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May 02, 2007

Mormons on PBS

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I got an early look at PBS's current two-part American Experience documentary about the Mormons and found it very worthwhile. It certainly has plenty of the PBS-docu tics that I mocked back here: over-solemnity, slowness, humorlessness, draggy music. But it redeems the form by being surprisingly multidimensional, nuanced, and open. If Mormonism sometimes looks as bizarre as Scientology, it has also done a lot of people a lot of good. If Mormonism can seem as square as the Chamber of Commerce, it has also had to survive as much persecution as any radical group. If Mormonism looks as sci-fi and made-up as "Star Trek," well, how did other major religions look when they were only a little over a century old? It's a great story, thoroughly researched and quite decently told.

Check your local public TV station for a schedule, or watch the entire thing online here. Related: I raved about Patrick Allitt's Teaching Company series "American Religious History" here. Currently on sale, Allitt's series is full of all kinds of great, crazy stories.



posted by Michael at May 2, 2007


Did they uncritically repeat the claim that there are 13 million Mormons and that the religion is "fast growing?" It irks me how surveys and censuses consistently find that the LDS church overstates its numbers by ~300 percent but everyone just repeats the phony numbers.


Posted by: peter johnson on May 2, 2007 5:06 PM

It bothers that it starts out by uncritically repeating the claim that Mormonism is "one of the world's fastest growing religions" Surveys show that the LDS church is essentially stagnant in the United States and that they overstate their numbers overseas by ~300%. Source. Why can no journalists be bothered to research this before repeating Mormon propaganda?


Posted by: peter johnson on May 2, 2007 5:14 PM

I was discussing this with the wife as we watched the series the other night, and made the same point you did that a lot of mainstream religions have some pretty wiggy beliefs too (transubstantiation, anyone?). She had watched more of the doc than I had, however, and thought that a lot of the Mormon mythology was on a whole different level of random nuttiness. That is, it seemed more rooted in one particular guy's psychosis, as opposed, say, the more widespread yearning for immortality embodied in resurrection myths. It was the kind of stuff our 8-year-old would come up with in a particularly scattered fever dream.

I found it hard to argue with her. But still, that one guy managed to whip up quite a following.

Posted by: Steve on May 2, 2007 5:16 PM

Are the Christianity-plus-extra-bits religions really so much more implausible than Christianity?

Posted by: dearieme on May 2, 2007 5:24 PM

Mormonism has done a lot of people a lot of good? Really? Who? When? Where? (Admittedly, I haven't seen, and probably won't see, the PBS documentary (I'm quite familiar with Mormonism already, and moreover, I don't watch TV), but still, I'm amazed at the claim, and curious as to the reason for that statement.)

I mean, don't get me wrong; I like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's music as much as the next guy, particularly at Christmas, and I'm sure there are, say, some alcoholics or caffeine addicts or smokers who have benefited from its legalistic no-alcohol, no tobacco, no-coffee-or-tea rules (though Coke and Barq's are apparently okay, a Mormon acquaintance once told me, as they aren't mentioned in the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price or whatever), and who knows, maybe some punks saved from overdosing by becoming "straight edge" Mormons (it's not surprising that the whole "straight edge" movement is big in Utah), maybe even some whores saved out of prostitution by becoming good Mormon girls, blah blah blah.

Apart from these, however (which could equally be said of devout Baptists or Muslims or secularist AA members, etc.), what good has Mormonism accomplished, in a lot of people's lives, as stated?

Mormonism looks as sci-fi and made-up as it does because it is just that, a sci-fi, made-in-America religion, and one quite different from the Western, monotheist religions, in its soteriology. An optimist, anything is possible, "die-and-become-another-Adam-and-populate-another-world" faith, perfectly suited to 19th century America's expansionist, Manifest Destiny, optimistic worldview, where the country itself was still being opened up, with new land for everyone (other than the Indians, of course, who didn't count in the popular thinking).

And multiple wives, woo-hoo! Great - if you're a man. (I won't even bother going into their previous view, taught for a long time, that dark-skinned people are that way because of their sins.)

