Jana Riess: Latter-day Saints behaving badly

While the church has handled the Cody Temple controversy politely if resolutely, some individual members have not.

What is it about zoning conflicts that brings out the worst in people — perhaps especially people of faith?

In October 2021, the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that it planned to build a temple in the town of Cody, Wyoming. The church wasted no time in making that happen.

The plans went ahead so fast, in fact, that residents are complaining that the church began warehousing materials and construction products on the site before it had obtained full permission from the town to build the temple on the given location, a residential neighborhood where no other churches or religious buildings are found, as the Casper Star-Tribune has reported.

Another main issue of contention seems to be the height of the proposed tower that will front the temple. While the main body of the building will be modest, the tower, a soaring steeple over 100 feet in height, will be out of character with the neighborhood, residents say. No buildings nearby are more than 30 feet tall.

Locals have repeated many times in the news media that it’s not the fact of the temple to which they are objecting. They’re fine with Latter-day Saints building a temple in their town. They are questioning only the location, specifically why this one religious group is getting an exemption to build in a neighborhood that is zoned for residential use only.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This is the spot in Cody, Wyo., where the church wants to build a new temple.

The church has filed two recent petitions with the city to enable it to move forward with its plans. It has also held at least one community meeting, where it displayed renderings of what the proposed temple would look like.

I can imagine that church leaders have been surprised by the pushback. Cody is a tiny community of barely 10,000 residents, with fewer than 30,000 in all of Park County. There are just 3,890 Latter-day Saints on the official rolls, or about 13% of the county’s population.

While the church has handled the controversy politely, if with an aura of bewilderment, some of its individual members may not have, allegedly taking this as an opportunity to further alienate the town with their open hostility and juvenile behavior. While all evidence is circumstantial that church members have defaced signs, the church has treated these incidents as if their own members had taken part in the vandalism.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) This map shows where in Cody, Wyo., the church plans to build a new temple.

Newspapers have covered the ways that some area Latter-day Saints have stolen or defaced the signs by the committee that is questioning the location of the proposed temple. At least one sign was vandalized with a crude drawing of Satan, implying that anyone who would question the height of a spire on a Latter-day Saint temple must be in league with the devil.

Another defaced sign depicted blood dripping from the words of the sign, as though challenging the location of a temple implies that retributive violence could occur.

Mormonism has long thrived on having a well-developed persecution complex, and it seems as though some residents are tapping into that history. Some of the disfigured signs suggest they are simultaneously claiming to be a beleaguered minority and the group that is primarily responsible for founding the town. “We made Cody,” one reads.

Latter-day Saints did not found Cody, as a newspaper notes, and in fact did not settle there until the 1920s, several decades later. (And that’s saying nothing of the ridiculous notion that white people were the first people in the area, and the only question is which white people settled it, Latter-day Saint or gentile. Plains Indians and other Indigenous groups had lived in the area for centuries.)

The persecution complex is on full display in the unfortunate comments from a Latter-day Saint bishop in Cody. The Cowboy State Daily reports:

Todd Christensen, a bishop of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward in Cody, said the message clearly is anti-church, not about building codes.

“I’m pretty sure when they say, ‘not in my neighborhood,’ the same argument has also been extended to ‘not in my town’ and in some instances ‘not in my county,’” he said. “At some point you have to put your foot down and say that’s not right.”

He believes it is no different than if someone was trying to argue against Black children being allowed to attend school in their area or members of other religions from being allowed to live somewhere.

“That’s like saying, ‘It’s not about race, but I just don’t want colored kids to go to our school.’ ‘We like Jews but they should just go somewhere else,’” he said.

Ah, yes, the “Jews and African Americans have nothing on us in terms of how we’ve suffered” approach to revisionist history.

Never mind that Latter-day Saints have to reach far back to the 1830s to find meaningful examples of violence directed against us, and even then we are only talking about dozens of people rather than millions. No, it’s really all about us and how we are fighting the Lord’s battles in a world that is dead set against us, and how we are only ever the victims of bigotry, never the perpetrators.

I want to extend kudos to the church’s stake presidency in that area for having none of this. In a letter from the stake president and his counselors in Cody, they reminded members of church President Russell Nelson’s recent General Conference talk about peacemaking. “True disciples of Jesus Christ are peacemakers,” Nelson said, and “anger never persuades.”

As the zoning debates ratchet up in the weeks to come, we can only hope that area Latter-day Saints start to heed that counsel.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)