The Mormon Image Today

By October 9, 2012

Sister Wives. The Book of Mormon on Broadway. And of course the presidential campaign trail.

Mormons are everywhere in the media in 2012, and by many measures the Mormon image is faring well in the early 21st century. Yes, the Brown family encompasses more wives and children than the average American family, but Sister Wives showcases the seemingly very normal lives that Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, Robyn, and their 17 children lead, struggling with relationships and weight and decisions about where to live or go to school. The Book of Mormon pokes fun at young Latter-day Saint missionaries, but in the end the show sings the Mormons? praises for the good they do in the world. In presidential politics, Mormonism is a virtually silent presence in Mitt Romney?s campaign, but when it is brought forward it underlines the candidate?s service, both during his mission in France and during his years as a bishop and stake president in Massachusetts, and the family values that supported his 40+ year marriage to his high school sweetheart and nurtured their five handsome, successful sons.

But in each of these current examples of Mormonism in the media spotlight, there is significant underlying negativity. While Sister Wives seems to embrace the Browns? unusual marital choices and highlight the relative normalcy of their large family, it is impossible to ignore the fact that they sit side-by-side on the TLC reality television line-up with shows like 19 Kids and Counting and Breaking Amish, which focus on the strangeness of certain American religious choices. (TLC also brought us John & Kate Plus 8, a chronicle of the family life and eventually the messy break-up of John and Kate Gosselin as they cared for their twins and sextuplets, and is now airing Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which chronicles the life and times of a child pageant contestant and her stereotypical rural Southern family.) The Book of Mormon is an affectionate portrait of the Latter-day Saints, but that affection is for a group of dedicated, nice, but foolish, unquestioning adherents to a ridiculous set of beliefs. (In this video of the song ?I Believe? ? the only song in the show deemed clean enough for the national broadcast of the 2011 Tony Awards ceremony ? pay attention not only to the lyrics, but also to the audience?s reactions.) And popular engagements of Romney?s Mormonism often focus on aspects of the religion like ?magic underwear? (skip to 2:00 if you?re impatient), rather than engaging the LDS teachings that have significant implications for a potential Romney presidency.

Americans? ongoing fascination with and ridicule of Mormon differences, past and present, seems benign, especially when compared with the violent intolerance exhibited toward Mormons in the 19th century [1]. But such representations are only the tip of the iceberg. This Mormon moment, like the nearly two hundred years that preceded it, is also characterized by more openly critical representations of Mormon deviance from American norms and the potential danger they pose to non-Mormons. I?ll give just a few examples here.

Mikal Gilmore?s 1994 family memoir, Shot in the Heart, chronicles three generations of family dysfunction in an effort to explain his older brother Gary?s criminal life and violent death. Gary, convicted of murdering two men in Utah, was executed by firing squad. He chose to be shot, his brother asserted, because he believed in the Mormon concept of blood atonement, and thought he could only atone for his crimes by a death that spilled his blood on the ground [2]. According to Mikal Gilmore, Gary?s crimes and his chosen punishment were an inheritance from their mother?s Mormonism. The religion, Mikal explains, is infused with a belief in redemption through violence dating back to the dark days after Joseph Smith?s murder in 1844. In the film version of his narrative, the scenes of Gary?s execution in 1977 are interspersed with flashbacks to a dark night in Utah in the nineteenth century. A man is dragged screaming from his cabin by a group of Danites ? who Mikal called Brigham Young?s ?secret protectors, police, and avengers? [3] ? and held over a hole in the ground while his throat is slit. Mikal and Gary?s mother can be heard over both scenes: ?Would you love that man or woman enough to shed their blood? This is loving our neighbor as ourselves. If he needs help, help him. And if he wants salvation, and if he should commit an offense that requires you to spill his blood on the earth in order that he be saved, spill it. That is the way to love mankind. That is what Brigham Young said? [4].

But frequent depictions of Mormon violence aren?t the only pop culture warnings about the dangers Mormons may pose to their fellow Americans. In his 2008 film Religulous, satirist Bill Maher vehemently argued that all religion is irrational, but Mormonism is one of the most nonsensical: ?To be a Mormon is to believe some really crazy stuff. Crazy even by the standards of the big religions.? Using clips of the animated sequence from the 1982 evangelical propaganda film The God Makers?without identifying the film, thus leaving viewers open to misinterpret the clips as from a Mormon source?Maher outlined several of the most peculiar sounding Mormon beliefs. The craziest of all? ?Caffeine is evil, but magic underwear can protect you.? Text superimposed over an image of the torsos of a man and a woman in temple garments explained: ?Temple garments protect you from: Fire, Knives, Bullets, Satan.? Thus the ?magic underwear? that are often brought up in discussions about Mitt Romney are, to Maher, evidence of the ridiculousness (or ?religulousness?) of many of the Saints? key beliefs. According to Maher, people who adhered to such beliefs are a danger to others in our democratic nation because, through their participation in the political system, they can impose their irrational and dangerous beliefs on others [5].

What then to make of the mix of images of Mormons in contemporary American culture? Are the Saints really viewed as dangerous to other Americans, or desirous of imposing their unique beliefs (both seen and, perhaps, unseen) on their fellow citizens? Or are they more often regarded with good-natured bafflement ? ?how do they believe such strange and irrational things?!?? ? as a tolerated part of America?s diverse community?  And, if the latter, how much better is that, really?

 

 

[1] See, for example, J. Spencer Fluhman, A ?Peculiar People?: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), and Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] Gilmore, Shot in the Heart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), xi, 17 ? 21, 253.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Shot in the Heart, Agnieszka Holland, dir. (USA: HBO Films, 2001).

[5] Larry Charles, dir. Religulous (USA: Lions Gate, 2008).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Politics Popular Culture


Comments

  1. Great write-up, Cristine. For violence, I also always point to Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which has probably been read more than any other book written on Mormonism.

    I think Matt B has been correct in constantly pointing out how American culture has become more willing to embrace Mormonism–as long as Mormonism belongs on stage and out of complete assimilation.

    Comment by Ben P — October 9, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  2. Excellent, Crissy. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — October 9, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

  3. Thanks, Crissy– nice summary of the most recent and visible Mormon media moments. Although I knew Gary Gilmore was a Mormon, I was unfamiliar with his brother’s memoir, and the extent to which the family bought into blood atonement, etc. Do you know whether Norman Mailer’s famous book (and later film), _The Executioner’s Song_, dealt to any extent with the Mormon undercurrents that you describe here?

    Comment by Andrea R-M — October 9, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  4. Very nice. Thanks, Cristine.

    Comment by David G. — October 9, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  5. @Ben: Yes, Krakauer is probably the best-known example, though I’m regularly disheartened by how many people are dismayed when I tell them that I don’t like the book — I’m frequently told its “the best book I’ve *ever* read about Mormons!”

    @Andrea: ABSOLUTELY, Mormonism plays a huge role in Mailer’s *The Executioner’s Song*, though interestingly it’s wholly absent from the film adaptation. Mailer isn’t anywhere near as blunt as Mikal Gilmore, however, in blaming Mormonism as a shaping force in Gary Gilmore’s life and death. Rather, he paints it as the backdrop against which all of Gilmore’s final crimes take place — and implies that a man with Gary Gilmore’s problems, especially with authority, was bound for serious trouble the second he walked into Mormon Utah.

    Comment by Cristine — October 9, 2012 @ 3:27 pm


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