Saturday, June 2, 2007

PBS: The Mormons -- Another response

Here's a more energetic and complete response to PBS's documentary on the Mormons from a month or so back by a university professor who's LDS:

Response to PBS Program on the Mormons

by Thomas E. Sherry, May 8, 2007

Dear PBS,

I was disturbed and disappointed in the imbalanced portrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which you aired on April 30 and May 1, 2007. I wish to state some of my disgust with your method and message. My comments, of course, represent my own views and I am not speaking in any way as an official representative of the LDS Church. Nevertheless, I do have some qualifications: I am an adult convert to the LDS Church; my masters and doctoral degrees included a minor in religious studies; I have been an LDS Religious Educator for 34 years, the last 28 of those at Eastern Washington University, Pennsylvania State University, Brigham Young University, and Oregon State University. I teach World Religions, Bible and Christian History, LDS History and Doctrine. I serve as adjunct faculty of the OSU History Department, and on the Boards of the Holocaust Memorial Committee and Religious Advisors Association at OSU (the latter is a coordinating body of the 28 religious groups which function on the campus of Oregon State University). My experience and education have contributed to the sense that producers had just accomplished one of the most seriously skewed programs I've ever seen. When I view "anti-Mormon" films and literature, at least they are overt in their mission and purpose; yours, however, was a program from which viewers expect fairness and balance but which delivered just the opposite - a sort of "wolf in sheep's' clothing" experience. You described a church that I do not recognize which did not portray my beliefs, and almost wholly missed the mark for accurate journalism.

My family has been staunch and consistent supporters of PBS both in time, devotion, and money - this program causes me to re-evaluate the respect we have held for you and our future financial support. If on a subject of which I know much, you present such an imbalanced representation, what does that mean for so many other programs for which I know little? That is a disturbing thought.

Before going further, I wish to recognize the admirable portrayal of certain topics: The international welfare and humanitarian aid efforts of the Church; the conversion story of the former drug addict; and, your sensitive treatment of the challenges of homosexual lifestyle and Church doctrine & practice regarding such. Thank you for those elements.

PBS Purpose and Vision For days after the program I sincerely wondered just how the mission and purpose of your presentation had developed. Had it begun ostensibly with the intent to broadly "explore" Mormonism or was it driven by a darker mission? Regardless of the original intent, the show felt like the producers at some point progressively digressed from a balanced exploration to an intent to "expose the under-belly of Mormonism." In an interesting comment from one of my university students, he said that he (a new convert) had invited his non-LDS roommates to watch the show with him. During the show he felt terrible and wondered what "damage" he'd done by so inviting them. But afterward, they turned to him and said; "I thought we were going to learn something about your Church in this program but this was just a rehash of all the crap we hear constantly - we didn't learn anything new." By the way, the most uniform observation I heard from students was that from the first minutes of the program, they knew this would be a bad experience - it felt dark, ugly, and ominous. Did the producers and interviewers just become enamored with all the controversy and forget their journalistic responsibility? It's a baffle to me. But the program evidenced a production that seemed intent on:

1) "Knocking Mormonism down a notch or two;"

2) Tipping the "great American religion" off its pedestal" (if it ever were on one); and,

3) portraying Mormon history and doctrine as cultic, deceitful and secretive, absurd, and outlandishly weird.

What follows is some comment on areas in which I feel you did a disservice and left viewers with skewed and erroneous impressions:

