Why We Should Love the Street Preachers
by Lance Starr
Another General Conference has come and gone. With it, came more disruptions from the bands of “Street Preachers” who regularly show up with their signs and slogans to berate and belittle believing Latter-day Saints. As one member of FAIR who attended Conference this year noted, “The good weather seems to bring out all the kooks and nuts.” Unfortunately, the higher numbers of protestors also seem to bring out even more vitriol and hatred. Especially disturbing was the approximately five protestors who held up female temple garments and proceeded to treat them rudely by blowing their noses into them and rubbing them against their buttocks. Aside from the fact that these men show an unnatural preoccupation with women’s underwear, they were able to provoke at least three confrontations with LDS attendees, one of whom was thrown into jail and given a $20,000 bond for trying to take the garments from one of the protesters.1
Most Latter-day Saints can readily identify with the anger these people felt at seeing the things they hold dear and sacred being desecrated in such a way. It is even more frustrating because we believe these people are using dishonesty to obtain temple garments and temple clothing with which to mock us. It is also maddening that such actions appear to go completely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Let’s face it, if they were sporting yarmulkes to mock Jews or dragging a copy of the Koran behind them to provoke outrage among Muslims it would probably be the lead story on Nightline.2 Unfortunately, bigotry against Mormons-especially when conducted by people the mainstream media consider “fellow Christians”-seems to be one of the last bastions of permissible bigotry.
The “Street Preachers” are actually part of a larger, very loosely structured organization. They maintain various websites and their members appear to operate from a base of various “cells” located throughout the United States. An excellent example of their mission and beliefs is found at www.streetpreachersfellowship.com. They appear to be quite militant in their beliefs and approach toward preaching. As with most fundamentalist evangelicals, the Street Preachers are Biblical Inerrantist, but they differ slightly from other fundamentalists in that they accept only the King James Version of the Bible as authoritative. As a defense for their “style” of preaching, we can look to their tenth “doctrinal statement,” which reads:
We believe that a preacher cannot preach against sin without naming it and calling it for what it is. In like reason, a preacher’s rebuke of sin is worthless on its face, when he cannot personally address the sinners that committed it. To rebuke sin and not the sinner is the generalized ministration of cowards, who for want of fear, preach against things and not people, against actions and not actors, who preach against the committing of sin, but cannot preach to the person committing it. Accordingly, it is the belief of the Fellowship and its members that true Bible preaching cannot be done without naming the sin as well as the sinner, and will stand to the scriptures in support of its members before the saints, and the courts of justice.3
This explains their preoccupation with confronting individual Mormons and terrorizing hapless brides on their wedding day.
Most of the Street Preachers encountered at conference are a type of itinerant preacher. Most of them come from other states, taking time off from their normal jobs and families to travel to wherever they are due to preach. Others travel a national circuit, preaching fulltime. Apparently, they have run into legal trouble in the past because their Web site includes instructions on how to deal with police officers and also cites a litany of court cases they claim support their First Amendment rights to preach.
However, despite their despicable behavior, I believe we should be grateful to-even love-these dedicated, zealous people. Why? Well first of all because the scriptures tell us to. In Romans, Paul said, “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.” But beyond such scriptural admonitions, I think the Street Preachers have done a lot of things for the Church that the Church could never have accomplished on its own, even though they didn’t mean to.
For example, the controversy in Salt Lake City over the Main Street Plaza recently came to a peaceful (and for the Church a positive) end when the Church received the easement which now allows it to control speech and behavior on the Plaza.4 The battle over the Plaza had raged for several months and for a time it looked as if the city was going to retain the easement which would have allowed all sorts of protests and lewd behavior to occur on the Plaza.5 Then the street preachers came with their highly visible, highly publicized behavior on the Plaza, even going as far as disrupting wedding parties taking place at the temple and suddenly the public perception changed dramatically. The sight of an unruly “Street Preacher” screeching mercilessly at a bride dressed in white telling her that she was a “whore” and a “harlot” simply didn’t play well on TV. The sight even prompted the Salt Lake Tribune (which has always had an uneasy relationship with the Church) to call for the city to begin strictly enforcing time, place and manner restrictions on the Plaza.6
When all was said and done, the city relinquished the easement to the Church (for an additional cost) and the Church is now able to control the use of the Plaza, much to the distress of the Street Preachers.7 I do not believe this would have happened (at least not before creating more bad feelings between the Church and city) without the Street Preachers.
