I live in a small town. We get lots of visitors and they’re all welcome, even the slednecks who take over the town once a year for a weekend of drinking and driving (up the mountain on snow machines). But a group has finally found the limit of a friendly tourist town’s welcome: Christians.
Which Christians? About fifty Christian activists from the anti-abortion group Operation Save America who are in town for the next four days. Here’s how the local paper reported yesterday’s activities: “The Kansas-based anti-abortion group Operation Save America displays graphic images of dead fetuses Wednesday on Town Square.” In the morning, they line the streets leading up to the local high school and elementary school with signs showing bloody fetuses and biblical slogans. This weekend they will target the annual Boy Scout elk antler auction held in the center of town. It is fair to conclude they are focusing their graphic and offensive (but legal) message at the youth and children of the town. They are an obnoxious bunch of Christians. Their activities are problematic on so many levels.
1. They are actually promoting abortion. The protesters are too busy offending people to notice, but the end result of their activity is to create support for the doctor in town who performs abortions — apparently the only such doctor in the state of Wyoming and who is called out by name on their signs — and to unite the community against the Christian protesters. A local blog piece, “abortion crazies met with humor, love,” about sums it up. But there is also anxiety and wariness: the doctor’s clinic here in town was bombed a few years ago (no injuries).
2. They are uniting the community. Jackson Hole United is a local group that has formed to combat the visiting Christians. Its motto: We are pro-life and pro-choice citizens of Jackson Hole standing for civility, compassion and love, united to protect our community and our children. Bumper stickers and banners sporting the slogan “civility, compassion, and love” have shown up all over town this week. Ironic, isn’t it? Diverse townsfolk uniting around civility, compassion, and love while conservative Christians line the streets promoting incivility, division, and anger.
3. This kind of puts local Christians in a tricky situation. Local churches have actually tried to defuse the situation. Here’s a quotation from another report in the local paper:
Leaders called on Paul Hayden, the pastor at Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole, to respond to questions about Operation Save America’s intentions.
Hayden said he and other religious leaders in Jackson met with representatives from the anti-abortion group in an attempt to compromise. He said the local leaders explained various churches’ efforts to counsel and assist women facing unplanned pregnancies to give them options to abortion.
“They rejected us and our work,” he said. “They basically said, ‘We don’t care about you. We care about us and our agenda.’”
It’s natural to try and distance yourself from these protesters. Hence the sign a community member is holding in the abortion crazies article: “Obscenity and hatred do not live here.” But I haven’t seen any local Christians out there with signs reading, “These people aren’t Christian.” From a Mormon perspective, that’s an interesting omission.
4. They’re still fellow Christians, aren’t they? I haven’t had the chance to strike up a conversation on this topic with any of the local ministers yet, but I am afraid it might go something like this: I am a local Latter-day Saint who opposes elective abortion in general but, in line with LDS policy, I recognize that abortion may be appropriate in some circumstances. I oppose the intentionally offensive tactics used by the protesters and applaud the firm but measured response of the community. The minister then responds: I’m glad to hear that you support our approach and share our goals. We need more people like you in our community. It’s just too bad you belong to a non-Christian cult. Those protesters are doing everything wrong and are hurting the good Christian work we are doing in this town. But at the end of the day, they are still fellow Christians, aren’t they?
Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some ministers would conclude that the actions of the protesters are so inconsistent with Christian ethical norms that they are deemed to be outside the fold and that I, despite being a Latter-day Saint well within those norms, might be seen as falling within the fold. But I suspect not.
It seems like there is something wrong with that likely response. My sense is that it is inconsistent to reject any connection to the views and actions of the Christian protesters, yet at the same time affirm religious fellowship with them. That is an odd inversion of the position of accepting the similar moral views and practical actions of Latter-day Saints, yet rejecting religious fellowship with Mormons. Or perhaps those seemingly inconsistent positions are tenable for political purposes (where coalitions of diverse groups are necessary to achieve desired political ends) but not for religious purposes (where fellowship or communion are defined in religious terms, not for political or social ends).
So here’s the central question: What consequences are there to how one draws the boundaries of religious fellowship or membership? Am I wrong to think that local Christians who draw the boundaries of Christian fellowship to include the obnoxious protesters (but exclude Latter-day Saints) are, by so doing, implicitly expressing support for what the protesters are doing, despite verbal statements to the contrary?