Kim Östman has an M.Sc. in communication microelectronics and is a soon-to-be Ph.D. candidate in comparative religion at Ã…bo Akademi University, Finland. Tentative thesis topic has to do with using the label “Christian” as a boundary maintenance device within Christianity. He is also a co-founder of the European Mormon Studies Association and has published at BCC Papers.
A public open house at the new Helsinki Finland temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was held between September 21 and October 7, 2006. A total of just under 56 000 visits were logged at the temple, situated in the city of Espoo, Finland. Some of these were naturally Latter-day Saints who visited even multiple times, but in any case some tens of thousands of Finns visited the temple of a religion often thought of as foreign in the Finnish religious landscape. Of Finland’s 5.2 million inhabitants, only 4 500 are Mormon.
The church’s own goal was about 25 000 visitors. Personally I thought even 15 000 would be good, knowing how Finns feel about public religion and especially some minority religions. So looking just at the numbers, the open house can said to have been a resounding success.
The open house and the temple was dealt with fairly broadly in various media. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Mormonism in Finland has never received so much publicity in this short a time. According to a database I’ve put together there have been over 100 articles or stories in the radio, on TV, and in newspapers and magazines around the country. Some of these were notices distributed by the Finnish News Agency (STT) to various newspapers, others were original articles and stories.
In general it is interesting to note how ideologically and geographically wide the spectrum of publications is. In addition to general newspapers, there was coverage or commentary for example in spiritual magazines, a professional magazine on stone masonry, and even an article in a magazine for cleaning professionals.
Publicity is very important for churches and religious movements. In this way they can share information about themselves and seek to construct a familiar and safe image of themselves. On the other hand, publicity is a two-edged sword for churches and movements that are smaller in membership numbers and that have come from abroad. The LDS church is one of these. Because these movements are easily construed as being foreign and because of the “average Finn” nature of many journalists, the movements are often dealt with in ways that implicitly or explicitly mention and promote an image of otherness. On top of that, the image that the media gives of smaller churches is easily neutralized in a reader’s or listener’s mind, if he or she doesn’t have another point of contact with these churches. Thus churches themselves have a special interest in using the media to diminish their foreign image.
The reporting around the open house at the Helsinki temple is pretty versatile. I will here take up a few examples through short quotations. The discourses represented by the quotations can be seen as the media promoting otherness and as the Latter-day Saints tearing down an image as “the other”. At the same time it must be mentioned that other kinds of discourses can also be found in the publicity around the temple: the media may for example emphasize the “normal” traits of Mormons, while the Mormons themselves may sometimes distance themselves from other churches. Thus the examples below should not be thought of as a representative selection that would give a full picture of the perspectives of the various actors. The quotations have been translated into English from either Finnish or Swedish.
The general media
“On top of the trees is something like a church tower, but on top of it there is a golden angel.” (Horisontti, Yle Radio 1 [nationwide], 24 September 2006)
“By the way, the temple doesn’t, to the surprise of many, have any large hall as our churches do, Lutheran and otherwise.” (Ylen aikainen, Yle Radio Suomi, 3 October 2006)
“Americans are very good at dealing with large crowds punctually and efficiently … [the group of people] is kept in control very well, and the atmosphere is upheld in a really professional style.” (Ylen aikainen, Yle Radio Suomi, 3 October 2006)
The whole is “undeniably ‘American’ and has little in common with cool Nordic or austere Finnish design.” (Hufvudstadsbladet 20 September 2006)
Religious media or actors
“Duplicit ecumenism” (Sanansaattaja 40/2006)
“But the thing which makes Christian truth superior [to Mormon teachings] …” (A letter to the editor by a Free Church pastor in Espoo, Länsiväylä 22 October 2006)
“An American faith is conquering Finland” (Guest column, Kristillisdemokraattinen viikkolehti 40/2006)
Latter-day Saints themselves
“One of the world’s fastest-growing Christian churches.” (A press package distributed to journalists, p. 5)
“We do for example use makeup and watch TV, we do normal things.” (Helsingin Sanomat [nationwide] 21 July 2006)
“There is nothing secret there. We think there are sacred things there, and now we have the chance to show it and tell about it to people.” (News, Yle TV 2 [nationwide], 19 September 2006)
It is “essential that there is a high, strong tower on Finnish churches.” (Päivän Peili, Yle Radio 1 [nationwide], 19 September 2006)
What kind of thoughts do these otherness-promoting or otherness-diminishing statements generate? What kind of an opportunity to promote or diminish foreignness, otherness, and stereotypes are Mormon temple open houses?