Helping the Church regain control of the Main Street Plaza isn’t the only way the Street Preachers have improved life around Temple Square. While people have not noticed, many anti-Mormon ministries that traditionally traveled to Salt Lake every six months to picket the conference have ceased their activities since the Street Preachers set up shop. Such stalwarts as James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries and John Farkas have simply stopped coming. In fact, just a few conferences ago, the Street Preachers were also mocking James White by wearing rubber-heads to simulate White’s lack of follicle prowess while wielding signs that mocked his work.8 Let’s face it, how great is life when one set of anti-Mormons is making fun of another set of anti-Mormons? Moreover, what does it say about the Street Preachers, who’s act is so over-the-top that other Christian ministries don’t want to have anything to do with them?9 The Street Preacher’s act has gotten so outrageous that at the most recent Conference, several agnostics and atheists staged counter-protests of their own.10
Finally, these Street Preachers are so clownish, so over-the-top outrageous that nobody takes them seriously. Several local Christian churches in Salt Lake have apologized for the actions of the Street Preachers and claimed they do not represent a true version of Christianity.11 In fact, after viewing the photos of these pseudo-Christian preachers posted on the FAIR website, Richard Abanes, author of the book One Nation Under Gods12 (which is highly critical of the LDS Church) felt impressed to write a letter to Scott Gordon, the president of FAIR, apologizing for the actions of the Preachers.13 It seems even professional critics of the Church can readily identify how outrageous these people are and how poorly they reflect upon other Christians.
Of course, Mormons have long recognized that such people actually do more good for the Church than they do harm. We know that right-thinking people are not impressed by volume and vitriolic diatribes (as one counter-protester’s sign said, “I’m Louder So I Must Be Right!”). Such actions have always aroused curiosity about the Church rather than turning people away from it.
In fine, we really needn’t worry about these people and their bigotry and hatred. In one sense, the most damaging thing we can do to them is simply ignore them. If they aren’t getting attention, they aren’t accomplishing their goals and for such people, being ignored is more intolerable than being violently confronted. We must remember the words of Christ as he hung from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” The Doctrine & Covenants commands us that we should forgive all men, no matter how badly they have wronged us. As to the Preachers and their vile accusations, the D&C says, “Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.” D&C 121:16. In the end, it is best if we remember the words reportedly spoken by Brigham Young who once said, “If they leave us alone we shall convert the world. Persecute us, and we shall do it sooner.”
1 Three Arrested or Cited as Conference Goers Clash with Street Preachers, http://kutv.com/specialsection/local_story_279120931.html (accessed October 7, 2003).
2 This observation is supported by the recent case of U.S. General William G. Boykin who drew sharp criticism in the press and the ire of several U.S. Senators for comments he made about Muslims that were considered by some to be highly inflammatory. His remarks were delivered in uniform to evangelical Christian groups over the past year and a half and included comments describing the United States as battling a “spiritual enemy” named Satan. In another instance, Boykin said President Bush “is in the White House because God put him there.” And discussing a 1993 battle with a Muslim militia leader in Somalia, he said: “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” His comments, rather tame by most Street Preacher standards, were reported in most major newspapers in this country, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and theBoston Globe. See e.g. Esther Schrader, “General’s Comments to be Investigated; Two Senators Say His Comments Denigrated Islam; Rumsfield Say Probe is ‘Appropriate’,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2003, A20; Bradley Graham, “Pentagon to Probe Remarks Made by General; Boykin Angered Muslims, Lawmakers,” Washington Post, October 22, 2003, A02.
3 http://www.streetpreachersfellowship.com/Doctrine.asp (accessed October 8, 2003).
4 Heather May, “Plaza Deal Done,” Salt Lake Tribune, Tuesday, July 29, 2003 A1.
5 The battle over the Main Street Plaza may not be over. The ACLU and the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City have undertaken another lawsuit challenging the city’s sale of the easement to the Church. However, the language of the Tenth Circuit Court’s previous decision seems to make it clear that the sale of the easement was an appropriate remedy.
6 ”Keeping the Peace,” Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, January 1, 2003, AA1.
7 Brandon Griggs, “Preachers Plan to Test Plaza Rules at Conference,” Salt Lake Tribune, Saturday, October 4, 2003.
8 White authored a book about the King James Only controversy and arrived at the conclusion that the King James Bible is not the only bible that Christians should use. Thus, he incurred the ire of the Street Preachers.
9 It brings to mind the case of the ninety’s rock group Guns ‘n’ Roses that was known as much for their use of hard drugs and for their hard rock. At one point, the band fired their drum player claiming he was doing too many drugs, to which late night comedian Jay Leno asked ironically, “How bad does your drug habit have to be to get you kicked out of Guns ‘n’ Roses?”
10 Rhina Guidos, “Two Conference Goers Arrested in Run-in,” Salt Lake Tribune, Monday, October 5, 2003.
11 The Street Preacher’s activities were considered to be so degrading and outrageous that many of local evangelical ministers were personally disgusted. Two dozen of them held a press conference on the steps of the LDS Conference Center to issue an apology to the LDS members of Salt Lake City and express their heartfelt desire for a higher level of discourse when it comes to theological differences. See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Salt Lake City Clergy Call for Civility Toward LDS,” Salt Lake Tribune,http://www.sltrib.com/2003/Oct/10222003/utah/104229.asp (accessed October 22, 2003).
12 See the review of Abanes’ book at http://en.fairmormon.org/One_Nation_Under_Gods.
13 Personal correspondence on file with the author.