when it comes to converts. They (LDS Church leaders) know what I know. I learned from them how conversions are made," and it begins with a good impression that makes people curious. It's not the kind of hard sell that so many predicted the church would engage in during the Games, he said. Rather, it's the respect that has been generated by the way Utahns hosted the world.

"It may make life a lot better for those two kids (missionaries) on the bikes in the sense that people won't throw tomatoes at them. Every little bit helps, but I think the real advantage is more in image things."

And while "the main engine of growth for Mormons is conversion," he's not convinced the church's missionaries are the ones who will actually kindle the major growth he's predicting.

Self-sacrificing young missionaries "make such a good impression for the church. 'You have all these attractive, clean young people who have given up a couple of years of college to come and be with us,' people say. In some Peruvian village, that's a great commitment, and people think if these kids are that committed there must really be something here."

Yet one of the best sources of "reliable converts — those who stay converted," Stark said, are the "friends and relatives and workmates of the convert" who watch the process and become interested themselves. That's where the success of the Olympics will come into play most strongly, Stark believes.

How will people perceive the "restrictions" that so many reporters said Latter-day Saint theology and culture places on members?

"Throughout its history, outsiders have criticized the Mormon Church as isolated, marginal and rigid," the most recent Economist story said. "It has begun to slough off those qualities."

Stark maintains that any organization that is too demanding will turn people away. But research has shown "again and again," he said, that a defined moral beacon is part of what attracts many people to the church.

"It's the strict churches that grow. That's true in Protestantism and across the board. People tend to value religion for how much it costs. When it costs nothing, they see through that.

"People aren't stupid, they pay a great deal of attention to religious choices, whether what they have is what they want. If you ask something of people, you're apt to get it, and if you don't, that's what you get."


E-MAIL: carrie@desnews.com