Us and Them
The notion that negative publicity is better than no publicity may work for celebrities, but it is not a slogan for religious organizations. Like many religions, the Mormon Church has received its share of negative attention—some of it deserved. Expecting to be ignored while adopting illegal marriage practices is a touch naïve. Staunchly insisting that racist practices are revelation from God while the rest of the country is moving toward civil rights also invites criticism. Then there’s rallying the troops to defeat the ERA in the ‘70s and to support Prop 8 in 2008.
An argument can be made that the church, albeit unwittingly, asked for negative attention on these issues. More subtle and not necessarily negative, is media attention to LDS doctrine. Larry King’s question to President Hinckley on the Mormon belief in eternal progression to godhood caused the usually forthright prophet to utter a disclaimer, “I don’t know much about that.” Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid brought public questions about Mormon beliefs such as: “Do Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?” Contemporary Mormons shy away from discussing doctrinal issues. Salvation is attained by obedience to the commandments and temple ordinances, not from understanding theology.
Big Love and the Warren Jeffs’ trial have revived an embarrassing interest in Mormon polygamy. BL has been condemned by church leaders, but I suspect the overall effect of the program on non-members has been to make Mormons seem more normal. Normal, that is, except for their extreme piety. BL writers get the details of Mormon Utah life remarkably accurate—not an easy task for an outsider. The only major flaw I noticed the first season was portraying Mormons at a restaurant ordering milk instead of coffee with their meal. Real Mormons know the coffee substitute is Diet Coke, not milk.
BL’s third season stirred a lot of controversy by portraying the temple endowment. I suspect the endowment segment disappointed non-Mormons because it burst the speculation bubble about sexual orgies in the temple. The endowment depiction and its meaningfulness to Barb were quite touching to this Mormon. Likewise, the scene where Bill baptizes Barb for Margy’s dead mother. The Bishop’s Court on Barbara and its effect on her seemed far more damaging to the church image.
The real church PR problem with BL is that some of the fictional situations reflect actual events in the non-to-distant past, such as the attempt by the church to purchase the Salamander document and the behind-the-scenes political influence of the church in Utah.
Depicting Mormons realistically is not the same as ridiculing the sacred. In fact, the mirror held up to ourselves may turn out to be our best friend. Church growth and the success of its own PR have moved the LDS Church into the public arena. We can’t expect national media to focus only on the ideal image to which we aspire. How can we not admit that some of our beliefs and practices seem a little strange to outsiders? Like the Catholic Church dealing with the sex-abuse scandal, the Mormon Church needs to own up to past mistakes. Being less secretive about temple ceremonies and church history documents may be the best PR strategy the church could employ.