Saturday, May 05, 2007

Non-Mormons and PBS "The Mormons"

The much talked about PBS production The Mormons was supposed to be groundbreaking. Despite what the producer has said, it didn't have anything that would change anyone's views on Mormonism - in fact, reinforces some. That is the view of many LDS, including myself. Not that the documentary wasn't well made, because it did have a lot going for it. There was nothing horribly wrong with it other than an expected slant that could have been worse.

However, I had no idea what the average non-Mormon thought. Almost anyone who seems to have watched the show has been A) Reporters, B)Mormons and C)former or disgruntled Mormons. There is one thing I think has been missing everywhere I have gone on the Internet; non-Mormon reactions to the series. Now, I don’t mean pot-shots from “unredeemable anti-Mormon or anti-religionists,” but thoughtful people. After all, this show was supposed to be as much for non-Mormons as about Mormons.

If my lack of finding responses means anything, I don’t think very many non-Mormons actually watched the show. Believe me, I have looked everywhere and found little (other than very negative blog comments) where everyone is going. Even the PBS and Newsweek responses have been 90 percent Mormon defenders and 10 percent negative detractors. Did the “world” just watch it and shrug its collective shoulders? I searched the web to find out. As I said, it wasn't easy.

What I found was interesting, and not surprising. I made sure that (either the main entry or the blog comments) were from those who knew little about or interacted seldom, if at all, with the Mormon experience.

No matter how much we might want to try and change perceptions, the Scientology relationship was everywhere:

If Mormonism sometimes looks as bizarre as Scientology, it has also done a lot of people a lot of good. If Mormonism can seem as square as the Chamber of Commerce, it has also had to survive as much persecution as any radical group. If Mormonism looks as sci-fi and made-up as "Star Trek," well, how did other major religions look when they were only a little over a century old? It's a great story, thoroughly researched and quite decently told.

and the weirdness factor just gets bigger:

I was discussing this with the wife as we watched the series the other night, and made the same point you did that a lot of mainstream religions have some pretty wiggy beliefs too (transubstantiation, anyone?). She had watched more of the doc than I had, however, and thought that a lot of the Mormon mythology was on a whole different level of random nuttiness. That is, it seemed more rooted in one
particular guy's psychosis, as opposed, say, the more widespread yearning for immortality embodied in resurrection myths. It was the kind of stuff our 8-year-old would come up with in a particularly scattered fever dream.

What is perhaps the most talked about aspect of Mormonism, in connection with what they already knew and what they saw in the documentary, is Mormons as people. They are the nicest and most friendly people, but believe absolute unbelievable rubbish:

The Mormons I've known (as a population) have been remarkable for their politeness and stability. I don't think this is a sampling error, since I've heard the same from many other people. I also think the characteristic must have something to do with the religion, though that's more contentious, since it seems a significant deviation from the behavior of the rest of the population without other obvious cause . . .

I make no claim that Mormon society is without flaws nor that there are no evil Mormons. It's a big population. But it looks to me (as an outsider) to produce better results in practice than any number of more-mainstream churches.

A respondent states:

It's true that the practical-minded aspects of the religion -- self-reliance, preparedness, and community -- are nothing but laudable. There's a fascinating split between its nutty origins and mythology (and the polygamy) and the sensible, real-world, day-to-day social attitudes of its adherents.

Yet another blogger states in a more political/historical response related to the above viewpoint:

It is remarkable, the film says, that the Mormons did such an about-face and externally became part of the American capitalist mainstream, particularly from the 1950s on (having had to drop polygamy and then racism). But internally, the church seems like an authoritarian, communal or collectivist “cult” perhaps, but one which is enormously successful in providing for members who believe and practice its tenets. It does present a certain paradox.

The point seems to be that non-Mormon viewers don't see the relationship between Mormon theology and Mormon behavior; other than related to polygamy. Even with polygamy they don't understand the theology other than as an excuse. it is almost (unless they think in terms of "getting away with something") as if theology and ethics or morality are separate issues. Mormon people are great, but Mormon theology is horrible. Never mind how they might relate.

One non-Mormon blogger recognized the problem that the documentary had in explaining Mormonism. Something was missing to make a rounded understanding:

It was very interesting in many ways. I learned a lot about *what* happened in the between 1805 when Joseph Smith was born and 1896 when Utah joined the Union but am left with no sense of "why?"

