Two words greet the millions of people who approach Temple Square each year: "Visitors welcome."
The same words can be found on virtually all LDS wards, and they are genuine. The last-minute announcement that news reporters would be banned from Temple Square during General Conference for the first time in anyone’s memory does not signal a withdrawal of the church’s welcoming arms.
No. This is about trying to manage a story, and the clumsiness is plain to anyone who has watched the church struggle over the years with the world’s perception. It recalls a time when paranoia won out over confidence for the church, a time perhaps best capsulized by the Mark Hofmann episode, when a diabolical crook exploited the fears of church leaders by selling them phony historical documents that they bought and buried, thinking they were hiding evidence of church flaws from the public.
This time, the fear is a few hundred women who will congregate near the Tabernacle Saturday seeking standby tickets to this evening’s all-male LDS Priesthood session. The women have been told repeatedly they won’t get in, so their effort is a symbolic act. A similar episode took place at the last conference in the fall, when news cameras and reporters chronicled a gentle confrontation between a male usher and members of Ordain Women outside the Tabernacle.
Not this time. The church announced two weeks ago that news photographers would be banned from Temple Square during Conference, and then the ban was extended to news reporters Thursday night. Temple Square is private property, and the church has the legal right to do what it’s doing. The Salt Lake Tribune will abide by the ban.
But the ban only escalates the controversy, particularly in the smartphone/social media age. Unless the church’s security force is going to start grabbing cell phones from the women, the images — and the story — will race across the Internet for all to see. All this ban has done is turn what was almost a routine story into a possibly viral event.
"We’re not a weird people," former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley famously told "60 Minutes" griller Mike Wallace in 1995. Hinckley’s tenure was marked by a growing self assurance of the faith’s place in the world. Hinckley knew the church’s history was not without blemishes, and he knew that not everyone would agree with its beliefs. But he also knew that the church shouldn’t hide from those beliefs.
What would Gordon Hinckley do? It’s impossible to know, but it’s safe to say it wouldn’t be this. Not long after he became church president, he held a most unusual lunch meeting at the Harvard Club in New York City that brought together top news people from national magazines and networks. In the meeting President Hinckley was asked about the church’s reputation for secrecy.
"There is only one situation that we don’t talk about, and that is the sacred work that takes place in our temples," Hinckley said. " ... We enter into covenants and ordinances there that are sacred and of a character that we don’t talk about in public. ... But the door is wide open on everything else."
That door closed this weekend.
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