Like other large faith groups, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sometimes finds itself on the receiving end of attention from Hollywood or Broadway, television series or books, and the news media. Sometimes depictions of the Church and its people are quite accurate. Sometimes the images are false or play to stereotypes. Occasionally, they are in appallingly bad taste.
As Catholics, Jews and Muslims have known for centuries, such attention is inevitable once an institution or faith group reaches a size or prominence sufficient to attract notice. Yet Latter-day Saints – sometimes known as Mormons - still wonder whether and how they should respond when news or entertainment media insensitively trivialize or misrepresent sacred beliefs or practices.
Church members are about to face that question again. Before the first season of the HBO series Big Love aired more than two years ago, the show’s creators and HBO executives assured the Church that the series wouldn’t be about Mormons. However, Internet references to Big Love indicate that more and more Mormon themes are now being woven into the show and that the characters are often unsympathetic figures who come across as narrow and self-righteous. And according to TV Guide, it now seems the show’s writers are to depict what they understand to be sacred temple ceremonies.
Certainly Church members are offended when their most sacred practices are misrepresented or presented without context or understanding. Last week some Church members began e-mail chains calling for cancellations of subscriptions to AOL, which, like HBO, is owned by Time Warner. Certainly such a boycott by hundreds of thousands of computer-savvy Latter-day Saints could have an economic impact on the company. Individual Latter-day Saints have the right to take such actions if they choose.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series. As Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Robert D. Hales of the Council of the Twelve Apostles have both said recently, when expressing themselves in the public arena, Latter-day Saints should conduct themselves with dignity and thoughtfulness.
Not only is this the model that Jesus Christ taught and demonstrated in his own life, but it also reflects the reality of the strength and maturity of Church members today. As someone recently said, “This isn’t 1830, and there aren’t just six of us anymore.” In other words, with a global membership of thirteen and a half million there is no need to feel defensive when the Church is moving forward so rapidly. The Church’s strength is in its faithful members in 170-plus countries, and there is no evidence that extreme misrepresentations in the media that appeal only to a narrow audience have any long-term negative effect on the Church.
* During the Mitt Romney election campaign for the presidency of the United States, commentator Lawrence O’Donnell hurled abuse at the Church in a television moment that became known among many Church members as “the O’Donnell rant.” Today, his statements are remembered only as a testament to intolerance and ignorance. They had no effect on the Church that can be measured.
* When the comedy writers for South Park produced a gross portrayal of Church history, individual Church members no doubt felt uncomfortable. But once again it inflicted no perceptible or lasting damage to a church that is growing by at least a quarter of a million new members every year.
* When an independent film company produced a grossly distorted version of the Mountain Meadows Massacre two years ago, the Church ignored it. Perhaps partly as a result of that refusal to engender the controversy that the producers hoped for, the movie flopped at the box office and lost millions.
* In recent months, some gay activists have barraged the media with accusations about “hateful” attitudes of Latter-day Saints in supporting Proposition 8 in California, which maintained the traditional definition of marriage. They even organized a protest march around the Salt Lake Temple. Again, the Church has refused to be goaded into a Mormons versus gays battle and has simply stated its position in tones that are reasonable and respectful. Meanwhile, missionary work and Church members in California remain as robust and vibrant as ever, and support for the Church has come from many unexpected quarters — including some former critics and other churches.
Now comes another series of Big Love, and despite earlier assurances from HBO it once again blurs the distinctions between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the show’s fictional non-Mormon characters and their practices. Such things say much more about the insensitivities of writers, producers and TV executives than they say about Latter-day Saints.
If the Church allowed critics and opponents to choose the ground on which its battles are fought, it would risk being distracted from the focus and mission it has pursued successfully for nearly 180 years. Instead, the Church itself will determine its own course as it continues to preach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.