© 1999, Dave Caron
For better or worse, the Church has
entered a new season of public scrutiny, and the latest, hottest
topic for journalists of every stripe is opening the book on Mormonism.
Part of this rush to examine our faith is because Latter-day Saints
are in the spotlight as Mitt Romney makes a bid for the Presidency
and Harry Reid is currently the Senate majority leader. That does
not explain it all, but for whatever reason, we are becoming used
to seeing our faith and its history recited, recounted, misinterpreted,
skewed, and sometimes slammed by pundits and reporters.
Suddenly it is open season on “the
Mormons,” and, in some cases, journalists are exercising
their voices to cast disdain that they would never get away with
any other minority groups or religions.
In an article called “Mormon
Mystery,” World Magazine asked, “Why does
the world love hearing so much about the Mormons anyway?”
Among their answers: “First, the cultural elites have never
tired of warring with theism, and Mormons make for an easy target.
It's as if the elites are saying, "Look, Jo Smith was a fake.
Brigham Young was a despot. The Book of Mormon is clearly an unhistorical
work of dementia. And thus, your faith — like all faith
— is nonsense."
Some of the attention seems to only
foment prejudice, and as members we may be sometimes chagrined
at what we read or hear with this new media spotlight. It is easy
to be thin-skinned and defensive as the media sometimes casts
our beliefs in a negative light. We feel hurt and marginalized
to see what we hold dear treated shabbily.
As Latter-day Saints, we love our
church, we prize our history, we hold certain things sacred, and
it is maddening to see them taken out of context. It would be
an easy time to let the natural man respond inside of us with
fear or anger or dismay or shame. Attack the cub and watch out
for the Mama bear. But perhaps a different invitation is being
extended to us.
It is at this fascinating moment
that the most comprehensive, thorough and lengthy production ever
created about the Church is going to air on PBS. In two hours
each on Monday and Tuesday night, April 30, and May 1, The
Mormons, will air as an unprecedented collaboration between
two PBS news series, “Frontline” and “American
Experience.” As the documentary unfolds, will Latter-day
Saints cringe in dismay or nod in recognition? Will we feel misrepresented
or see ourselves in a way that feels familiar and accurate, saying,
“Yes, that’s me. We have been defined with a sure
brush stroke.” Word from those who have had advance screenings
is that there will be moments of both.
In other words, this may not be the
documentary to invite all of your friends over for a “share
your religion” night, but neither is it going to be mass-produced
and mailed out by anti-Mormons who see it as the tool to blast
The first half of the documentary
examines the restoration of the Church to the death of Joseph
Smith in the Carthage Jail, while the second part recounts how
the Latter-day Saints evolved from being a hated and detested
minority to a mainstream, powerful group who have succeeded across
the landscape from politics to business.
Helen Whitney’s Approach
Helen Whitney, whose previous credits
include Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero and John Paul
II, is the award-winning producer, director and co-writer
of the documentary, which has been three years in the making.
She is, as you might surmise from
her credits, fascinated to probe and understand the religiously
devoted, and she took on her examination of the Church with great
enthusiasm and dogged determination, speaking to hundreds of Latter-day
Saints including historians, scholars, and General Authorities.
She listened to the devout and the dissident, flew to Ghana to
see the new face of the Church in Africa. She pored over books,
attended a few Church meetings, ambled into the living rooms of
Latter-day Saints to talk with them about why this Church matters
so much to them.
She told the Deseret Morning
News that one of her prime objectives was to remove the stereotypes
of the Church. "I hope that most of the stereotypes —
ideally, all of them — will be blown away,” she told
the newspaper. "Because so many of them are just based on
ignorance. Ignorance about Mormon history, ignorance about Mormon
Our living room was one of those
she visited, sweeping in as she took in our gospel library and
paintings and noted how our Church was not just a Sunday religion.
She had read our book The Gathering, Mormon Pioneers on the
Trail to Zion and had questions. They were such gracious,
interested questions, so much in sympathy with our history, that
before long we were telling her about our pioneer ancestors, with
all the emotion we feel for them, as if she were an old friend.
We gave Helen that book and others we had written. She treasured
them and thanked us profusely. When we visited her home in New
York City, there were our books on her coffee table. Helen is
hard not to like. She is passionate about her work.
It is that scene in our living room
that explains for us what this documentary is like. Helen Whitney
has a similar sympathy for people of all points of view, regarding
her topic, in this case, the Church. She likes to hear them out
and put it on camera.
And, of course, like any of us, she
comes with biases. The questions she asks, her choice of what
made it into her four-hour documentary from the 40 hours of footage
she shot, reflect her own sensibilities. While we visited, for
example, she made an offhand remark about the underlying violent
component in religion, a point of view that seemed completely
foreign to us.
Thus, she says, the documentary she
had created is respectful, but not uncritical.