Imbalance: Krister Stendall, former Dean of Religion at Harvard University and Episcopal bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, has stated 3 rules which guide his participation on interfaith discussion and exploration of other religions. The first two are: 1) "If you're going to ask the question as to what others believe, ask them - not their critics, not their enemies because what one tradition says of another is usually a breach of the 9th commandment - "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." It is important that we do not picture the other person's faith in a manner they do not recognize as true; 2) "If you're going to compare, don't compare your bests with their worsts. Most think of their own tradition as it is at its best and they use caricatures of the others." In the case of your program, it was not so much one religious view opposing another, it was the slick and sophisticated portrayal of the "intellectual and dissident" view verses the "un-intellectual and blindly obedient" Mormon mainstream and leadership - an unfortunate and mistaken dichotomy. Regarding Stendall's rules, PBS somehow decided to give a time ratio of approximately 10-1 to non-LDS commentators and those who are bitter former members with an axe to grind (several of whom I know personally). Do those persons have a legitimate story to tell and a right to tell it - of course. But those persons were given the overwhelming amount of time and when time was given to the few LDS commentators - particularly in part 1 -- it was in short and awkward clips with little context and sometimes so weird and irrelevant that you wondered why PBS even included the clip. For example, with an almost dismissive manner you trivialized the Book of Mormon by numerous references to a strange and magical translation story, DNA accusations of unreliability, and Antebellum American context for book which you portrayed as very human and very flawed. No matter that the book is among the most widely sold books in the world, that millions of converts trace their conversions to the text, and that intelligent people actually believe it. No, the best you could come up with on a positive note was a non-LDS "poet" commenting on how he really enjoyed the Book of Mormon as a quaint self expose of Joseph Smith and hot button issues in his culture. Additionally, Terryl Givens (a respected author) was given the bulk of his time on the first night to an exploration of Mormon "dance" as theology - what's up with that? Weird? Yes. Representative? No. So was that the modus operandi of PBS - to emphasize "weird?" Did Givens misrepresent us? No, but the relevance of that portion to LDS history and theology was so insignificant and strained, and the presentation so mystical that it effectively conveyed strangeness - a seemingly central intent of the producers. And that relatively irrelevant portion was given more time than any other issue from LDS commentators in program 1- shameful misappropriation of time.

Mystical strangeness was the hallmark of nearly every piece of art, shadowy background, and eerie music selections which dominated the show and exercised such an oppressive feeling. Did you want to portray Joseph Smith and LDS belief as demented and strange-perhaps even evil? Even the voice intonation and script of the main commentator added to the "secret, strange, and oppressive" aura of the show which focused on the sensational and eschewed the compelling and easy to understand story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its international growth. As such, the expose was masterfully crafted if what PBS wanted to emphasize was "strange, secret, and oppressive." Watching the show was akin to reading one of the tabloids on the news stand - titillating but unreliable and misrepresentative. Is that what the producers sought to accomplish? If not, one would ask where the art loved by Latter-day Saints was; where was the light, cheery and faith filled art, music, and landscape which so represents us and is produced 100-1 over that which was chosen by the producers? Where were the pictures of Joseph Smith that looked normal? And where were the devoted, faith filled "normal" every-day Latter-day Saints in the show - particularly in Part 1? By the millions, they are the real story of the Latter-day Saints. Where were the intellectuals, scientists, and eminent public servants who believe? Apparently including such would have worked against the purposes of PBS. Doesn't it seem rather contrary to logic to assume that anyone who believes in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its doctrine is ignorant, oppressed, or mentally incapable to discern "the real story" astutely "uncovered" by PBS? That's the message your program conveyed. Yes, you did give attention to Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, but the context made no effort to cast them as reasonably intelligent disciples - rather, it was to explore whether a Mormon could be elected to any significant office given the strangeness of this religion.

Balance in the Issues: In Part 1 (Monday evening), you took roughly the first 100 years of LDS Church history. HALF of that program was reduced to 2 events - plural marriage and the Mountain Meadows massacre. The rest was devoted largely to your view of how strange, mysterious, and weird Joseph Smith apparently was. Was that the best you could do for 100 years of history, accomplishment, and contribution?

