To many Utahs, it seems like Mormonism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are disproportionately represented in the entertainment world as well as the news media.
There are movies about infamous murders (“Under the Banner of Heaven”) with a fictional detective’s faith crisis at its core, while documentaries explore the rules of fundamentalist polygamous communities and Latter-day Saint multilevel marketers.
Now comes word of more such feature films — including the alleged kidnapping of a missionary in England, the purported murder of two children by extremist members in Idaho, and another based on the documentary “Abducted in Plain Sight”) — that soon may be streaming near you.
On top of that, several Latter-day Saint news stories have gone viral in the past few months: Mormon swingers, a possible photo of church founder Joseph Smith, an explosive Associated Press investigation about an Arizona abuse case, and reports of a racist incident at a BYU volleyball match.
A little more than a decade ago, another wave of interest in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints captured national headlines: “The Book of Mormon” musical was sweeping Broadway and winning Tonys, and Republican Mitt Romney was making history as the first Latter-day Saint to top a major party presidential ticket.
In that “Mormon moment,” the Salt Lake City-based faith was gently mocked, and, in the second, it was probed and prodded by journalists who wanted to understand the religion of the would-be president — including his “sacred underwear.”
Are we in a “Mormon Moment II,” in which attention seems to have turned once again to Mormonism and, shall we say, some of its weirder elements?
Yes and no, says religion scholar Megan Goodwin, who co-produces “Keeping it 101,” a popular podcast about religion.
American media is having an overall “cult moment,” Goodwin says in an interview. Jim Jones was “trending thrice on Twitter this year.”
No matter how much the church has done to portray itself as the most American faith (the Constitution is “inspired”), Goodwin says, it “refuses to give up the peculiarities that make it not mainstream — including extra scripture, ongoing revelation and unconventional practices.”
That is going to be unsettling to those, namely white Protestants, for whom “good religion,” she says, is “private, belief based, white, straight and male-dominated.”
Recent Mormon movies
Here are some of the recent documentaries or feature films that explore Mormonism in general or specifically The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have attracted widespread attention:
• “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” — About the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
• “Mormon No More” — About a lesbian couple who leave the faith over its stance on same-sex marriage.
• “LuLaRich” — About a multilevel marketing scheme run by Latter-day Saints.
•”Murder Among the Mormons” — About the infamous case of bomber-forger Mark Hofmann.
• “Under the Banner of Heaven” — About the murder of Latter-day Saint mother and her 18-month-old daughter by her brothers-in-law told through the eyes of a fictional detective.
Now comes word of more such films that soon may be streaming near you.
• “The Manacled Mormon,” — About the alleged kidnapping of a missionary in England (already depicted in “Tabloid,” by legendary documentarian Errol Morris).
• “Sins of Our Mother,” — About the ongoing murder case against Latter-day Saints Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell.
• “A Friend of the Family” — A series based on the documentary “Abducted in Plain Sight,” about a naive Idaho family who fall prey to the manipulations of a fellow Latter-day Saint, who twice kidnaps an adolescent daughter.
Latter-day Saints are seen generally as “normal” Americans, so stories that sell, she says, are ones that reveal these believers’ dark side. They become “the monsters next door.”
As to the news stories, Goodwin says, “where it seems to be fitting in the most (in conservative religion) is where it is getting the most criticism.”
What do those with a more personal connection to the faith think about this “Mormon moment” sequel?
No ‘charming and clever’ response
One of the more interesting parts of this “Mormon moment” is most, if not all, of these recent instances of press are not things that the church can respond to with a charming and clever public relations response like they did in the case of “The Book of Mormon” Broadway play. In fact, most of these issues are things that the church seems to rather not comment about at all, which is part of the problem to begin with.
From what I have seen, in the cases where they have had to provide comments, the response seems to be directed more at comforting members who may be, rightfully, concerned rather than explaining themselves to nonmembers.
More and more members are starting to feel that there is a gap between the church’s statements and actual action. As members, we expect the church [leaders] to say they don’t support racism and that all of God’s children are created equally. We need to see the action that supports that belief more so than photo ops with leaders of the NAACP. We expect the church [leaders] to say they value protecting children from abuse. We need to see the action that supports that rather than excerpts encouraging prioritizing abusers’ confession process.
Rosemary Card, Utah business owner and thought leader.
‘Something scary and sinister is lurking’
A lot of the media, and especially the true-crime genre, tends to seek out stories where something scary and sinister is lurking beneath what seems wholesome and nice on the surface.
The popular stereotype of Mormonism — happy families, good neighbors, devout churchgoers — is one that Latter-day Saints spent a long time actively cultivating. And in the second half of the 20th century, that image helped the faith assimilate into the American mainstream. But now we’re in a decidedly more cynical moment, and that image of Mormonism is often treated with suspicion, fairly or not.
McKay Coppins, writer for The Atlantic.
‘The focus is so dark’
The way Mormonism is being revisited and held under a microscope isn’t so unusual. Every system is being questioned and picked apart right now. Mormonism is just a handy one to look at because it’s so extreme. It’s like the patriarchy on steroids. And it’s easy for outsiders to get on board because they don’t have to hold up a mirror to their own belief systems, or see the ways they’re currently being tricked or controlled.
