From 2007 through 2012 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am an observant member, received a lot of media and cultural attention. Church President, Gordon B. Hinckley, was coming to the end of his life and tenure and had made concerted efforts to be open to the cultural institutions of the time. The attention was a mixture of genuine curiosity, serious consideration and criticism, and sensationalism. I remember watching television specials focused on the church with a mix of satisfaction that the Church was gaining clout in the world and frustration at errors and misrepresentations. I remember feeling that the lives of every-day members of the church (the majority of which live outside the United States) were largely ignored in favor of talking heads representing church leadership, church critics from within and without, church academics, disaffected church members, and outside observers. This shouldn’t have been surprising. It is a standard media practice, but I did have a regular feeling of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.
Since those days, the national attention on my Church has dissipated, or at least changed forms. In our era of institutional critique and mass media decline, much of the discussions have moved online to blogs, podcasts, and social media. Comfortable camps have formed with online influencers attempting to replace the pundits of yesteryear. How much effect does this new cohort of influencers have on the life of faith of Church members? Considering the tribal polarization that is inherent in these forms of media, I hope not much. The media landscape has changed, however sometimes national cultural attention still breaks through.
When The Book of Mormon musical hit Broadway, the Church and most of its members took the stream of offensive stereotypes and lazy prejudice on the chin, even turning it into a PR win through advertising the real Book of Mormon in its playbill and placing missionaries outside theaters. Some accepted the offense and interpreted it as a form of cultural hazing welcoming the Church and its members into the American mainstream, but others privately voice the reality that this treatment would suffer immediate backlash and public shaming if aimed at other minority religions. The Church and its members have attempted to be welcomed into the mainstream of American society throughout their history as they were driven from state to state as refugees at the hands of mobs and state-sanctioned violence. If you want to know the limits of the freedom of religion in America the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a good place to start. As many debates in American life are demonstrating today, history is gone, but it is not forgotten. One of my favorite reflections on the slap in the face that the musical dealt was from Atlantic writer McKay Coppins in his excellent profile on the modern Church.
I remember being delighted by the Church’s response. Such savvy PR! Such a good-natured gesture! See, everyone? We can take a joke! But then I met a theater critic in New York who had recently seen the musical. He marveled at how the show got away with being so ruthless toward a minority religion without any meaningful backlash. I tried to cast this as a testament to Mormon niceness. But the critic was unconvinced. “No,” he replied. “It’s because your people have absolutely no cultural cachet.”
This is not supposed to be a pity party. Christ never promised His followers cultural celebration or approbation, in fact He assured them of the opposite (John 15:18–20). Some of my co-religionists and other Christians seem to forget this fact when they throw-in for promises of political redemption from a faith-averse culture and leave themselves vulnerable to demagogues. There have been fair and respectful portrayals of the Church and its members that do not defend or defame them. One of my favorites is The Expanse, the sci-fi series in which the question is asked of what would the Church and its members be doing in this sci-fi scenario. They are a background thread in the series, but respectfully and reasonably treated even imagining what a temple space ship could be. Even on potentially scandalous topics it can be done with respect, like the recent Netflix documentary series Murder Among the Mormons, which details the bombing and documentary forgeries of Mark Hoffman in the 1980s.
The reason for this post is because there is a limited TV series coming soon based on a book that compares the Church’s early history to the horrific Lafferty murders in Utah in 1984. The trailer for the series makes clear that depictions of our sacred Temple rites1 will be on display. These Temple experiences are some of the most sacred and personal in the lives of practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We do not share them with others in the same way that you may not share a deeply personal family experience with anybody on the street. The Church has made many details of these rites available on its website where those who are genuinely curious can learn the salient aspects of what Church members do in the Temple. However, outright depictions of Temple rites in media, no matter how tastefully portrayed, are deeply offensive to many members of the Church, myself included.
So what’s to be done about this new series that puts a prestige face on religious prejudice? Probably not much. I’m of the belief that when it comes to media, calling publicly for boycotts is ineffective because it simply draws more attention. However, just know that if the show comes up in conversation with your friends who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints2 they may smile and act as if it’s not a big deal, but they are likely uncomfortable, offended, or angry about it. I know I am not amused.
If you are genuinely curious about the Church Temple rites you can learn more at the link above. If you want to learn more about violence in the early days of the Church in territorial Utah, Massacre at Mountain Meadows is a harrowing read that avoids the sensationalism that the subject often encourages. There is a lot of serious scholarship and writing on any historical topic you could imagine, which treat Church history topics better than any Reddit board. If you are curious what Church members actually believe, most would be happy to speak with you about it. In addition this weekend (and every first weekend of April and October) is the Church’s General Conference, where we will hear teachings from modern day prophets and apostles, that inform the way we try to live. I can hope without confidence that the wider culture will treat us better, but I have every confidence that those who actually know us will treat us with respect because that has been my experience throughout my life.
Within the Church we say ordinances, but rites seems like it would be understood more by others. ↩
You’ll notice I didn’t say Mormon. Although embraced as a descriptor at times in the past, the term Mormon was initially coined as a derogatory epithet for Church members. The Church has never been named the Mormon Church. It is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and our current Church President, Russell M. Nelson, has asked members and non-members alike to refer to the Church by its actual name and those who belong to it as members of the Church. One way to discern which media publications respect the Church or its members is to see if they follow the Church’s request to call it by its actual name. ↩