By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2002
SALT LAKE CITY -- It would be crazy to leave here and not at least try to find out more about the sacred underwear.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, for short) may never again be so open and welcoming to such irreverent global scrutiny, and it's hard to think of anything else about the faith I'd rather know. Never mind about the angel Moroni, the golden plates, the forbidden coffee and the spirit babies. Let's just move right to the good stuff:
What is the "garment"? Do all Mormons wear it? Is it a onesie or separates? Is it true that women have to wear it under bra and pantyhose? Does it really have a Masonic symbol sewn over each nipple? Is it cotton? Poly-blend? Comfy? Restrictive? Spiritually protective? Magical?
"Now that's a question I didn't expect to get," says a helpful (everybody's so helpful) man, greeting visitors at Temple Square.
"Can I ask you if you're wearing any?" I ask him.
"Let me see if I can find someone who can help you."
He shuffles off and it's hard to know who of us is more panicked. I flee into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building across the street -- the former Hotel Utah, an ornate turn-of-the-century structure renamed for the Mormon founder -- and take a marble staircase to the basement, which turns out to be an intrepid move: I walk right into the Beehive Clothing Co., which sells all sorts of LDS essentials. There are pictures of Jesus, the Book of Mormon in every language, educational videos, brochures, postcards of temples and church leaders . . .
And at a counter in the back, they've got your Mormon underwear. They sell an entire white wardrobe here -- frilly church gowns, neckties, dress shoes. It's like a Pat Boone Outlet. There's a "Family Resources" catalogue with helpful drawings of the various undergarments for sale. The nice lady behind the counter even says I can have the catalogue. While I'm looking at it, a young man in a ball cap, fleece vest and loose-fitting Old Navy carpenter jeans walks up to the counter and orders "five bottoms," explaining that he's from out of town and in a laundry bind.
"Is there a 35?"
"They only come in even sizes."
"Okay, 34, then."
His total comes to $51.32. They talk about the weather, then he takes his bag of underpants and leaves.
This is as exciting as it gets buying the garment -- no secret ceremony, no prayers, no covert delivery system.
The underwear is part of a covenant with God that Mormons consider private, but the information is plainly out there: Just as the Jewish yarmulke and the Christian "WWJD?" bracelet are reminders to their wearers of their faith, the Mormon garment is an unseen reminder to "saints" (as LDS church members refer to themselves) of who they are. In young adulthood, when and if a Mormon man or woman goes through the "endowment" ceremony at the temple, they are given the garment and told to wear one every day thereafter. Nothing comes between a saint and his underwear.
It looks like long underwear, or mid-thigh length -- think of bloomers, or old-fashioned swim trunks. It comes in one piece or two. The women's version can be frillier, with a scoop neck and cap sleeves. The underwear is supposed to keep its wearer modest, and by design it discourages women in particular from wearing provocative clothes. Spaghetti straps, tube tops, bare midriffs, micro-minis, Daisy Duke shorts -- not in the garment, you don't.
Some Mormon lore also invests the garments with a power to protect -- there are stories about people who got through car wrecks, floods and other calamities unscathed, and thanked the godly power of the underwear. (Steve Young, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and devout Mormon, told "60 Minutes" in 1996 that he didn't wear the garment during games, but did elsewhere.)
The garment usually has a symbol over each breast: a carpenter's square and a V-like compass, and a small buttonhole slit above the right knee. When a garment is worn out, according to "Mormon America: The Power and the Promise" by Richard and Joan Ostling, the sacred symbols are snipped off and the rest can be discarded or used as rags.
Interestingly, much of the information about the garment comes from anti-Mormons, who view it as just another freaky reason to rail against LDS -- a way the church represses itself and its people. The symbols stitched onto it set off the Freemasonry alarms of conspiracy theorists. In the wide-open "boxers or briefs?" culture of America, it's seen as a very odd thing indeed to be quiet and reverent about your unmentionables.
For a minute, let's not talk about underwear and examine the past few weeks in what some people believe is a theocratic, Mormon-run state.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Olympic Winter Games was how little interaction there was between the saints and the world at large. Bars stayed open later than state law allows; revelers walked around city streets with open containers of beer. Rules were broken, and Mormons looked the other way.
There was speculation that Salt Lake would play host to a church-driven "Molympics," heavy on the message and firmly restricting the social vices the "Gentile" world brings with it. But it wasn't. Church President (also known as prophet) Gordon B. Hinckley ordered his flock to turn the volume way down on the proselytizing usually associated with his religion.
It would be easy to say these weren't the Molympics, except they were: Intense hospitality is a cornerstone of Mormon pride. The major players on the Salt Lake Olympic Committee are Mormon. The Tabernacle Choir shared top billing with the celebrities; Temple Square got almost as much TV time as Bob Costas. The very theme of the games -- "Light the Fire Within" -- is straight out of a more self-determined, Oprah-affirmative modern Mormon theology.
Light is a big theme with Mormons. You come to Earth from the light, and you return to the light. The light guides you on Earth. We all have a light inside us. Light, light, light: The Child of Light, the key character in the opening ceremony, is a streamlined and more secular version of the children of light featured in a giant musical stage show, currently playing at the 21,000-seat Mormon convention center theater, called "Light of the World."
At the Games' opening ceremony in Rice-Eccles Stadium, the crowd was clad in matching white ponchos, while the Child of Light, on ice skates, was being chased by an evil spirit, and the pioneers were finding their inner lights.
The subtle approach, in the end, was a brilliant move by the church: The only religious shenanigans and Bible-thumping at the Winter Games came courtesy of angry other denominations, whose members circled Temple Square with anti-Mormon signs and pamphlets and posters:
"Mormon Jesus Is Satan's Brother," read a sign held by one man. "Ex-Mormon, because the evidence is so overwhelming," read a sign being carried by a woman pushing herself around with a walker. The "God Hates Fags" people waved banners, which they've updated to say "God Hates America," with pictures of hijacked planes flying into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. People stood in front of the temple gate and griped to anyone who would listen about everything that was wrong with Mormons.
Everyone looked nutty except the Mormons, who looked golden.
Underneath, the Molympics rang true and warm.
Speaking of underneath, yes, most of my more personal questions about the garment went unanswered. Mormons I spoke to gave me short answers about the garment, the basic information I'd already heard. They said that many saints no longer wear it, even though your local bishop will often ask as a matter of course whether you are keeping faithful and wearing the garment. Nobody offered to show me theirs.
In a piano bar one night during the Olympics, there was a man from Provo who'd had too much to drink. He talked to me about his various lapses as a practicing Mormon, personal stories about feeling alienated from his family. He spoke of leaving his fiancee, just before the wedding, and struggling with the idea that he was gay. Since we were getting so personal, I asked him if he'd been endowed by the church.
He knew what I meant.
So I asked him if he was wearing the garment.
"That's a rude question," he said, and grew quiet.
Well, I told him, I had to ask. The Mormons welcomed the world, after all, and showed us what they're all about. Showed us almost everything.