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© 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.

Most Comprehensive

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 Church.

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 theology. Ignorance."

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 historian.

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 nation.

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 rosier."

There are moments in the documentary of eloquence as members bear testimony. The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

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 me.

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 supervisor.

"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 and polygamy.

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 way:

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 us.”

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 , 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 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.”

© 2007 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

Maurine Jensen Proctor is the Editor-in-Chief of Meridian Magazine.

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