Posted by: Anon on May 2, 2007 8:40 PM

I can't claim to be a scholar of the Mormon religion, but I am interested to have read that Mormons have longer lifespans and higher incomes than average Americans. Both of these claims can also be made for Orthodox Jews. The explanation I've read attributes these outcomes to the very strong sense of community both religions foster. Based on my cursory acquaintance with a number of individuals of both faiths, it seems quite likely to me.

It seems that both of these religions could be evidence that religion can be highly adaptive in the Darwinian sense.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 3, 2007 12:53 AM

"And multiple wives, woo-hoo! Great - if you're a man."

Polygamy is great if you're one of the richest, best looking, most powerful men around. For all other men in polygamous societies - not so great. Read about the surplus boys excommunicated from fundamentalist Mormon churches on the flimsiest of pretexts.

And women, I suppose, could get used to the arrangement if they see it as increasing their odds of landing a rich husband and splitting their wively obligations with other women.

Posted by: PA on May 3, 2007 9:45 AM

Peter Johnson -

Membership numbers for just about any religion have to be taken with a large grain of salt. For instance, estimates of the numbers of Muslims in the United States range from 2 million to 6 million.

Friedrich -

The longer lifespans of Mormons in the United States may not be attributable solely to a sense of community. Without question, the religion's ban on alcohol and especially tobacco play a very large part. Also, at the risk of being non-P.C., there's the fact that there are relatively few nonwhite Mormons; nonwhites generally have a lower life expectancy than whites.

Posted by: Peter on May 3, 2007 10:08 AM

I must suggest Scientology is in a whole class by itself although Mormonism is evidence that one person (Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard) can make up a great deal of religious writing. For example, Scientologists believe that 75 billion (and maybe trillions) years earlier, an evil alien killed a bunch of other aliens whose spirits now inhabit each of us and are reincarnated endlessly. My only experience with Mormonism is reading the Book of Mormon as an aide to falling asleep when in a hotel on a business trip. (By the way, John Smith’s image in the Book is the image of a friendly dandy while Brigham Young and others are the image of sternness.)

This is Mormon bashing, but it is hard to take seriously a religion whose founder believed in polygamy and did not keep the golden tablets he dug up. Perhaps someone can reconcile this with Christianity, which the Mormons base their religion on in part.

Posted by: Paul Henri on May 3, 2007 10:47 AM

I know a few people who's heads were mighty screwed up by Mormons.

Interesting you mention L. Ron Hubbard. I just heard last night that Mitt Romney's favorite fiction book is something "Earth" by L. Ron Hubbard, and the first paragraphs are wierd, wierd. Interesting that a Mormom would find Hubbard's fiction writing compelling.

Also, I think the Mormons believe in something to do with aliens, too, althought it isn't widely publicized. More similar to scientology than it might appear.

Finally, once Travolta, Cruise, Kirstie Alley and others are factored in, Scientology may have the highest per capita income of all. I'm not quite sure if that validates it.

Posted by: annette on May 3, 2007 11:34 AM

First, let me say that I'm not a Mormon*, and hold no brief for the beliefs of Mormons. That said, the tone of some of the comments above is pretty appalling.

An anonymous** commenter above asks, "Mormonism has done a lot of people a lot of good?", while professing deep knowledge of Mormons. His, her, or its experience must be far different than mine. The Mormons I've known (as a population) have been remarkable for their politeness and stability. I don't think this is a sampling error, since I've heard the same from many other people. I also think the characteristic must have something to do with the religion, though that's more contentious, since it seems a significant deviation from the behavior of the rest of the population without other obvious cause.

The salient characteristics of the religion seem to me to be a consistent emphasis on self-reliance, preparedness, and community. The result is (I assert) generally societally useful.

I make no claim that Mormon society is without flaws nor that there are no evil Mormons. It's a big population. But it looks to me (as an outsider) to produce better results in practice than any number of more-mainstream churches.

Frankly, most denunciations of Mormonism look to me to be unmoored to actual facts, and reflect worse on the denouncer than on the church.

* I understand that members of the LDS church prefer "Saints". They are welcome to that preference, though I suppose it's no more arrogant than billing yourself as "Catholic" or "Orthodox".