Joseph Smith comes across as charismatic, ego-centric man of little or no spiritual or moral depth. Why would the first and second generation of believers follow him, sacrifice their homes and lives, swallow repugnant new revelations, etc? They endured incredible suffering to do so - surely "why?" is a critical part of the story. But there was almost no glimpse of Mormonism's inner life.

Perhaps that will be explained in the second half - what is the spiritual core of the Mormon faith?

There is no answer if the viewer found that "why" question answered in the second half. It is good that the non-Mormon didn't just take at face value whatever was talked about on the program as the final word. What is upsetting is that this was the only time a person was interested in looking deeper. They still considered Mormon theology "repugnant new revelations" without reservation.

Perhaps the strangest reaction was in trying so hard to have it both ways. For some there was a sympathetic and then horrified feeling about aspects of LDS history and doctrine. The results can be, as expressed here and here, very Schizophrenic. The first sounds almost friendly while still negative:

and don’t just head toward the prurient polygamy bits. I was more interested in why the Mormons are so all-fired interested in genealogy. Thanks to the documentary, I now know why, and am sufficiently unnerved by that knowledge.

This other one wants to have the cake and eat it too. They try so hard to take "potshots" without seeming to do that:

At one point during the film I found myself bristling at one researchers attempt to contexturalize the mountain meadows massacre, by doing so it was an attempt to oh-so-slightly minimalize the horror of the murder of 120 women, men and children. Also, if you are of the Mormon faith and happen to be a historian or theologian that wants to discuss more controversial issues regarding the LDS church you can find yourself excommunicated. So I can see why such measured positions were taken at times . . .

The Mormon experience and exodus is an interesting narrative in the history of the United States. It is also a monumental testament to the power of faith, and or delusion if you so desire . . . According to the historians they had an extermination order leveled against them at one point, not to mention harrasment by the federal government until statehood was established in the late 1900's. (States rights anyone?)

And all that talk of not labeling anyone interviewed "Mormon" or "non-Mormon" that so many were complaining about? Well, at least one person was completely confused in an almost hilarious way:

I watched the show tonight (there is another episode tomorrow which will talk more about contemporary mormons) and I have not learned whether Mitt paid for the show. But one thing was rather clear: almost all the interviewed were mormons. I guess that makes sense, mormons do know most about mormonism :) I don't really understand why America is worried about mormons. They aren't any more dangerous/different than/from any other average religion subscriber.

Although I tried to stay away from Christian perspectives where someone obviously at least knew Mormonism(or more specifically thought they did), one bloggersaw something biased about the program against the Mormons. To be fair, he saw it biased against any hard faith:

"Rather than dispelling “stereotypes” (if by that we mean “negative impressions”), the special had quite the opposite effect, it confirmed a number of negative impressions and added several more.

The indelible impression left on most people who encounter them is that they are very nice wackos, not an enviable reputation by any means.

If there is a flanking attack going on, then, it is probably less against Christianity than against the Republicans, with the Mormons seen as yet another radical religious minority (albeit a “highly wealthy and influential one”) that would attack the “fundamental rights” of the sexually liberated. In other words, for
many of the politically irresponsible, the Mormons would seem to fulfill the role that the Jews played in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Not surprising is the amount of those who don't hold any faith, and usually atheists, who see in Mormonism something of all religions. That isn't high praise. One blogger who made connections without much judging said:

As I watched I thought there were some interesting parallels between Mormonism and Christianity. 1) They both started from the margins of society and ultimately (and relatively quickly) became accepted into mainstream culture. 2. They both have historicity issues that create stumbling blocks to their legitimacy. 3. They both have a missionary fervor to spread their message on a global level. 4. They both have had to painfully and awkwardly deal with racism. 5) They both struggle with the issue of women and their roles within the family, society, and church leadership. 6) They have a haunting violent past. 7) They both come close to an idolatrous emphasis upon the “nuclear family.” 8) They both are struggling to communicate and translate their faith in a postmodernity context.

The more common reaction is comparing absurdity between faiths:

"Among the . . . fascinating things about Mormons is just how recent the whole enterprise is. The other so-called major religions and cloak their more (how does one say in polite society?) unusual traditions in the mists of time, as it were . . . Can’t fall back on that when everything points to an upstate New York farm in the mid-19th century.

