Eli McCann: LDS General Conference — a time for protests, proselytizing and ... bagpipes

Turns out, the downtown gatherings are indeed something to shout about.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, controversy swept Salt Lake City and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when locals complained about a deal between the two entities to sell a portion of Main Street. The idea was to allow the church to develop it into a small plaza connecting two of its large downtown properties. There were various iterations of the arrangement through the years, carved up and amended due to threatened and filed litigation.

Ultimately, a federal appeals court heard complaints that converting the formerly public space into a private religious site with all the supervising and content restrictions that entails might violate the First Amendment. The court ruled the sale of the property to the church was constitutional and the matter ultimately faded from the public conversation. Most of this story is a distant memory now for those of us who were around to witness the fight. Everyone else likely assumes Main Street heading northbound always ended at South Temple.

I was a teenager when the city held one of its televised City Council meetings in which it had invited the public to attend and voice their concern or support for the proposed sale.

Latter-day Saints lined up to express their appreciation that this small section of Main Street was going to be put to better use, in their view. Another crowd — of what I’m sure I thought of as “antagonists” at the time — gave speeches about the right to free assembly and their discomfort with the idea that a government can sell important public property to the area’s predominant religion.

Several critics who showed up to speak were familiar to me — loud, boisterous, bearded protesters I had spotted surrounding Temple Square before and after General Conference sessions. They usually hoisted large signs insisting conference attendees repent and start listening to Jesus, something the attendees no doubt believed they were already doing by going to conference. Some of these signs contained vulgar claims about church founders and current leaders. The most clever of them included large colorful drawings of the devil burning the wicked. (I always liked those ones.)

I don’t know how long this has been a practice, but at least at that time, alongside the protesters, you could always find Latter-day Saint counterprotesters, adorned in JODI dresses and Mr. Mac suits, singing hymns. Or holding up “free hug” signs. Or yelling back at the beards. Or (seemingly out to hurt everyone all at once regardless of creed or conviction) playing bagpipes.

A precursor to yelling on social media

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) To the sounds of bagpiper Tim Fowers, Latter-day Saints flow into the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City in April 2023 before the start of General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The circus scene appeared to grow with each passing year. The battle to out-noise one another, probably counterproductive to the broadcast’s administrative efforts inside the conference venues, didn’t die down when sessions began. The sidewalks’ various stakeholders stayed firm at their posts, continuing to shout down and drown out one another’s attempts at screamed evangelism. There they’d be, waiting and ready for the conference attendees to exit their meeting and trudge bravely through the crowded public spaces that now resembled a bizarro religious version of the New York Stock Exchange on a history-making day.

I like to think of this arrangement between Latter-day Saints and their protesters as a preview to what social media would ultimately become: strangers yelling non sequiturs at one another while trying to crowd the space with their own opinion in an effort to drown out anything else. Maybe it was impossible for a religion founded during the Second Great Awakening to avoid this chaotic, contentious and raucous fate.

I lived in an apartment near Temple Square in my late 20s. This was after I stopped going to church. I always knew when General Conference weekend had arrived, not only because of the obvious increase in minivan traffic, but also because the bagpipes, shouts and strained singing filled the atmosphere on Saturday morning and didn’t let up until at least dinnertime on Sunday.

I confess I haven’t conducted any real investigation on this, nor have I ever seen any data. But I’ve always assumed no one surrounding Temple Square on General Conference weekend is engaging in any sort of effective missionary work. I could certainly be wrong about that. Maybe the bearded brigade has plucked away a Latter-day Saint who was on the fence about whether fire and brimstone are really all that bad. Or maybe the white shirts and ties holding up copies of the Book of Mormon and declaring it true has changed someone’s mind about whether there should be an expensive private reflection pond on Main Street.

It sounds like I’m being glib, and I probably mostly am, but I do really wonder about all this effort we put into yelling at one another. If it doesn’t change hearts and minds, isn’t it a waste of energy and well-being? I once heard that advocacy without a sincere attempt to persuade only serves the activist. Is the yelling motivated by a sincere attempt to persuade? Maybe. Maybe the screamers and singers really believe their efforts might amount to a successful recruitment.

Or it might be the case that everyone is down there in our state’s capital a couple of times a year damning one another to hell simply because they find it fun. I doubt that’s true. Or at least, I hope it’s not true, because that somehow makes it all more depressing.

Temple Square-off

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The plaza pool at Temple Square reflects the holiday lights in November 2023.

The old Main Street/now plaza is currently under reconstruction, along with much of the rest of Temple Square and the surrounding church properties. I don’t know what the plaza will look like in its next aesthetic iteration, but I assume the rules will continue to forbid protesting there. And I assume that won’t stop the protesters and counterprotesters from filling public sidewalks in the surrounding areas. No, the great and loud biannual missionary war will continue in some form.

Maybe there will come a day when religion doesn’t require anyone to actively recruit those who don’t want to be recruited, a day when people are entitled to peacefully live their beliefs with sufficient confidence that their example is evangelism enough. Maybe the bagpipes will get mysteriously and irreparably punctured.

Until then, I’ll be here in my house, trying my darndest to avoid the free hugs.

Tribune humor columnist Eli McCann.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshiped) dogs. You can find Eli on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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