A friend brought this article to my attention: Church to Vote on Vandalism Charges. Apparently, a church member, who did not serve a mission, is claiming that such incidents of disrespect are extremely rarely. I wish they were.
I served a mission in Bolivia. Given that the vast majority of people are Catholic and that traditionally Mormonism has singled out Catholicism as apostate Christianity, it’s not surprising that many missionaries were open in their contempt for that faith. In one town I lived in, we passed the Cathedral of San Roque every morning on our way to knock doors. My companion would invariably ask, “Do you know what the name of that church is? It’s La Iglesia Grande y Abominable.”
The virgin shrines came in for quite a bit of mockery. The Virgin of Copacabana is the patron saint of Bolivia’s national police force, and when we visited the shrine, she was dressed in a cloak bearing police markings. There followed mocking and laughter by more than a few missionaries in our group until our guide, a priest, let them know that he spoke English and had understood every word they had said. A particularly awful phrase was, “She’s tighter than the Urkupiña (referring to the Virgin of Urkupiña).”
Fortunately, I don’t know of anything quite as appalling as the actions of these three kids in Colorado, but it reflects the widespread belief that Mormonism is somehow different, better, than other religions. It is God’s true church, and these missionaries are going out into the world to combat darkness and error. And, unless things have changed in the Missionary Training Center, they are not taught to respect local religions. The result is a religious and cultural arrogance that is palpable.
In my mission, this arrogance also showed itself in the way American missionaries treated Bolivians in and out of the church. White anglo missionaries commonly referred to Bolivians as “brown units” and treated them as if they were either stupid or naive. Routinely missionaries treated local church leaders as if they didn’t know anything and needed instruction from the smarter, more educated American missionaries.
But I’m not really sure this is entirely the fault of the missionaries. Their entire lives they have been pushed toward this one goal: go out and serve a mission. It is the crowning achievement of their lives (at least until they get married). They are told they have been sent out by direct revelation from a prophet (and they have the letter signed by autopen to prove it); from childhood they sing: “We are as the armies of Helaman. We have been taught in our youth, and we will be the Lord’s missionaries to bring the world His truth.”
If they are to bring light to a darkened world, shouldn’t we expect them to hate the darkness in the same way that they love the light? Tolerance is a virtue enshrined in the LDS Articles of Faith, and the late Gordon B. Hinckley, whatever you think of him, repeatedly preached tolerance and respect for our non-LDS neighbors. But there will always be a tension between tolerance and institutional arrogance, and as these missionaries demonstrate, arrogance often wins.