Alpine Church got a phone message recently from a Latter-day Saint upset about our billboard. As the pastor at Alpine with the most experience with Mormonism, the message was forwarded to me. The current billboard says: “Four locations. Twelve services. You choose.” The caller was distressed about how anti-Mormon the billboard is and how much it spews out hate for the Mormons (his words). He wondered if we could possibly be any more anti-Mormon than that.
I called him to try to give him a different perspective on the billboard. I left a message with my personal phone number, inviting him into a conversation, but unfortunately he chose not to return my call. I’m sure I would have learned something from such a conversation. But here’s what I wanted to explain to him: almost 1/3 of people raised LDS are leaving the Mormon church. About half of those try to find a new spiritual home in a traditional Christian church. That means: in Utah there are thousands of people disaffected with Mormonism, but who are looking for a new way to connect spiritually. The billboard is for them. It’s not a dig at Mormonism. We simply want to communicate to the religiously disaffected that if they try Alpine Church, its going to be different from what they’re used to. To encourage them to try church again, we want to help them overcome their stereotypes of what they think church is going to be like. They are probably used to a system where you don’t have a choice which congregation to attend. In a similar vein, speaking to that audience, previous billboards have said, “Wear jeans to church” and “Church caffeinated.”
I was also hoping to explore with this caller what he means by “anti-Mormon”. Because drawing attention to coffee at church seems pretty tame on the larger scale of activities that could be called “anti”. I do want to be a good neighbor and not needlessly offend or poke a stick in someone’s eye. I called the guy back because I wanted to learn whether my perspective is out of touch. But the more I thought about how many Latter-day Saints throw around the “anti-Mormon” label, it makes me wonder what it really means and how it helps the conversation. I think that in some ways it’s parallel to the term “homophobic.” The gay community has concerns about how religious people think of them. Some of those concerns are legitimate. But the term “homophobic” seems to me to cut off meaningful dialogue by conjuring up a purely emotive response. It seems like a stereotype that insiders use to paint outsiders in a negative light without meeting them or hearing from them. (Evangelicals do the same thing with our own vocabulary.)
But my point is not about the gay community. My point is that many Latter-day Saints seem to use the term “anti-Mormon” to cut off conversation and protect themselves from “outsiders” or critics. Again, the term conjures up a purely emotive response. It conveys a stereotype fueled by memories of the Mormons being harassed and expelled from Missouri and Illinois. Thus it thwarts meaningful conversation and mutual understanding.
I had a more positive experience a couple of years ago. I found one of my books listed on a Mormon blog under the category “anti-Mormon”. I reached out to the author of the blog and asked him what he meant, and explained why I did not consider my book “anti-Mormon.” The book was not an attack against Mormons or Mormonism nor an attempt to bring down the LDS Church. For the first time, this blogger realized the inherent stereotypes in the label, admitting that it didn’t really convey any useful information, and created a different category – at least for my book. That was a good conversation.