A less "polite" response was to the point:

I watched part of the PBS special on The Mormons last night. The show is well done, as you would expect. It's very informative. But I find, as an atheist, the whole thing kind of silly. Particularly when they have on disciples of other religions who are basically laughing at the Mormons for their beliefs, as if their own beliefs are any more rooted in fact. You have one guy saying, "My sky god gave me a gold book with his writings on it". Then another guy say, "Well, that's crazy, the real sky god gives rock tablets!" Riiight.

With such a lack of response by non-Mormons this show was partly made for, it seems the audience tuned out. It took me several hours just to find these blog posts. My feeling is that a similar lack of interest mixed with curiosity is far more likely than watching the show:

I admit that I've always been intellectually lazy when it comes to the Mormons. I know they're out there, and I know they're interesting, but I've never taken the time to read up on them. I am counting on this show to fill in my knowledge gaps. I would blog live during the show, but that's too stressful.

Instead, there was more than one time when South Park Mormonism was considered all that was needed:

I really wish I knew how to link videos, because there is a GREAT South Park video on the same topic.

But... in

If the PBS "The Mormons" reaction says anything, it is that people don't want their views to be changed. They like them just the way they are. Mormon theology is demonstrably false and weird "dum, dum, dum," but they are mostly nice people. End of story.


Sarah said...

I suspect there's just not enough incentive for people who don't really care about Mormonism to start caring a whole lot -- at least, not out in the blogosphere. I've gotten more "gee, what's up with you people" questions from second-generation ex-Mormons (their parents or grandparents left, often by means of just moving to California) and young people whose pastors rail about us on a weekly basis than from all other groups combined.

And quite frankly, given the cultural resistance to proselytizing, and people's inherently understandable reactions to a Spirit-less intellectual account of our faith, I'm not sure I'm all that miffed when people are like "Mormons? Eh." I'd like nothing better than for the Mitt Romney campaign to inspire serious debate about fiscal responsibility rather than Mormonism.

Ardis said...

That you haven't seen a lot of non-Mormon blogging doesn't mean non-Mormons didn't watch the show and aren't talking about it in non-blogdom. I mean, I watch American Experience virtually every week and (until this one) have never looked for a blog discussing any episode, never felt the need to seek out anyone analyzing it to death. But I often discover that a friend or someone at work mentions something from a recent AE, I'll say "Yeah, I saw that one, too -- wasn't such-and-such [insert adjective]?" and off we go on a personal discussion.

Who but Mormons are so highly motivated to comment immediately and loudly on this program? The ratings were so high that we can't account for them -- we don't have 13 million members in the US -- and others will discuss it when the indidividual motivation arises.

Jettboy said...

Well, my point was two fold dealing with the fact that Mormons have been so motivated to comment. First, is the producer herself who said that stereotypes would be shattered. Clearly these examples repesent a thin slice of reactions, but are still telling.

Second, is the fact that the Mormons who have talked about this to death seem to be under the impression it would spark equal amounts of discussion among the non-Mormon population. After all, the concern has been how others will percieve the faithful. That is exactly what this post is meant to look at as best as possible in a blog world. The main conclusion I have made, and you ardis have said it differently, is they watched it and didn't care much.

The question I didn't ask is, where do Mormons go from here with it? Should it simply be chalked up as just another television show and move on?

Anonymous said...

The fact that the documentary was largely presented in a non-controversial (and - from the point of view of non-Mormons - balanced)manner explains the issue you've raised: Where there's no controversy, there's no controversy.... Just quiet acceptance, perhaps.

Except among Mormons themselves, where the controversy about the non-controversy is fascinating.

Jordan said...

Hi Jettboy -

I am one of the bloggers you linked to. (

As an fyi, a lot more people are talking about the documentary than you may think. I have heard from many friends who've read my blog and it has been the topic of conversation for days. None of us are Mormon (we are all secular Jews or secular Roman Catholics -- except for one guy who is a Mostly-Secular Roman Catholic -- here in New York.)

Looking at your post, I am a little confused, though. What is it that's bothering you? You must remember that ALL religions and ethnic groups are stereotyped. All of them. It is almost a necessity in a polyglot society.

Is it so bad to be stereotyped as "the Nice People?" If you were to read my full post (see above link) I, too, mention that the only times I've interacted with those claiming to be Mormons I have really noticed their niceness. Even the young Missionaries are good kids.

