THREE MORMONS IN the national spotlight made intriguing ethical decisions over the past few weeks.

• Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller didn't attend Game 4 of the NBA playoff series between the Jazz and the Lakers because it was played on a Sunday.

• David Archuleta sang John Lennon's "Imagine" on "American Idol" but left out the anti-religious verse.

• Another "American Idol" contestant, Brooke White, stubbornly stuck to modest clothes.

The reaction among fellow LDS Church members and other Utahns ranged from deep pride to strong criticism. "Mormons are really concerned about identifiable markers between themselves and the rest of society," says Brian Birch, an ethicist at Utah Valley State College.

Miller took the brunt of the criticism, though we should all compliment him for letting an ESPN.com writer join him while Miller drove up into the Wasatch Mountains during that Sunday game. The resulting story gave us insight into his decision and his personality, and that's helpful and commendable.

For Miller, attending Sunday games clashes with proper Sabbath observance. So he didn't go. But some objected, complaining Miller was a hypocrite because he profited from the game and his employees still had to work.

On Thursday, ESPN.com humorist Bill Simmons wrote that he heard another discordant Jazz note:

"Even though it happened 10 days ago, given that Utah capped off a Game 4 victory over the Lakers by blasting 'Shook Me All Night Long' from the loudspeakers on a Sunday afternoon, there's no doubt Brigham Young is still doing 360s in his grave at 155 mph. I mean none. He might be spinning for the rest of the summer."

For many, these three situations appear in stark relief, right or wrong, black and white, but they're far more interesting than that.

"There really is a set of dilemmas," says Birch, who is working on a book about Mormonism and Christian thought for Oxford University Press. "On the one hand it seems Latter-day Saints want to see themselves as being apart from the world. On the other hand, (LDS Church) President (Gordon B.) Hinckley said, 'We're not weird.'

"So how do you negotiate the space between being a peculiar people but not weird? How soiled can you be in popular culture and all that comes with the business culture? There's a kind of balancing act between hypocrisy and pragmatics, where people want to be realistic but want to be seen as maintaining a certain set of principles."

The tension is constant. Church-owned KSL-TV refuses to air NBC's 25-year-old hit "Saturday Night Live" but continues to air shows like "Lipstick Jungle." The Marriott Hotel chain, founded by a prominent Mormon family, offers adult movies.

Many make an argument about professions, Birch said. For example, I own a business that wouldn't be profitable if it didn't operate on Sunday or sell cigarettes and beer. Or I have to work on Sunday because my profession demands it, and that's part of what it is to have a job and to be involved in a free-market society. Others say, change professions.

Birch also says there is a "sliding scale of implication." If I think someone shouldn't play football on Sunday, do I watch football on Sunday? If I disapprove of a store being open Sundays, do I shop at that store on other days of the week?

"How complicit are you in perpetuating something you see as contrary to your values or beliefs?" Birch says.

If David Archuleta made a moral decision not to sing that verse, the question could be why sing the song if you won't sing all of it?

If Miller had approached him, Birch would have had him list the morally relevant issues.

"If he didn't host the game, it could be a breach of contract, his employees could lose their jobs, it could be a public relations disaster for the church, for Miller and for his businesses," Birch said. "Another morally relevant issue would be the question of his status as owner of the Jazz and his identity as a Latter-day Saint. Another would be how the public nature of the issue is impacting his decision."

Ethical dilemmas are universal. ESPN has them. But Utah's singular culture does have a way of generating some strange and often fascinating quandaries, Birch says: "It comes back to this tricky situation between weirdness and peculiarity."


Utah County Bureau Chief Tad Walch lives with his wife and five children in Provo, their home for the past 21 years. E-mail [email protected]