** Anonymous bigotry; quelle surprise. The fact that some are actually willing to associate their names or well-established online personas with bigotry is actually more disturbing, though.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 3, 2007 12:09 PM

It's true that the practical-minded aspects of the religion -- self-reliance, preparedness, and community -- are nothing but laudable. There's a fascinating split between its nutty origins and mythology (and the polygamy) and the sensible, real-world, day-to-day social attitudes of its adherents.

Mormons as a group are also pretty environmentally conscientious, so I'm told, according to my eco-Dad who worked with them years back.

Posted by: Steve on May 3, 2007 12:36 PM

I have no real opinion about Mormons one way or another - I don't know enough about the religion to comment intelligently - but can't someone express an unfavorable opinion about a religion without being accused of being a bigot? To say that you think that Mormon/Catholic/Muslim/Jewish theology is implausible or odd is hardly bigoted - it's the type of opinion we express about politics, business, or foreign policy every day. Why should religion be exempt? I say this as a religious believer who has liked the (few) Mormons he has met...

Posted by: tschafer on May 3, 2007 12:47 PM

I have zero opinions about Mormonism myself, beyond "Hey, how zany and interesting!" and "Hey, if it works for you, why not?" Interesting to learn that Mormons tend to fare pretty well health and longevity-wise though ... And I remember an interview with the South Park guys, who have mocked Mormonism a lot on the show. Anyway, Trey Parker was asked about his ideal world. He admitted that it might be populated by Mormons -- he said something like "you could do a lot worse than have a world inhabited by nice, hard-working people." Satirists, eh?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 3, 2007 12:54 PM

I saw the Mormon episode of SOUTH PARK recently and it seemed to reflect the same feelings about Mormonism reflected in that Parker quote. The episode mercilessly mocks the whole Joseph Smith revelation story and the gullibility of anyone who accepts it as true. Yet at the end the Mormon kid has the last word and comes off looking better than Cartman and his pals.

Posted by: Bilwick on May 3, 2007 1:16 PM

I only caught one episode of the documentary, where the guy who had lost his wife explained that despite moments of doubt, he still believes he did nothing wrong in the eyes of his religion(he deliberately fathered an 8th child with his diabetic wife, despite being told she is at high health risk for this pregnancy; the woman died of a blood clot).

If religious fantatic is a calm, polite, well-read, hard-working, focused person - does it make his fanaticism less ugly?

And Doug, I agree with tschafer; I'd rather have someone explaining their informed (or uninformed, as the case might be) position than label them with "tabu" words, and thus effectively stopping discussion.
Disclosure: I've been on receiving end of various labelling, including the B-word [context: How you, being a Jew, can say Islam is a murderous fascist religion! Bigot!"; "how you and your people can defend Estonians in their resistance to Russian expansion in their country - you're Jewish Fascist!" etc] - and let me tell you: I DON'T LIKE IT.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 3, 2007 1:42 PM

Stunning the ease with which secularists - who place their faith in The State, The Environment, Material Wealth, Technology and IQ - call the religious nutty.

Posted by: ricpic on May 3, 2007 2:49 PM

I'm not placing my faith (in fact, I wouldn't call my principles "faith" - that term implies blind obidience I never had)in any of the things you listed, except may be IQ - and I still can't fail to notice the abnormal amount of nuttiness in religious people of all confessions.

What a freak, huh?

Posted by: Tatyana on May 3, 2007 3:19 PM

If you wish to adduce evidence to show that Mormonism (or Catholicism, or Hinduism, or Atheism, or Judaism, or Communism, or Islamism) has particular bad effects in some case or class of cases, great. To the extent that that has happened in this thread, I don't have a problem with it.

If your evidence is good, you may be able to make your case that the religion is, on balance, a negative force in society.

But, "Mormonism has done a lot of people a lot of good? Really? Who? When? Where?", and the screed that followed it is the rankest sort of argument by innuendo. Argument by innuendo directed at religion (or race, for that matter), is fairly characterized as bigotry.