1) Mountain Meadows - no question about it, this is the darkest piece of LDS history with despicable acts by members and local leaders - thank you for including Elder Dallin H. Oaks comment on it. Among historians in and out of the LDS Church, there is significant challenge and varied interpretation in print on this subject and you covered NONE of the debate except a brief statement by one LDS historian who said he was satisfied that blame did not lay in the office of Brigham Young. But he had maybe 3 seconds, compared to 20 minutes by critic historians. The truth is, the most debatable aspect of this story is the knowledge and responsibility of Brigham Young. You gave that debate almost no time, not even mentioning it as a legitimate point of disagreement among qualified historians. After allowing critics to lambaste Church responsibility for the event you feature a preposterous summary statement as proof that the murderous edict came from Brigham Young - "Young was governor of the territory and nothing happened without his knowledge." What a silly statement. The Utah territory was a big chunk of land (encompassing current Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado), and pre-dated telegraph services at the time (Mountain Meadows was a 3-day hard ride from SLC). Just how did Brigham Young magically control and know "everything" going on in the territory? And how about the indisputable historical record that a rider was sent to Young to get advice on the pending crisis but could not have arrived, conferred, and returned before the massacre had occurred? On a related matter, consider the restrained position of Brigham Young regarding not harming any individual from the invading forces of the United States Army who were heading into the valley? He did direct harassment and the capture of supply wagons; he did prepare members to once again leave their homes in the valley and to burn them if necessary to give the army no benefit from arriving in SLC. But it is well known that with all the skirmishes and threat, no direction was ever given to contest by firearms the invasion. Doesn't that seem a little contrary to Brigham Young then turning around and ordering the deaths of men, women, and children in an immigrating pioneer train? So where was the balance in the PBS report on this issue? You strongly accused Young and others of "running out of town" federal officials sent to govern Utah. But where was the coverage of those same officials acting illegally and mistreating the saints? Again, that was a balance you seemed uninterested in covering.

2) Plural Marriage - here again, where were the first-hand journal records of this policy and practice being a blessing to people, a trial of faith that in the end strengthened their testimony of Joseph Smith's inspiration in the matter and of the Lord's hand in this? No where to be found. But by far the greatest disservice done in the PBS report and other writings on this subject was to cast it as a sex-crazed policy of a lunatic gone mad with power - as though this practice was invented by Joseph Smith. Did you check into this interpretation - or was it just the sensational and pejorative that you were interested in?

Point One: Plural marriage was a common Bible practice. COMMON - not exceptional and weird to Bible peoples. All Bible believers, both Jewish and Christian must wrestle with that. And Jesus himself held up as the quintessential prophets and people of faith those who practiced plural marriage (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc.). The Savior even went so far as to liken himself to the great Moses and heaven to Abrahams' bosom. Sounds like Jesus didn't have a problem with the practice. But did you mention that? Of course not - it didn't seem to fit in your production purposes. After all, that would make plural marriage in modern times a restoration of lauded biblical precedent instead of a weird invention of Joseph Smith - not a message you apparently wanted to risk conveying. Latter-day Saints do not apologize for following the Lord's direction on this matter. We have nothing to hide. I may personally never wish to participate in the practice but it is not a source of embarrassment.

Point Two: Did you look into the history of this with Joseph Smith? Do you know that while studying the Bible he came across the plural marriages of these early venerated prophets and was in such shock that he went to the Lord in prayer to ask how in the world such a practice could be acceptable? And to his dismay and disgust, he was answered by the Lord - but not with an answer he could have ever imagined. In our publicly accessible scriptures (Doctrine and Covenants 132) the Lord answers by saying that He would tell Joseph Smith the answer, but once He did, Joseph would be asked to live the same law. This is among the best known and accessible of historical records on the subject but was never mentioned by you. And what a surprise - none of the critics mentioned it either!

Point Three: You erroneously portrayed plural marriage as an LDS requirement to enter heaven. That is how many fundamentalist polygamists think (you gave a lot of coverage to them!). But that has never been the doctrine of the LDS Church. Celestial marriage is a practice whereby two worthy individuals enter a marriage covenant and have it sealed by one having priesthood authority - period. That policy includes monogamous and plural marriages but the latter does not overshadow the former. You altogether failed to make this distinction in your show even though you devoted 40 minutes to the subject. And where were the respected LDS voices on the beauty of this belief? No where to be found in your skewed representation.

