Imagine a four-hour documentary on the Mormon church that skips its most prominent member in the country today, Mitt Romney.
“The Mormons,” a collaboration between PBS powerhouse series ” Frontline ” and ” American Experience, ” is that show. Yet its mere airing may finally force the former governor to explain publicly his faith and its influence on him as a politician, much as John Kennedy did with his Catholicism in 1960. What it will surely do is complicate his run for the White House.
The Romney candidacy notwithstanding, it’s high time that Americans separate fact from fiction about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is officially called. The timing is excellent for veteran documentarian Helen Whitney, whose fascinating look at the Mormons airs Monday and Tuesday on WGBH.
Many church members will chafe at Whitney’s spotlight, while countless non-Mormons will be shocked by church history and practices. They will be put off by its secrecy and authoritarian structure. By the absence of black men as full members until 1978. By its early embrace of polygamy.
They will find risible the notion that the Garden of Eden was located in what is now Jackson County, Mo., or that ancient Israelites came to America more than 2 , 000 years ago. The early Christian church looked loony to a lot of people, too, yet it has had 2,000 years to polish its myths. The Mormon church is less than 180 years old.
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Still, the Mormons have spooked America since the church’s creation. Joseph Smith was called a fraud when he founded the church in 1830, and despite its best efforts to inject itself into the American cultural mainstream, the church is still viewed with suspicion in some quarters. Polls show that a substantial number of Americans would not vote for a Mormon for president. Catholic and Protestant denominations alike have challenged the inclusion of the church in historic Christianity.
Are the Mormons victims of home-grown bigotry? That is certainly at play. And, notes Yale professor Harold Bloom, America’s Yoda on all things spiritual, “All religion depends on revelation. All revelation is supernatural. If you wish to be a rock hard empiricist, then you should not entertain any religious doctrine whatsoever.”
“The Mormons” brims with informed talking heads — church historians, journalists, church elders, and a constellation of happy Mormons. It would have helped to identify Mormon from non-Mormon but never mind. Romney appears briefly in a film clip but is never heard from; according to PBS, he declined to participate.
The story is not particularly a visual one. There are re – creations of seminal events and a full array of paintings and still photography, but this story needs little help. It is strange and compelling all by itself.
The first episode pursues a linear path beginning with the early life of Smith and follows his visions, including one he received of the Angel Moroni, who directed him to the golden tablets of the Book of Mormon buried near his home in Palmyra, N.Y. Smith then travels amid steady persecution to Ohio, Missouri, and finally Illinois. He created his own theocracy in Nauvoo, and was later killed in Carthage by a mob incensed, among other things, over allegations that Smith practiced polygamy.
Brigham Young then led the faithful in a brutal trip to what is now Salt Lake City. By then, the Mormons had built two themes elemental to religious and social movements — persecution and exodus. While Mormons denied courting persecution, they kept running into it at alarming rates. And like Moses leading his flock to the Promised Land or Mao Zedong’s Long March, Young’s exodus cemented imagery crucial to the church’s foundations.
We see both the bleakness of the Salt Lake area and the beauty of Mountain Meadows, where in 1857 Mormons participated in the massacre of 120 men, women, and children from Arkansas traveling west in wagons. This outrage was compounded by an appalling coverup. The event has plagued the church’s image ever since.
The second episode brings the story to the present. The Mormons labored through the 20th century to repair their image. They created a huge, strict missionary effort to troll the world for converts, and have emphasized the role of Jesus Christ in their church. Their on-the-ground aid after Hurricane Katrina was remarkable.
Yet we also hear from a Mormon feminist excommunicated for challenging the submissive role of women in the church social order — the church was instrumental in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment — and a gay Mormon who was forced to leave the church.
The Mormons today are, in many ways, a success story. Their church is, per capita, the richest in America. It is politically powerful. Its Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings at presidential inaugurations.
And yet, even after four hours of “The Mormons,” it’s hard to digest the institution. While all organized religions have attributes that sound daft to some and offensive to others, the Mormons, for whatever reason, seem to have more than their share. You be the judge.