Has there ever been a TV show that disseminated more information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City”?
Maybe not — except, of course, shows produced by the Utah-based faith itself.
“RHOSLC” doesn’t, for the most part, zero in on the church. It’s sort of Latter-day Saint adjacent. It does take place, however, in and around the church’s global headquarters, and the producers and editors often insert beauty shots of various Utah temples between the scenes with all the fussin’ and fightin’.
There is a certain irony in that none of the Housewives is a temple recommend-carrying Latter-day Saint. Although given that the qualifications to be a Housewife include getting drunk and catfighting, it would seem that fully active members are automatically disqualified.
Executive producer Andy Cohen told the Los Angeles Times that the series isn’t supposed to be an exact reflection of Latter-day Saint life. “There will be a lot of people who say this doesn’t represent Salt Lake City or the Mormon church,” he said. “It’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to represent a certain group of friends in that area.”
Of the seven women who have been regular cast members in the first three seasons, and the three who have been somewhat regular “friends,” two are ex-Latter-day Saints; one quit the church during filming; one has been moving toward exiting; and one is, at least nominally, still a member — but she follows only the tenets with which she agrees.
False statements about many things — including Utah’s predominant religion — are rarely corrected by cast members and never by the show’s producers. For example, viewers were told in the first episode that there are 6 million Latter-day Saints — about 10.6 million fewer than the actual number in 2020 — but unless you already knew or looked it up, you were left with that error.
It’s not that everything the Housewives say about the church is wrong, but there’s no distinction among fact, fiction and opinion.
Just plain wrong
Jen, who was raised a Latter-day Saint but converted to her husband’s Muslim faith, said the Word of Wisdom is “like, thou shalt not smoke. Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not look at porn. Actually, I don’t know if that’s a thing, because I don’t think Brigham Young had porn back in 1822. But if he was right now, I think that would be a thing.”
The church was founded in 1830. Young joined in 1832. And the Word of Wisdom, the faith’s health code, mentions nothing about porn.
Jen told viewers that when she suggested to her husband — University of Utah assistant football coach Sharrieff Shah — that he join the church, “He was, like, ‘Are you kidding me? They didn’t accept Black people into the Mormon church until, like, 1970-something. That’s when I started questioning” her own religious affiliation, deciding she was not down with “a religion that did not accept my husband and my kids.”
Black people have always been accepted into the church, though they were barred from its priesthood and temples for nearly 130 years, until 1978.
The subject of the church’s stance against alcohol has come up frequently, often as a point of derision. In Season One, Heather complained that her drink tasted “like water,” snd she attributed that to Utah’s dominant denomination. “Mormons aren’t supposed to drink alcohol at all,” she said. “The Mormon church is the biggest enterprise we have in Utah, so the entire Legislature is really run by Mormons.
“They can lobby for rules that keep their patrons in line. And one way to do that is to limit the amount of alcohol we can access.”
It’s true that Latter-day Saints dominate Capitol Hill.
Angie Harrington explained that she and her husband have a transgender child, which is “not acceptable” in the church.
Although “the Mormon community is making strides to understand ... as of now, I am not Mormon,” Angie continued. “Until (members of the LGBTQ+ community) have the same rights that the rest of us have, we don’t know if it works for us.”
Latter-day Saint leaders encourage their members to be welcoming of LGBTQ+ individuals, but the faith’s policies and teachings — including its opposition to same-sex marriage — can prove to be stumbling blocks.
‘Mormons’ aren’t fun
Getting ready to attend the same fundraiser, Meredith Marks asks her husband, Seth, “What is with the Mormon culture and gambling?”
“Great question,” Seth replies. “But I believe since it’s fun, it’s not allowed.
OK, this is hardly stunning news: The church has no proscription against fun.
Whitney is outspoken in her belief that Latter-day Saint women are treated badly. “Our entire life, we’re told, because we’re women, we don’t have a choice if we want to do something,” Whitney said. “A man has to approve it.”
She drew “parallels between the abuse of power from the church and the abuse from my family member. (To date, she has provided no details about the abuse she says she suffered from an unidentified family member.)”
The church touts women’s equality, but its family proclamation outlines traditional male-female roles and its leadership is patriarchal.
Lisa is Mormon 2.0
Lisa repeatedly has referred to herself as “Mormon 2.0″ — she remains a member, but she doesn’t follow all the rules. Most notably, on the show, she not only drinks but she and her husband, John, also own VIDA Tequila.
“I’m sure that other Mormons care that I own a tequila company; what’s important is that I don’t [care],” she said. “I don’t ever look at our business as a religious wrong.”
Jen disputed that. “That is not the Mormon church or religion that I grew up with,” she said. “It’s like the Lisa Barlow church. ... It’s because she’s Mormon 2.0.” Heather replies, “Oh, whatever. She’s Mormon bulls---.”
Judgmental and inbred
Muttering to herself after a fight, former cast member Mary Cosby — the “first lady” of the Faith Temple Pentecostal Church — offers her opinion of Latter-day Saints: “Heather with her little judgmental self. She has the snobbiness of a true Mormon. She don’t even know she look inbred.”