3) Missionary Service - In night two, you devoted a fair amount of time to a subject which deserves it - the amazing missionary program of the Church. But what was the dominant message you conveyed? It was that LDS missionaries are mindless automatons doing what they cannot choose not to do - no choice, no choice, no choice - "you go, you go, you just go," was the repeated message. And then to make things worse, 3 of the 4 voices you gave time to were missionaries who apparently went under real or imagined duress and subsequently abandoned the LDS Church. What a disservice - skewed and bigoted, flawed and incomplete. You portrayed such service, the LDS culture which encourages it, and the Church program which sponsors it as oppressive, mechanical, and regimented to the point of intellectual and emotional pain. It was Jesus that "commanded" (yes, commanded - not lightly "suggested") that disciples go into all the world and preach repentance, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, baptism, and enduring in obedience to the gospel - "Mormons" didn't make that up. Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of young men and women and older couples who were preparing and did serve missions. In my experience less than 1% have any such feelings which you portrayed as "normal." They deeply desired to serve, they saved and sacrificed to serve, and they count the time as the best years of their lives. Where was that message in your presentation? You did give the positive some time but there, again, it was minor compared to the negative interpretation. I can, again, only surmise that the overwhelmingly positive experience of hundreds of thousands of individuals was of little interest to you - you had a purpose and that overwhelming set of evidence did not fit within your purposes so you largely left it out.

To your credit however, you did give liberal time to the story of one woman convert and how the gospel had blessed her. Also, you allowed Marlin K. Jensen to tell his mission experience. Thank you for doing that.

4) The LDS Church is secretively rich and power hungry - I think you would have done well to return to the public record on this and how President Gordon B. Hinckley has repeatedly summarized in public interviews the wealth of the Church. Most of that wealth is in income consuming, not income producing ventures - the bulk of which are chapels and other worship and welfare structures and land. To the amazing credit and faithfulness of members, many do fully observe the Law of Tithing and pay 10% of their income to the Church - we don't look at that as a suppressive burden. But again, that's a biblical precedence of which we again follow in our day whereas you portrayed it as a mysterious coupe accomplished by secretive power hungry church leaders. "They have devious plans and bilk their members so they can exercise power over them to get personal gain and insure that no one questions their practices" - was the ridiculous mystique purveyed by critics. It's just plain wrong on it's face, wrong in fact, and wrong in interpretation but none of that deterred the producers.

For many years I have been part of and witness to the extraordinary auditing practices of the Church to insure that all sacred funds are handled legally and appropriately - I can assure you that it is done in minute detail. In addition, the Church hires non-LDS auditing services to assess its handling of these funds and to make an annual public statement. While the individual expenditures are not public record, those expenditures are publicly audited (a requirement by the Federal government for "non-profit" organizations).

I am grateful for the law of tithing, that as members we can share the blessings granted us and elevate our brothers and sisters around the world both in and out of LDS membership. Tithing monies allows the work to go forward throughout the world and those few leaders (very few by comparison), who do receive a living stipend receive very little. They are poorer than if they held normal jobs in the world and anyone who portrays the leaders as accessing income from tithing funds to live luxuriously is mistaken. Those who publicly portray this message are ill-informed or downright dishonest.

You did equally poorly on the portrayal of temples and their purposes, on Church disciplinary councils, and governance. I am very familiar with these issues and you did not portray an honest and balanced perspective. Again and again your cast and backdrops were intended to convey strangeness, weirdness, thoughtless obedience, and extreme authoritarianism on the part of LDS leaders and the membership. You portrayed little respect, a great deal of antagonism, and a general avoidance of the grandness of the Church and its doctrines. One wonders just how the LDS Church could be growing at all given your abysmal assessment. Was that irony lost on you? Or do you simply explain it by adjudging LDS members and converts to be from the poor and downtrodden, the uneducated and desperate and hence largely unknowledgeable and indiscriminate?

I could go on with other subjects but I hope I have adequately made the point. I'm sorry that you chose to do the show you did. I think you have done a serious disservice to the viewing public and to the reputation of PBS. I believe that viewers were left with erroneous ideas and impressions and the responsibility for that lies directly on your shoulders.

I especially like Thomas' comment about the artwork and music in the documentary. I had neither seen nor heard 80% of the music and pictures from the documentary -- I'm not sure where they got it all, but I wasn't particularly fond of it. LDS music is bright and cheerful, and so is LDS artwork. To see what I mean, download some of the free music and art from, which is a lot better. Make sure you check out the seminary music for the youth, it's quite well done.

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