I consider myself a tolerant person. More than tolerant, I embrace the differences between myself and others. I seek to better understand and celebrate what makes us separate and what makes us the same. I’ve marched for gay rights, written against discrimination, and teach my children that prejudice is bad.
And yet I found myself a hypocrite in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.
My interest in visiting Temple Square, a 35-acre complex in the heart of the city owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints, was primarily due to the architecture. I wanted to see the stone temple that took 40 years to build and the domed building where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practices and performs. I’m a bit of an architectural nut and am especially drawn to the grand and ornate (which is ironic since I’m a Frank Lloyd Wright fan.) At any rate, I was looking forward to seeing what this religion had built, but gave little thought to what it espoused as truth.
The Temple did not disappoint. The spires reached to the heavens from a massive foundation that suggested safe harbor could be found within. The high stone walls and iron fence surrounding the temple hinted that being granted such refuge might be a little difficult, but there was no doubt the building was beautiful. It succeeded at inspiring awe and reverence even from my vantage point well beyond the sacred, 9-foot thick walls.
Filling the rest of Temple Square are other elaborately constructed buildings: two visitors’ centers; the Tabernacle, where concerts are held; various museums and libraries, where impeccable genealogy records are kept; former residences of Brigham Young; and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where I came face to face with my own bigotry.
I was looking for lunch.
The Salt Lake City Visitor Passes we’d been given by the local tourism board include $10 towards a meal at the Lion House Pantry, a small cafeteria-style restaurant on the edge of Temple Square. After taking photos of the temple itself, we’d gone in search of our free meal, but got sidetracked when the kids spotted a sign for the Family Search Center, a library of sorts where the public can access the church’s genealogy records.
“Can we go look up Reints?” Emma asked.
“Probably not,” I told her. “That’s not exactly how it works.”
“Can we at least go look at it?” Devin asked.
I checked my watch and decided we had a few minutes before my stomach would revolt.
We pulled open a heavy, wooden door and stepped inside a white, stone building resembling an upscale hotel. A small concierge desk was manned by a woman with white hair and bifocals who asked how she could help us. She pointed us to the direction of the Family Search Center, patiently answered my question about the multitude of brides seen going in and out of the temple at once, and then politely asked us where we were from.
“Florida,” I answered quickly and assured her we didn’t need anything else. I thanked her, dismissed ourselves, and ushered my children protectively to the next room. I was, I realized, suddenly on alert.
In the next room, a partially sunken research library held couches and computer terminals. I kept my family at a safe distance on the elevated hallway, only permitting my children to look over the railing at the search center. I immediately declined when another smiling, bespectacled woman asked if we wanted to get a free family photo. I put a possessive arm around both kids and insisted we were just passing through briefly. Further down the hall, where we’d stopped to read a poster about a stewardess who had survived the Titanic sinking, I rejected the same offer from yet another retiree.
“I just saw your kids and thought, ‘Oh, they might like a family picture taken’,” the woman smiled at me.
“Thank you, but no,” I smiled back, all the while herding my own stewards around the corner. “Let’s get out of here,” I told Jared when we were out of ear shot.
Outside, I admitted to having felt uncomfortable.
“Yeah, I could see your skin crawl,” said Jared.
Shame washed over me. Shame and confusion, a little self doubt and frustration, at what may or may not be human nature.
It made my skin crawl?
If someone had used those words to describe their experience in an Islamic mosque or Jewish temple, I would struggle to choose between shaking my head in pity or railing against their closed minds.
What was going on with me?
I thought for a moment that maybe it was the presence of religious wealth and power that made me uncomfortable, but then I remembered that I’m Catholic; we own a country, not to mention some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. Furthermore, I’ve been to the Vatican and I didn’t once feel unnerved by the evidence of a sprawling and influential organization.
“Maybe you were suspicious of their real motives,” Jared suggested.
I recalled arguments I’ve had with people who have said that being around Muslims make them uncomfortable because, well, you know. I’d insisted that being afraid that a woman in hijab was a terrorist was ludicrous at best and prejudiced at worst, and yet here I was being suspicious of an elderly woman in a floral dress. Was I afraid that she’d tempt me with home-cooked carbs or kindly point me to the wrong bathroom and then laugh about her hijinks with her fellow volunteers?
Was I afraid she’d try to tell me more about what she believed?
If I’m honest with myself, yes.
I put my guard up against attempted conversion, guarding my children as fiercely as I would my wallet from door-to-door meat salesmen. I took pictures of their holy place, walked into their buildings asking questions, and was afraid that they be so bold as to try to share their faith with me. (After all, what other reason could they have for asking me where I was from?)
This puzzles and saddens me.
I’m confused because, as I’ve said, I am not usually afraid of different perspectives. I don’t protect my views but rather enjoy rolling them around with others and seeing what new creation comes out in the baking. I’m also not wholly unfamiliar with Mormonism or Mormons, thanks to the Internet. Some of my best friends are Mormons (or, OK, some women I really, really like.) I think the principal of the “magic underwear” is pretty cool and I know that polygamy has been forbidden by the church for decades (and don’t really care how many people someone else marries, actually.)
Surely, I am not fundamentally opposed to or afraid of Mormons.
Except, he saw it made my skin crawl.
As a liberal, I find myself wondering if it’s socially acceptable for me to make judgments about this traditionally conservative faith and its followers. It’s ignorant to wonder aloud if the man in the turban is going to blow up your plane, but it’s understandable to want to defend yourself from a smiling old lady offering free photos.
Maybe it’s because they weren’t asking for my tolerance or acceptance; they held the position of host and perhaps I prefer to give my compassion to those who beg for it from the position of minority. Perhaps it’s easier than I thought to be suspicious of those who smile benevolently from a place of power.
Maybe it’s just human nature to guard against that which is different.
Maybe none of us, not even liberals, are immune to that instinct.
I hope I can learn to do better.