As a former Mormon, I’m grateful for this cultural moment. I feel like the world suddenly understands what I came from. But the focus is so dark. It’s like saying someone understands your family because they met your one uncle who is in prison for sex crimes. There are many faces to this faith. And I’m excited for all of them to be revealed.
Elna Baker, producer/writer for “This American Life.”
‘What is not American’
Mormonism sometimes functions as a “near other” within American culture, defining the limits of American-ness. Gentle mockery of Mormon wholesomeness both articulates qualities an American can aspire to, and sets a limit on just how optimistic, idealistic, disciplined, frugal, etc., “real” Americans ought to be.
Conversely, descriptions of the shadow side of Mormonism(s) show the limits of how much and what kinds of secrecy, violence, sex, piety and capitalism are properly “American.”
It makes sense to me that after several years that have revealed the fragility of national identity, writers and artists would turn to one of the places they have often looked for what is not American. At a moment of cultural rupture, it is reassuring to agree on what is truly beyond the pale.
Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
I don’t know if I can draw the connection between the recent TV movies and the news stories. People love to see the weird fringes of straitlaced cultures, and Mormons are easy pickings.
Steve Evans, founder of the blog By Common Consent.
‘Rooted in jealousy’
In the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s book “The Chosen,” Danny says of his orthodox rabbi father: “My father is exotic, a righteous man.” As Westerners continue to abandon Judeo-Christian faith, believing communities look increasingly “exotic.”
In past decades, rock music (and especially punk rock) was a way to “stick it to the man,” and push back against any notions of authority. Now, it’s the reverse: Behaviors that in past decades used to be considered countercultural are now mainstream and banal, celebrated and even enforced by our institutions. Traditional notions of courtship and marriage, sobriety, community norms and even real human connection are all the new punk rock. It shouldn’t surprise us to see an increase in curiosity toward communities like ours that are openly rebelling.
Some of the attention we’re getting may be rooted in jealousy, as well; this has been openly expressed by people commenting on the simple happiness of Latter-day Saint mommy bloggers. But that jealousy also extends to people who see the immense benefits of our faith, and compare it with the miserable, lonely nihilism that pervades Western society. Unhappy people often try to reassure themselves by seeking flaws in happy people and happy communities.
‘Highlight the sensational’
Jonathan Haidt estimates that 80% of the American public inhabit a moderate middle ground. I think he’s right (though a bit overgenerous). The intemperate voices of the 10% at each extreme of the political spectrum have poisoned public discourse. In this environment, media propensity to highlight the sensational and sordid finds a soft target in the case of Mormonism.
And even among the moderate middle, with the innate human tendency toward voyeurism and schadenfreude, the lesser angels of our nature win out over what should be intolerance for intolerance. And so the media will always find a willing audience — especially as bigotry finds fewer and fewer unprotected classes.
Terryl Givens, co-author of “The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life.”
Latter-day Saints pride themselves in being a fascinating community that’s worthy of outside inquiry. The only problem is they don’t get to decide what the outside world will be fascinated in. And clearly the interest has been less flattering as of late.
Lee Hale, NPR.
‘Diverse range of voices’
Many Latter-day Saints may be socialized to see mention of church-related matters in the media, positive or negative, as faith-affirming. Positive reception to gospel principles and practices is warmly received as an indicator that the gospel is spreading throughout the earth, and negativity or increased scrutiny is depicted as a sign of the growing wickedness of the world promised in the end of days.
Our brand as a “peculiar people” may make us lose sight of how American our Mormon stories are; as many stories in the historical canon, they will inevitably cycle through intermittent periods of interest.
Mormon-referent stories such as “Abducted in Plain Sight” potentially started the flow of a new wave of Mormon interest while capitalizing on the rise of popularity of true-crime and mystery series. But in a post-George Floyd society, where the importance of diversity and the reality or falsehood of systemic oppression weighs heavily in common discourse, it is increasingly dissatisfying to a new generation to have an organization be as uniquely American as the church is.
It is interesting to me to see a diverse range of Latter-day Saint and LDS-adjacent voices (like the Black Menaces or Dustin Lance Black) using the LDS-consistent practice of bold, public and persuasive principled stands to give this current “Mormon moment” a social justice vein.
Kimberly Applewhite Teitter, a Utah psychologist.
‘Religion feeds fanaticism and terror’
Yes, some of these docu-movies fully play out in Europe. “Murder Among the Mormons” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” are on the streaming channels, subtitled or dubbed, and they get a lot of media attention. Just like in the 19th and early 20th centuries, stories of abduction and murder in an outlandish Mormonism, with its enduring polygamist image, are attractive for a certain public. If sex is involved, even better.
Nowadays, these stories also play well into a general feeling that religion feeds fanaticism and terror. These movies and stories do hurt the church’s image. Church P.R. is pretty powerless because its main weapon has been eliminated, namely scrapping “Mormon” from our lexicon.
In the past, the church could firmly establish its image with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Mormon Helping Hands, Mormon humanitarian aid, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, etc. Any praiseworthy local “Mormon” project mentioned in the media served that purpose. President Gordon B. Hinckley understood that well when he stated “We may not be able to change the nickname, but we can make it shine with added luster.” Now we have left the field open for our distractors to define “Mormon” as they wish.
Wilfried Decoo, a retired Brigham Young University professor who lives in Belgium.
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