On Thursday, August 23, 2012, NBC’s news program, anchored by Brian Williams, featured an entire hour on “Mormons in America.” Knowing that two of my friends, Joanna Brooks and Mitch Mayne, were going to be interviewed I was very excited to watch it. However, I approached it with a lot of apprehension because you just never know how the media is going to examine your faith. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, here are the five segments of the show.
I came away from the program delightfully surprised. I was a teenager when then-President of the church, Gordon B. Hinckley, was interviewed by Mike Wallace. It felt like as Mormons we all held our collective breath. President Hinckley came off as warm, funny, genuine, sweet, and he made all of us proud. But because we Mormons, as a collective group, are so used to being criticized (I’ve read it all, we’re a cult, not-Christian, devil worshipers, robots, etc.), we all get a little uptight when we’re put in the media spotlight. And boy, are we ever in the media spotlight right now as Mitt Romney is about to accept the Republican party’s nomination for President, and become the first Mormon ever to be nominee for a major political party. Phew, it’s kind of nerve-wracking for us American Mormons who only make up 2% of the country’s population.
So, I thought I’d dissect this piece done by Rock Center and tell you what I liked and what I didn’t like. Saying that, I have to say that the positives far outweigh the negatives and I felt like the producers and Brian Williams did an amazingly balanced piece.
What I did like
-Finding out the man who started Jet Blue is a Mormon. I never realized that and they are by far my favorite airline. The entire first piece made Mormons seem very successful, hard-working, showed how serving a mission prepares us to be hard workers, and pointed out that we pay for our missions ourselves.
-Section two presented church history (while not accurately) with a fair shake. It did not make us Mormons seem like big weirdos, instead it pointed out that every religion has it’s fantastical stories, thereby normalizing us.
-Polygamy was basically glossed over and the church historian, Elder Steven Snow, made it a point to say the church stopped practicing polygamy after a revelation received by then prophet, Wilford Woodruff, in 1890, just in case anyone out there still believes that main stream Mormons practice plural marriage. They could have gotten into some heavy Mormon history that isn’t very flattering (Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage without the consent and knowledge of his wife Emma, anyone?) Instead, the program spent barely a minute on it and let a church authority explain it instead of someone very anti-Mormon, which they could have done.
-The talked about the priesthood ban for African Americans prior to 1978, but then asked an African American man how he felt about it. Again, kudos for going to the person who would know his experience best.
-I loved the third section, which featured modern Mormon families. I loved how the bi-racial family was presented as funny, normal, nice, and really good parents. When asked if the father, who is African American, ever experienced discrimination in the church, he said never. (Oh, how I wish the same could be said for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the Gospel). The family talked about their standards, like the Word of Wisdom, without seeming preachy or judgmental. They talked about their garments, and even made a joke about them, “Magic underwear,” which made them seem down to earth.
-Featuring my friends Joanna Brooks and Mitch Mayne were big thrills for me. I liked how with Joanna they addressed Mormon feminism, without making it seem like all Mormon women feel the same way. However, knowing Joanna I know she had a lot of great things to say and what they showed was highly edited. Mitch Mayne is someone I look up to a lot. He has the most beautiful testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and shows more courage and dignity on a daily basis than most people get to show in a lifetime. He is Executive Secretary in his ward and is out-spoken on what it means to be both gay and Mormon. As my brother said on Facebook (I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting), “Mitch Mayne is a class act and more courageous than I could ever imagine being. Every ward needs a Mitch Mayne.” I agree.
-I loved how the third segment, by featuring Joanna and Mitch, showed that Mormons are not a homogeneous group and there is a diversity of thought among us. It showed that we’re not some cult where every one dresses, acts, thinks, behaves, and says the same things. We’re all individuals and we have individual experiences.
-I liked how Abby Huntsman shared her experience on marrying a non-Mormon and having her Bishop tell her that if she married him that she would not be blessed. This is her true experience and it highlights the pain that those of us in part-member families often experience. I could write a whole post alone and how hurtful it can be not to have your whole family included in your religion ceremonies, but I won’t delve into that now. She was able to share her experience without seeming hateful or bitter. I didn’t like how they called her a “former Mormon” because until she has her records removed from the church, she is still a member. My mother was inactive for 26 years, but was still a member that entire time.
-I love, Loved, LOVED the fourth section on the Welfare Department and all that it does to help members and non-members alike. I wish they had also visited the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake and had shown all the projects that go on there and how far-reaching church aid and humanitarian efforts are. I didn’t even start realizing the extent of the charitable arm of the church until I started working in the same buildings as the Bishop’s Storehouse, LDS Employment Services, and Deseret Industries. They left out my department of Welfare services which provides clinical counseling to members and non-members, pregnancy counseling and adoption services, but I can live with that.
-I thought it was odd they ended with a gay former-Mormon now starring in Broadway’s musical, “The Book of Mormon” but can understand why since it has been such a popular musical and won several Tony awards. What I did like about that segment? They showed a former Mormon who had very positive things to say about his former church. He teared up when talking about his mission experience and obviously has very fond memories of his time in the mission field. He talked about his parents being missionaries and how they love and accept him even though he has left the fold. I mean, if they wanted to feature some really bitter, hateful, anti-Mormon ex-Mormons they could have found them easily. They didn’t and the ending piece was very positive.
