Vol. 24 No. 7 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - September 2007
Anti-missionaries on the Road
By Dan Barker
Deconverts Steve Benson and Dan Barker
I thought I had heard everything. After years debating theists, I didn't think I could ever be surprised by anything coming out of the mouth of a believer. Until. . . .
One spring, Steve Benson and I were driving his Jeep Wrangler back to Phoenix from Salt Lake City, where we had performed our Tunes 'N 'Toons show before an irreverent audience of former Mormons during General Conference week of the Mormon Church. Steve is the editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic. South of the Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, outside of Page, we stopped at a vista hanging over the baked-pink high desert.
Native Americans were displaying crafts by the side of the road and I walked over to a stand where a Navajo named Bobby H. was under a rainbow-colored umbrella selling pretty pottery and jewelry made of turquoise, stone and silver.
"I'm also a Native American, on my Dad's side," I said, "from the Lenape tribe. Delaware Indians."
Pointing to an array of necklaces, I asked, "Why are you selling Christian crosses?"
I didn't think he heard me, but a few seconds later he said, "People buy them."
"But don't we natives have any pride?" I went on, a former minister who is now an anti-missionary. "The European invaders came to this continent with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other. They took our land, our buffalo, our history, our freedom--and they obviously took our dignity, else we wouldn't be so eager to embrace the religion of our oppressors."
I was imagining I had scored a point, until he said, "They gave us hope."
Yes. He was hoping tourists would purchase his crafts by the side of a road. Tourists living on stolen land.
"So you're a Christian?"
"I'm a Mormon," he replied slowly.
"A Mormon?" Steve was walking toward us, so I raised my voice. "Well, here's someone I think you should meet."
Former Mormon Steve Benson talking with a Native American Mormon convert (under umbrella).
Steve came up to the table. "You're a Mormon?" he asked.
"Yes. Eighty-five percent of the Navajos are Mormons," Bobby replied. "Are you too?" Steve suspected that figure was inflated, but he let it drop.
"I used to be a Mormon," Steve said. "I'm an atheist now. My grandfather was Ezra Taft Benson, the president of the Mormon Church and Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower."
Bobby was looking at the bumperstickers on the back of Steve's Jeep, one of which said: "There's A Sucker Born Again Every Minute."
"The Mormon religion has been a great blessing to our people," Bobby said.
"But it is demeaning to the Indians," Steve, the former missionary, replied.
"The Book of Mormon says that the Native Americans are descendants of the wicked Lamanites, who were cursed with a dark skin for their disobedience to God."
Bobby looked back at Steve's white face.
"How does that make you feel?" Steve asked.
"We deserved it," Bobby replied.
I was so shocked at those words that I couldn't think what to say, emotion trumping thought for a few seconds. I stepped back to take a photo. (above)
"The Book of Mormon said the Indians will become 'white and delightsome' if they convert," Steve continued. (The original Book of Mormon indeed had those words, but the church has since changed them to "pure and delightsome" after suffering charges of racism.)
"But that's true," Bobby said.
He went on to say that the Mormon Church proclaims that when the Indians converted, their skin actually started lightening.
"My skin will change color," he asserted.
"What color will it become?" Steve asked.
"I don't know. Maybe purple," he joked.
"That's not going to happen," Steve responded.
"Well, all I know," Bobby replied, "is that the Church has done a lot for me, because I strayed as a youth."
We talked for a few more minutes. We encouraged Bobby to actually read the Book of Mormon and the bible, to learn something about the history of his faith, and to think about how Christianity has oppressed groups of people, but little headway could be made while other shoppers were visiting the booth.
Before leaving, I bought one of his necklaces. One without a cross.
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. His tunes are featured on FFRF's CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" and "Beware of Dogma."