My sympathy to the bishops who have to deal with the anxieties of members who watched the Frontline documentary The Mormons. But lets face it, it’s going to get a lot worse during the presidential campaign. However painful, Helen Whitney’s work is affording Mormons a soft landing.
According to the documentary’s trailer, Whitney’s goal is to reduce the public’s misunderstanding of Mormonism. At a time when a serious candidate for president is Mormon, a motion picture about Mountain Meadows is about to be screened, and polygamists appear on the FBI’s most wanted list, of course, one has to engage Mormon negatives.
The effective way to deal with negatives is to tell the story yourself, tell it early, and tell it all. If Mormon and sympathetic voices were to remain silent then they would only create an opportunity for their opponents to exploit the negatives.
That’s not how negatives have been handled in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon leaders have been spoiled because they have been able to control the content of the conversation among Mormons for decades. That won’t work in the age of the Internet, especially not when Mitt Romney is a contender for the nomination. There are too many avenues to publish and many people have an interest in depicting Mormons in unflattering ways.
It turns out that the Correlation and Strengthening the Members Committees have created substantial vulnerabilities when they treated the members like children that could not handle the truth. The hysterical response of some believers to The Mormons and the apparent emergence of urban legends show that the correlated approach has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As was inevitable, new Mormon history had to reach the membership eventually and now the impact is needlessly severe because leaders considered it their duty to shelter members.
I understand that many believers will experience Helen Whitney’s work as a challenge to their faith. Those critiques fail to appreciate the ardor of political agitators who are about to attack Mormonism with whisper and e-mail campaigns to damage Mitt Romney. If anyone is to blame for members’ crisis of faith, it is not Helen Whitney but Mormon leaders who have sheltered Mormons from historical realities for too long.
Mormon leaders are lucky that someone like Whitney is making an extraordinary effort to talk about the negatives in a rational manner putting polygamy and MMM into their historical context. Helen Whitney is doing the work that Salt Lake should have been doing all along.
In the past, we have made it a practice to demonize dozens of good men and women when their research did not confirm our religious bias. Lets not demonize Helen Whitney. She is doing Mormons a service by exploring the Mormon experience in a caring and rational manner at a time when we are about to become the target of spin masters and agitators. For that Helen Whitney deserves our gratitude and hospitality.