Whitney quits the church
When the series began, Whitney implied that she was kicked out of the church after she cheated on her first husband with the man who became her second husband. Later, viewers learned that she had not been excommunicated. She resigned her membership, partly, she added, because the church had a financial reason to keep her on the membership roles.
“They make it so hard to leave because if they can keep you, there’s a chance that they can reactivate you,” Whitney said, “which means you’ll start paying 10% of your income again. I think it’s all about money and power and control. They’re not trying to save the souls of Zion. They want your 10%.”
The 10% she refers to is called tithing, voluntary donations to the church and a necessary step for members to participate in the faith’s highest religious rites in temples.
Whitney also puts a diabolical twist on home teachers, visiting teachers and male priesthood members coming to her house for fast offerings: “Having my name on the records of the Mormon church means that they’re still tracking what I’m doing. That means that they still send people to my house to check on me. They still come to collect money. Even when you move, they know where you moved and your record transfers. … I feel like I can’t sign this [resignation letter] fast enough.”
Male home teachers and female visiting teachers are assigned to check on members of their congregation to see that their spiritual and physical needs are being met. The outreach has since been renamed ministering. Fast offerings, meanwhile, are voluntary contributions that go toward helping the poor.
Heather said her sister, Nancy, was exiled from the family when she married a non-Latter-day Saint and left the church three decades earlier. “This is the Mormon way,” Heather said. “And part of that punishment is you don’t get to have your eternal family anymore. You choose differently, you live alone.”
Heather — a returned missionary who was once fully active in the church — is now on the other end of that. She organized a memorial for her late father, and her mother and several siblings refused to attend because, Heather said, they were “taking a stand and refusing to participate because my mom [said] my dad was rolling over in his grave” because “they think it’d be a compromise of their values and a betrayal of their faith if they were to endorse me in any way.”
Don’t look anything up
Heather’s brother, Tyler, said her exit from the church prompted him to “look into” its history. Heather interjects that “the first rule of being Mormon” is “don’t look up anything.”
Tyler learned that among church founder Joseph Smith’s many wives was a 14-year-old. “That’s weird. They don’t teach that at church,” he said, adding that he feels “trauma. … I’m angry some days, and some days I’m just thrilled to be out. ... My problem is, I feel like I raised my kids in a cult. That makes me de facto a bad parent.”
Polygamy in Utah
There are multiple references to polygamy. Whitney insisted she is not a swinger, but she managed to tie swinging to the church’s polygamous past. “Utah has a history of plural marriage,” Whitney said. “There’s a huge swinger community here.”
And the husband of one former Housewife states that it’s legal for him to take a sister wife. “As of 2019, they removed the (anti-polygamy) law in the state of Utah,” said Duy Tran, the husband of Jennie Nguyen. “It is not against the law.”
That’s false. In 2020, Utah decriminalized consensual polygamy — it’s now an infraction similar to a traffic violation. It’s still a felony if it involves threats, fraud, force or abuse. And you cannot legally marry more than one spouse.
Heather told viewers that she is a descendant of Latter-day Saint pioneers — “a purebred, pedigreed, pioneer Mormon” — and that she married into “Mormon royalty,” a term few church members had ever heard before.
It is, apparently, a reference to wealth. Her ex-husband, Frank William “Billy” Gay III, is the grandson of Frank William Gay — and he was hired to be billionaire Howard Hughes’ driver, eventually rising to become one of Hughes’ chief lieutenants and a wealthy man in his own right.
In pursuit of perfection
The fact that Utah has among the highest number, per capita, of plastic surgeons came up, and Heather tied it to church members. “The Mormon culture believes that we can be perfect,” she said. “Perfection is obtainable.”
That’s why she opened Beauty Lab & Laser. Most of her clients are either Latter-day Saint or have “Mormon background. ... It’s just like putting your hand in a river of money,” she said, “because obtaining perfection is a Mormon pastime.”
Heather said that she didn’t marry her ex-husband because she loved him, “but because he was Mormon,” and she wanted to have children and “an eternal family. … So losing my husband to me was like losing everything.”
And she “really resented him for leaving me, because I felt like my entire life I had curtailed my natural instincts in order to achieve this family, and this marriage in the temple and these children. And I had given up a lot. And now he was saying he was giving up on me.”
Latter-day Saints believe that being “sealed” to a spouse in a temple and living faithfully can ensure the couple are married in the afterlife.
Divorce is frowned upon
Heather said that people in her Latter-day Saints congregation treated her and her daughters differently after her divorce. Even though she was “still showing up to church every week ... suddenly,” her daughters were not invited “to the same birthday parties they were going to. Suddenly, we’re not part of the same circle of families. So because of all that, my daughters aren’t really that into being Mormon anymore.”
Heather added: “In my experience, if you get divorced in the Mormon church and you’re a man, it’s much easier.” Her ex-husband can remarry and “still have full church status,” but she feels she’s been marked as unworthy. When Lisa argued that divorce is not as big a deal in the church anymore, Heather disagreed. “I’m still married to my husband in the eyes of the church,” she said. And when Lisa tells her she can “cancel the sealing,” Heather shoots back, “I cannot cancel the sealing unless I have another worthy priesthood holder.”
(It’s a bit complicated, but it is possible to cancel the sealing.)
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.