What I didn’t like
-The entire first section about successful Mormons was completely devoid of any females. What about Sherry Dew who is CEO of Deseret Book? There are plenty of successful females in the Mormon church, but they were not featured. Also, it only showed footage of male Mormon missionaries. Many, many Mormon females serve missions which prepare them to be leaders and successful once they are home. They presented the Mormon experience as a uniquely “male” one while leaving out completely what the female Mormon experience is like.
-In the second section, the church history was a little “off.” The church didn’t start when the angel Moroni came to Joseph Smith and told him where a set of golden plates were buried which would become The Book of Mormon, another book of our Scriptures (Mormons also believe in and read the Old and New Testaments). Although Mormons do believe that this did occur, the church started when a 14 year old Joseph Smith went into a grove a trees on his family farm and prayed about which church to join. During this time of American history the country was on religious fire and tent revivals were very common. Smith wanted to know which of these churches was most accurate after reading James 1:5:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God,
that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not;
and it shall be given him.
Mormons believe at this time God, the Father, and his son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Smith and told him not to join any of the churches. It would be a few more years before Smith was visited by the angel Moroni.
– I could have done without the shot of the temple garments. I don’t think the producers realized how offensive that would be to devout Mormons. We regard our garments as sacred and as a symbol of our relationship with Jesus Christ. However, I’ve seen that picture before on the internet (just google Mormon and garments and you can see a lot of pictures, even temple clothing). So, maybe they didn’t realize it was such a big deal when anyone has access to what they look like online. The probably should have checked with someone before showing them.
-They made it seem like all Mormons don’t drink caffeine because Sister Jackson said she didn’t. Most Mormons I know drink their caffeine in soft drink form (never coffee) and it’s only the incredibly devout who don’t. No one has taken my temple recommend away yet for drinking Mnt Dew on a regular basis.
-I wish they would have showed more of Joanna Brooks and Mitch Mayne because they both have a lot of great things to say, but that’s only because I love them both so much.
-They shouldn’t have asked Abby Huntsman all the questions they did. Some of those questions would have better served the program by asking a General Authority, or even better yet, former General Relief Society President, Julie B. Beck, those questions. However, she did the best she could with what she knew and it kind of made sense they’d want to interview the daughter of a former Presidential candidate.
I was literally on a high after watching Rock Center, feeling incredibly proud of the way my faith was portrayed. Which is why I was shocked, shocked, to log on to Facebook afterwards and see so many of my Mormon friends criticizing it. Really? Yeah, there were so good points and a few uncomfortable ones, but overwhelmingly it was positive. More positive than I expected. I would write what I think but Scott D. Pierce already wrote something for the Salt Lake Tribune that says virtually everything I want to say. You can access that here. My favorite part of what he said was this:
Of course, there has been some negative reaction to the hour. No surprise here. Because an attempt to do actual journalism about the church means talking to at least a few people who aren’t big fans. But, in some quarters, anything that’s not glowing praise is viewed as an unwarranted attack. Calm down. It wasn’t.
I find the persecution complex among some Mormons to be so tiring. I get it, our ancestors were driven away from their homes, some were killed, they had to cross the plains, the Missouri Governor issued an extermination order for Mormons, the government forced us to give up polygamy, they martyred our prophet, and other really bad things. But this isn’t the 19th century anymore and Rock Center’s program wasn’t Haun’s Mill. And I find it also annoying when anything that is said about the church isn’t 100% dripping with the utmost admiration for the organization, people call it an attack, even if what is said is true. Stop it. Victimhood looks good on no one. And furthermore, you’re the ones who make Mormons look bad, not whoever is saying whatever you don’t think isn’t flowering and complimentary enough about the church.
Another thing that also does not speak well of us, when we’re so desperately trying to prove that we are Christian, are those Mormons who have been sending hate mail to people like Abby Huntsman and Joanna Brooks. For someone who left the church after a hurtful experience with her Bishop, sending Huntsman a hateful e-mail is not going to make her change her mind and suddenly come back to church. If they’re trying to prove they’re better than her, well they failed. Love and fellowship is what brings people back to the church; not hate and disdain. Also, people tweeted that Joanna Brooks should be excommunicated for talking about female ordination. What the what? This is something Christian women have wrestled with for 2,000 years, her giving a voice to it (when she made it clear that only *some* Mormon feminists feel this way and she has not personally struggled with women not being ordained) does not mean she should be forced to leave the church. And who are you to have the audacity to suggest someone be excommunicated, Mr./Ms. Hate Tweeter? Calling out your sister in the Gospel in that way is just about the least Christ-like reaction you could have. You can read Joanna’s reaction here. I also read some comments online at NBC’s website by members disavowing Mitch Mayne and saying that gay people cannot hold positions of authority in the church. Well, I’m here to rock your world because, as I said above, Mitch is the Executive Secretary in his ward. His bishop specifically asked him to serve in that function to help more gay members, disaffected by Prop 8 since he does live in California, to feel more welcome in church. You can find Mitch’s amazing, beautiful, spiritual blog here.
I feel that Rock Center’s piece was fair and over-whelming positive, when it could have gone in a whole other direction. If the goal was to humanize and normalize Mormons, it succeeded. Mormons came off as intelligent, successful, charitable, diverse, and just plain old regular folk. And Mitt Romney should be thanking them for the great PR job they did for him, especially when Brian Williams asked Harry Smith asked if he could see Romney as a Bishop, helping and leading his congregation and he said yes, well anyone planning on voting for Romney should see that as a win. I’ve heard from several of my non-Mormon friends who have said that Rock Center was so positive that Mitt should just show it on the election trail. If you want Mitt to win, why are you complaining?