As a Jew, it gets annoying after a while when everyone assumes you are made of money or are cheap. . .or that we have horns (one woman really thought this.) Still, better than being an African-American, I suppose, where I couldn't go shopping without security on my tail, or a Muslim trying to get through an airport.

As a New Yorker, I still find most Mormons to be kind and well educated. As a Secularist, I find anyone who beleives in any hocus pocus religion to be a little cracked (no offense.)

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

I'm another blogger you linked to. I assure you, I understand the reasons for your post as well as the reasons for your perplexity and consternation. There is undoubtedly much you can learn about yourself (and your faith) by looking at how others see you (and it), but that is a truism. Although Socrates was not a "believer" in the modern sense, his most famous aphorism holds true for all of us, "An unexamined life is not worth living." In the same way, and for much the same reason, "An unexamined faith is not worth living out."

On a personal note: (1) My first project boss (when I worked for a defense contractor) was a Mormon. Judging by his behavior, he was a good one. He was a good father and a good manager. He was very humble and very compassionate. My experience of him reflected very well on his faith. (2) My best friend married a Mormon in the mid 80's. They were divorced in the mid 90's, and not amicably. My impression of her is rather more complicated than my impression of my boss. My experience of her did not reflect quite so well on her faith.

This is the mystery of how human beings live out their faith. How they live it out is usually quite independent of the actual content of their faith. Sometimes that's a good thing. Most of the time it's a bad thing.

Captain Sundance said...

After having read your blog on the "Non-Mormons and PBS" I have to say that as a non-Mormon (never have been & never will--because of thoughtful provocation) it is a bit silly. There is absolutely no evidence that much of what Mormons believe is true--unless you are into the the "follow-your-heart" deal, which is addressed in the Bible. "He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool;" Proverbs 28:26. Just because someone feels something in their heart, does not make them an authority on religion, but it does aid in following the lies that the organization was founded upon.
The PBS special was very well done, in fact, made the church look normal in many aspcts--what one would expect of any organized religion. The Evangelical raising of the hands during the upbeat songs were a bit misleading, though.
You say that you are spurred on by the study or Mormonism, but are you only researching aspects which give you a good feeling? I am under the impression that that is what a good Mormon should do.
Do your homework, son. You have a lot to learn.

e said...

I, too, am one of the people you linked to: person was completely confused in an almost hilarious way. I love being hilarious, although I usually try to do it on purpose. This time I have to admit that I am not quite sure what it is that you think I was confused about, nor what exactly was hilarious.

Just a bit of background here: I lived in Salt Lake City for 5 years, and after 4 years being away, I am moving back. And, no, I am not a mormon. That said the show was, on one hand, rather disappointing since I don't think I've learned much new from it. On the other hand, it was interesting to hear mormons speaking about their faith and the way they see their life and history. The reason I was interested in whether the interviewed were mostly mormon or not is because I think that no event should be told from one standpoint, and a story told by mormons only would be such.

Jettboy said...

e- Don't get me wrong, I didn't mean the confusion was your fault. The format of the television show was such that a question of who is and is not Mormon came up a lot.

What I found "hilarious" was that assumption I got from your writing is that you thought most people were Mormon on the show. That is actually far from the truth. Most were non-Mormons or former Mormons.

The whole bit about who is sponsoring the program is a good idea to be aware of for anything. In this case, the LDS Church and its members participated, but had absolutely no say in the production. The producer was a skeptical U.S. Easterner. Your questioning about Romney supporting this sounded like a conspiracy theory of sorts that just made me chuckle inside.

Again, it had to do with not disclosing who was or was not "Mormon" in the interviews. I understand the producer's reasoning; not to predjudice the audience. However, it just seemed to create disorientation and confusion.

e said...

Thanks for clarification. I didn't mean to sound like some conspiracy wacko, and it wasn't at all what I had in mind. There is a lot of talk that people wouldn't vote for Romney because he's mormon, and it is fair to say that people don't know much about mormons, so it would only be reasonable of him to try to educate them :)

Ali said...

I watched this documentary. I thought it was very interesting. There were many things about the Mormon religion that I had heard about partially, but did not know the full story behind them. The undergarments, the family home evening, the interest in genealogy, the marriage in the temple. This program demystified many of these things I had heard about but did not know why the customs existed. I did not think it was strange I thought it was fascinating.

Jettboy said...

Ali, thanks for commenting. I am glad you learned some new things from this program that helped clarify misunderstandings. Hopefully, it didn't produce too many of its own.