When Good Stuff Hurts

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.

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8 Responses

  1. aerin says:

    Hellmut, thanks for this post.

    I watched an hour of the program last night, and I’m looking forward to watching tonight’s segment.

    I completely agree that the crisis falls squarely on the shoulders of the leadership. Think Boyd K Packer’s What is true is not useful speech.

    Personally, I thought it was well done. I would watch it with my never mormon husband and his family, as well as with my active mormon family. And there aren’t many things that bridge that gap. This was not the families are forever missionary video – but was also not the godmakers. It was a well done in between documentary.

    You can’t hide history. You can’t hide facts. Joseph Smith dug for treasure. He had different versions of the first vision. Sure, the kirtland bank was glossed over. But they mentioned the Nauvoo charter – and the fact the JS was the mayor, chief judge and head of the army. No wonder the neighbors were nervous!

    So much of what has gone on in the past 60 years in LDS headquarters is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. The only way anyone is going to get through this is to admit to what happened and admit to a cover up. And many people may be hurt and upset in the process. In the end, the truth will set you free, as the cliche goes.

  2. We already see the machine gearing up to chew Mormonism up. I posted about it recently. My wife and I learned a couple new things watching the show. For me, I never knew that the MMM was so cold-blooded. Chilling.

  3. Zim says:

    I’m watching it later this week with my believer wife. I hope it helps her see things a little differently.

  4. JulieAnn says:

    It disappointed me, this show. I don’t know why. I felt too much sugar coating was added on. The ‘apostates’ and ex-Mormons should have had more of a voice in terms of what Mormonism TODAY is like, not that sugar-coated b.s. of ‘Families are Forever” crap. I mean, did you even KNOW any families like the one’s they portrayed? Yeah, there was maybe ONE in every ward, but on the whole, not so much.

  5. The Sacred Sister says:

    I am glad you posted this as well! I watched parts 1 & 2 and was thrilled to see so many issues discussed.
    I wish they would have covered more on Native Americans and DNA. It was mentioned, but never talked about thoroughly.
    Blacks and the Priesthood was interesting, but they never discussed Elijah Able or some of the other black men that held the priesthood prior to 1978.
    What did everyone think about the families they interviewed regarding their faith and belief in the “only true church”? I was a little disturbed with the man discussing his wife’s death after the birth of their 8th child. He was adament that he and his wife had prayed together fervently, asking Heavenly Father if there was “another spirit child waiting for them”, and they received the answer that she should get pregnant again. She was in her mid-40’s and already had 7 children. He admitted that it was very risky for her to have another child, but Heavenly Father guided them to do so. Her oldest son was on a mission in South America, if you recall. After the birth of her son, a blood clot traveled to her lungs and killed her. The father sent word to the son in South America that his mother had died, but there were no telephones, so the mission president left a note on the child’s door, “Call home, your mother has passed away…”. When the child calls his father, the father tells him to STAY on his mission and NOT come home for the funeral because that’s what his mother would have wanted; “She wanted to raised strong son’s that would serve missions”.
    Wow. How would an outsider look at this? We know that any TBM would be in awe and say, “There’s a very strong family with an incredible amount of faith…” But to the average (unbrainwashed) person, I think most of us can say this is very sad and, quite honestly, it makes me angry that the child was never able to have that closure at the funeral.
    But my favorite quote was from Tal Bachman who compared his unwavering belief and conviction to that of a terrorist bomber when he said something like, “If my mission president would have asked me to strap on a bomb, like a terrorist bomber, I would have said, ‘Just tell me where to go and when…'” Loved it, Tal! I had a good laugh. Amen, brother.

  6. Hellmut says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Aerin.

    Jonathan, it is chilling. The lesson of Mountain Meadows is that virtue does not protect us from perpetrating evil. Paraphrasing Adam Smith, in this case virtue facilitated evil by suspending the killers’ conscience.

    If it isn’t too private, Zim, I would love to learn about your wife’s response.

    I sympathize with your frustration, Julie Ann. Most post-Mormons would love an exposé of Mormon leaders. Whitney wanted to provide viewers with several perspectives of Mormonism. I do think that the “positive” aspects were authentic representations of Mormon aspirations.

    May be, one way post-Mormons can relate to that is to perceive the material as snapshots before and after our disillusion.

  7. Zim says:

    We had a busy week and weekend so we only saw the first hour. So far, I’m a bit disappointed insofar as it hasn’t really hit hard on anything. We stopped it right after the martyrdom because we were both tired. So far, her reaction was muted. The only thing she really said was, “I just don’t see how JS could have written the BoM by himself.” Which to me is progress. To me it meant she was thinking about it. I think if I could get her to read Mormon Enigma or Sacred Loneliness, she might see things differently. Sometimes I walk around our ward and see the cute teenage girls and want to say, “What would you say if someone my age said this girl has to marry him?” If someone thinks about it in real terms, I think it’s very hard to justify.

    Yesterday was F&T and nary a mention in my ward about it. Nada. My sons go to a different ward (because it meets earlier) and they said a woman was practically screaming about this “awful” PBS documentary. Another guy got up and said the very fact that they called it “The Mormons” was offensive. That made me laugh because it reminded me of an episode of “The Office” where Michael asks Oscar if there is a less offensive term than “Mexican” for his nationality. Oscar says, “I am Mexican. It’s not an offensive term.” Michael responds, “Well, it has connotations.”

  8. Hellmut says:

    That’s hilarious, Zim! The answer to your wife’s question is plagiarism. Grant Palmer’s book might contain a list of the Book of Mormon’s sources. Obviously, substantial sections have been copied from the King James Bible, including its translation mistakes from Isaiah.

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