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 lieu...www.pbs.org/mormons
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.