Michael Otterson, the official Church
spokesman and Media Relations Director, said, “Our approach
from the very beginning, some three years ago, was to recognize
that these films are being made by an independent filmmaker, and
not by us. That means that right from the start we need to recognize
Helen Whitney will examine many issues, which seem important to
her. The approach she takes with all her films is to ask probing,
searching questions, and then to find the most articulate, thoughtful
people she can to address those questions from different perspectives.
She then lets the viewers draw their own conclusions. For that
reason, reaction even from Latter-day Saints, will likely be across
the spectrum, and the same applies to the general public.”
Michael Otterson continued, “Our
strongest complaint with the media is that it tends to trivialize
and treat the Church in a superficial way. Whatever people may
feel about these programs, they are not superficial.”
I cannot help but contrast Helen
Whitney’s thorough approach with an interview I did some
years ago with a very prominent, nationally recognized author
who published a book of “Mormonism.” As I had read
the book, I felt like I didn’t recognize “ourselves”
in it. It was like looking in a funhouse mirror, where some features
were almost there, but not quite, but taken as a whole, the reflection
is alarmingly off.
I asked him: “Did you go to
church for a few weeks as part of your research for the book?
Did you read The Book of Mormon and any of our other standard
works? Did you read any of the First Presidency messages in the
Ensign? Did you listen to General Conference?”
He answered no to all those questions. He had, however had a disc
of articles from Sunstone that he had researched thoroughly,
which explained why he quoted so frequently from one rather dissident
I remember that interview often when
I see this author quoted as an expert on the Latter-day Saints,
and his book in the Mormon section of libraries throughout the
In the Eyes of the Beholder
So, Whitney’s documentary is
not superficial in this way, but what to make of it may lie in
the eyes of the beholder. Last Friday, two press reviews (Wall
Street Journal and the Orlando Sentinel), were extremely
positive. The WSJ said that compared to the average portrait of
other religions, the treatment of the Church "couldn't be
There are moments in the documentary
of eloquence as members bear testimony. The Salt Lake Tribune
Betty Stevenson, a black recovering
addict recently out of prison, describes opening the door to
missionaries in her inner city apartment.
They came in and told me the most preposterous story I had ever
heard in my life. They told me about this white boy, a dead
angel and some gold plates, Stevenson says in the film. And
I thought well, LSD ... I thought now that's the church for
Now Stevenson is an LDS Relief
Society president in Oakland, Calif., and says those missionaries
saved her life. "Not drinking, not smoking, not cussing
every word, using the Lord's name in vain. I tell you, to come
into the church because I wanted that, to me it was like a pearl
of great price."
The New York Sun reported
on another ringer in the documentary:
[There is] the touching testimony
of James Madison, a victim of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans,
who recalls that the Mormons “hit the ground running”
following the disaster. While federal assistance was still in
the mail, the Mormons were already there, not merely handing
out food and water but cleaning up and working. If a Mormon
missionary had knocked on his door before the storm, Mr. Madison
says, his only object would have been to get rid of him as quickly
as possible. “It’s a little bit different now. They
got into my heart and they’ll never stand on my doorstep
again without being invited into my house.”
Yet moments like this are countered
by interviews with the disappointed and the drop-outs. Rock musician
Tal Bachman describes his mission in impossibly grueling terms
— undrinkable water, killer heat, poisonous toads, but perhaps
worse of all the constant surveillance of his own personal mission
"I was completely into it,"
Mr. Bachman says. "If my mission president had asked me to
blow myself up like a suicide bomber, I would have said sure.
Where should I go?" Brendan Bernhard, who authored this article
in The New York Sun, wrote, “He still seems wound
up just thinking about it,” and also calls The Church of
Jesus Christ, “the strangest religion in America,”
an impression the reporter got after seeing the documentary.
Feminist Margaret Toscano gives details
of her excommunication. Artist Trevor Southey describes having
the typical life of a Latter-day Saint, married with children,
until he confessed his homosexuality. He reports, "Being
gay in that culture is beyond hell because family is the center
of Mormonism," Southey says. "I have no bitterness toward
the church, which surprises me. I loved it dearly and I still
love it. I love the Mormon people ... It makes me terribly sad
at times that I can't be in that place."
All in all, in the second two hours,
the Church is often portrayed as a rigid home for believers, a
place where you toe the line or are hopelessly marginalized. Since
Whitney’s avowed goal was to blast the stereotypes of Mormons,
those who have seen the documentary say it is surprising and disappointing
that she spends so much time on the Mountain Meadows Massacre
Terryl Givens, a professor of literature
and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told
The Salt Lake Tribune that Whitney is “an exceptionally
gifted filmmaker” who has, for the most part, “achieved
a good balance,” but he “takes strong exception to
the film's inclusion of footage of some modern polygamists and
their leader, Warren Jeffs, who is charged with being an accomplice
to rape for conducting a marriage to which the bride objected.
