A few nights ago (August 24) NBC’s “Rock Center” ran a special titled “Mormons in America.” In response, a local news station in Phoenix “12 News” invited 6 “Mormon faithful” and an academic (me) to respond. We all went to the studio and watched the program together. Then the newsman William Pitts asked us for our responses and inquired as to whether we thought it was an accurate portrayal of the Mormon experience in America. Below are a few thoughts that I had of the program as well as a few observations of how the “faithful” responded to the program, which I found just as worthy of comment. Although I consider myself a “Mormon faithful,” they did not know this and assumed because of my position as the academic that I was not. As such, I sat back and enjoyed being the “outsider looking in.”
In context of the “Mormon moment” that has generated so much commentaries, films, articles, etc., my initial reaction after watching this portrayal of Mormonism on NBC was that this wasn’t just a “moment” of national interest over Mormonism, but a celebration of it. This was no “gloves off” encounter with Mormonism or even a challenging yet friendly critique, but rather playful banter with nerf swords, and NBC was more than careful not to hit anyone in the eye. This says a lot about how successful Mormons have been in proving they can be good neighbors, but it also says a lot about how Americans have chosen to look at Mormons and Mormonism as better neighbors themselves. If NBC’s “Rock Center” is at all representative of national sentiment, it’s almost as if the nation wants to prove its religious sophistication in this late date, and Mormonism is being used as its platform. Mormons couldn’t be happier.
At the same time, some Mormons in the room were quick to display ambivalence if not hostility toward Mormon political diversity (there were audible grumblings when Harry Reid made an appearance) and there was an assumption (even insistence) that former Mormons (like Abby Huntsman) would be “anti-Mormon.” Mormons in general have a difficult time imagining that former Mormons are not necessarily enemies of the faith and that probing questions by the media are not necessarily evidence of hostility. Many, like the self-proclaimed gay Mormon star of the Broadway hit musical “The Book of Mormon,” had nothing but love for Mormonism and teared up as he recounted the Christ-centered service Mormon missionary service teaches. If we wanted to truly understand what it’s like to be a Mormon in America, the critiques of Mormonism from the musical would not have been inappropriate for Mormons to respond to. Left aside by former Mormons and interviewers were the difficult questions missionary life brings to young men and women in the church and the hardships they quietly endure. This is a particularly visible hole considering John K. Williams recent award-winning memoir Heaven Up Here. A discussion of these issues would have served to humanize the missionary experience and brought forth insight for Mormons concerning the struggles and joys of missionary life and greater understanding for this peculiar Mormon practice of evangelism.
As I observed those in the room and their reactions to the show, I was struck by the films portrayal of a “Mormon identity,” or what “Mormons are like” when it came to riches. David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways spoke of riches as a worthy and even meritorious Mormon pursuit. To paraphrase: “It’s ok to make money and to be successful.” Mormons were both thrifty and good businessmen. There is no denying that Mormons in the latter part of their history have embraced capitalism as a religious creed, but a quick remembrance of William Godbe, who found himself excommunicated for seeking to bring Mormon economics together with the larger American capitalistic economy, should serve as a somber reminder of the irony now played out. Throughout the early years of the church, verses such as “If ye are not one ye are not mine, (D&C 38:27)” “one man should not possess above another, (D&C 49:20)” and “all things in common (Acts 4:32)” formed the core of Mormon economics and social life and were some of the most quoted of scriptures. In 1882, Mormon leaders finally allowed Mormons “to branch out into mercantile business,” but with the heavy caution that they were never to be capitalists at heart. (See James Clark, Messages of the first Presidency, II: 334-335). In watching Mormon apologetics on wealth portrayed as one of the major characteristics of understanding Mormonism today, I would have been interested to see how men like Neeleman have been able to reconcile their Mormonism and if Mormon attention to food storehouses for the poor tap into this early suspicion of wealth.
Race and gender made brief appearances and similarly went nowhere in moving forward a conversation of understanding Mormonism and its own struggles with these issues. Elder Stephen Snow, the church’s newly called historian, spoke of the priesthood ban on blacks in understandably puzzling terms. He did not claim the church’s earlier ban on blacks to be an inspired doctrine, but rather that of an unfortunate policy that brought instead confusion and pain. Sadly, the conversation moved on. With BYU professor Randy Botts’ well-known remarks mimicking earlier church teachings on race as made (in)famous by the Washington Post, together with the Church’s correlated public statement condemning racism (by “individuals both inside and outside the Church”), it seemed out of touch to have simply “moved on.”
In tackling the question of race, the choice was to focus on an interracial Mormon couple that apparently found little if any conflict with their unique status in the church. They seemed to represent Mormonism’s embrace of liberal multi-culturalism and racial diversity. The conversation on Mormon racism thus ended with confusion with the black priesthood ban and a member of the church who knew no conflict being black in a predominantly white church. This is likely not typical of the black Mormon experience. In short, in their attempt to be “good neighbors,” NBC missed several opportunities to better understand Mormonism and its real struggles within American society. If we truly want to understand “Mormons in America,” we need to be honest about what it means for Mormons to struggle and what it means to fail, together with how Mormonism helps one triumph over those difficulties. Instead, what I saw was a celebration of Mormonism by the national media, a celebration which Mormons were happy to watch, but whose suspicions of outsider portrayals of the faith have not totally been appeased.