The Church of Jesus Christ discontinued its official practice
of polygamy in 1890.
‘This does a grave disservice
to the Church in light of Helen's stated objective to get beyond
the stereotypes,’ Givens said. ‘Nineteenth century
polygamy is part of Mormon history and deserves to be told. But
there is no possible justification for including Warren Jeffs.
It is misrepresentation at best and defamation at worst.
“’That would be like
"showing photos of serial killer David Berkowitz, "Son
of Sam" in a piece on modern Judaism,’ said Givens,
who was interviewed at length for the film. ‘They are trying
to turn PBS into Big Love or Jerry Springer.’”
The treatment on the Mountain Meadows
massacre takes up more than 19 minutes of the film and she allows
speculation that Brigham Young gave his approval for the deed.
The Wall Street Journal report, though, looked at this
On balance, however, the documentary
presents even these particularly sensitive topics in an understanding
way, overall depicting Mormons more as victims than as anything
else. By the time we learn about the 1857 massacre, for instance,
we have heard how for decades Mormons were attacked, killed,
harassed and driven ever further westward from their homes by
other Americans and, in some instances, by threats from the
government itself. Whatever really happened at Mountain Meadows,
viewers are left with the sense that as awful as it was, the
massacre was the result of decades of persecution and the paranoia
this created. Much of the other history recounted here could
be described as a profile in courage of a misunderstood people.
Back to the Invitation
The media glare upon the Church gives
us all an invitation — and it is not to give a knee-jerk
reaction, nor, having been offended, to join in the polemics.
As Church spokesman, Michael Otterson said, “If this is
a time when the Latter-day Saint faith is going to be defined
for millions of people, then the Church ought to be a part of
that public discussion and debate.”
Others will define us, if we, as
a people, do not step forward and enter the dialogue and define
ourselves. Being thin-skinned and easily offended will not bless
ourselves or the Church.
Brother Otterson said, “We
ought to see every opportunity for serious dialogue with thoughtful
people as one to be taken, not avoided. Members love their Church.
None of us likes it when we see or hear things that we think are
unfair. But our obligation is then to help clarify, increase understanding,
challenge the media's superficiality if necessary. Just adopting
a persecution complex will do nothing to help others understand
We help others understand the Church
and its people by talking with them in calm, clear tones. If they
have false ideas, we can clarify them. If they have prejudice,
we can ask them what they understand about the Church that has
yielded them such negative reactions. If they are angry, we can
respond with love and confidence. We can say this perhaps easier
than we can sometimes do it, but it is a journey worth taking.
The Church isn’t interested
in becoming a part of the mainstream, if it means being like everybody
else. But if it means being part of the dialogue, then that is
critical. We need to know what our neighbors understand and if
what they understand is accurate.
This may be the time to ask your
friends, “What questions do you have?” Remember World
Magazine said that everybody loves hearing about the Mormons.
In Doctrine & Covenants,
we read, “Therefore, verily I say unto you lift up your
voices unto this people … speak the thoughts that I shall
put into your hearts, and you shall not be confounded before men;
For it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment,
what ye shall say. But a commandment I give unto you, that ye
shall declare whatsoever think ye declare in my name in solemnity
of heart, in the spirit of meekness in all things”
(D&C 100: 5-7).
We may not always have the perfect
or complete answer to every question that someone poses, but we
can answer from our hearts about why the gospel matters so much
to us. When difficult topics are raised — like polygamy
— Brother Otterson notes, “There is plenty of good
information available for those who are interested. All of these
topics aren’t addressed in Sunday School, where the focus
is on encouragement to lead better lives.
Brother Otterson said, “Religious
discussion is always challenging because people have their own
viewpoints and experiences. There is much about the LDS faith
that is challenging to other Christians, and part of our message
is to emphasize the differences. It shouldn’t surprise us
if some people push back. They did in Jesus’ day and they
have since the days of Joseph Smith. But as President Hinckley
has said, that doesn’t mean we can’t be mutually respectful
in our discussions.”
You can begin joining in the dialogue,
right now, in four ways:
- First, at www.lds.org
, later this week, a section will open up that will invite people,
including members, to comment on the PBS documentary. This is
not a blog, but an opportunity for the public to send in their
thoughts and impressions, some of which will be published.
- Second, at Meridian Magazine,
we invite you to send in your reactions to the documentary to
and, if we get enough of these, we will publish them in an article
later this week.
- Third, become familiar with the
On Faith blog moderated by Sally Quinn of The Washington
Post and John Meacham of Newsweek magazine. Among the many
columnists representing different faiths is Michael Otterson,
representing the Church. This blog is found here http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/
You can submit responses to questions posed and in the next
week the question will be about the Church. This may be a good
time to try your hand at writing.
- Fourth, start talking to your
neighbors and friends.
“Verily, I say unto you, lift
up your voices unto this people.”