If you want to point at the negative effects of a particular flavor Mormonism in a few communities in southern Utah, that's a fair criticism. But by the same standard, it's also fair to criticize Catholicism for the actions of some priests or to criticize Eastern Orthodoxy for the actions of the Serbs.

In all of those cases, though, you have to make the case that it is the religion that is at fault; you don't get to beg that question. And your opponents get to bring up evidence that your position doesn't fairly represent your opponents, or that what you are criticizing is aberrant rather than representative. Attempting to preempt that counterargument by implying that your argument is so obviously true as to require no defense is both deeply fallacious and offensive.

Not all criticism is bigotry, but some in this thread has been.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 3, 2007 3:26 PM

I agree with a good deal of what you have to say, Mr. Sundseth, but I'm troubled by the fact that, whenever certain sensitive topics are brought up for discussion (race, religion, etc.) someone always claims to be "offended" at the "bigotry" on display. Yes, there is such a thing as bigotry, but there is also such a thing as legitimate criticism. The point being made by some of the commentators above(not Anon, who does seem to have some prejudice against Mormons) is that Mormon theology seems odd to someone who is a more conventional Christian or Jew, more akin to Scientology than to more mainline religions. That's not bigotry or innuendo, that's a legitimate point. The response to this point could be to prove that Mormon theology isn't actually that far from many more conventional religions, or to show that these other religions believe some pretty odd things too, but that they seem less strange by being familiar. Personally, I liked the few Mormons I've met, and I'm ready to be convinced. But we have too many accusations of bad faith in this society, and not enought free-wheeling discussion.

Posted by: tschafer on May 3, 2007 5:10 PM

That's a fair response, and my initial response was probably colored too much by my visceral reaction to our anonymous correspondent. For that I apologize.

To the substantive matter, though, there is definitely a widely held opinion that criticisms of some beliefs do not need to exhibit the same level of intellectual rigor and common decency as criticisms of other beliefs. When the evidence is sufficiently widely available and uncontrovertible, this is even reasonable (see the Raelians, for an obvious example).

For anything less outre, however, I think the obligations on debaters are higher. This is particularly so when the subject is as unfalsifiable as religious beliefs.

As noted above, I'm perfectly willing to lay various evils at the feet of Mormons. Laying those same evils at the feet of the Mormons is a much more difficult case to make, and laying those evils at the feet of the Mormons without actually making that case is an evil in itself.

Failing to oppose that evil publicly is a moral failing I'm unwilling to embrace today.

That said, calling your opponent on logical fallacies (like appeals to prejudice), is a legitimate part of, shall we say, "free-wheeling discussion". And forgoing that tactic is something I'm unwilling to commit to ever.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 3, 2007 6:15 PM

I'm adjusting to a Mormon brother-in-law. In case I haven't expressed it explicitly on here, I consider myself a pessimistic atheist, more or less a nihilist about Big Things like an afterlife, cosmic justice, transcendent moral standards, and one conscious being "making a difference". I don't smugly dismiss religions; not only do I owe great debts to Pascal, Dostoyevsky, Unamuno, and Camus (and Robert Browning), but I respect what big-B Belief does for ordinary people trying to plug their ears and survive what to me are the real world's manifestly Bad Answers to the Big Questions.

What often creeps me out about Mormonism today is its blatant, unapologetic pragmatism. "Build a wall against evil," it seems to say, "live in purity and thrive. Join the winning team -- see how big we are! Rewrite history, calm your skepticism, and believe that everybody in here is fundamentally good." This isn't at all what I respect about Christianity, which broadly speaking are the ideas that corruption is a natural state for every soul, that forgiveness and humility are key to making it through this whole mess, and that the biggest menace comes from people who frantically cling to belief in their own purity or blessedness. In other words, the LDS church seems to me much more like the Pharisees of the Gospels than the Jesus of the gospels.

Posted by: J. Goard on May 4, 2007 2:11 AM

Well stated, Mr. Sundseth. I agree that when true bigotry exists, people should be called on it. I just get tired of people using scare-words like "bigotry" or "racist" or claiming "offense" to shut down reasoned debate. That's not what you were trying to do, obviously, and I apologize if I implied that you were.
I certainly get J. Goard's point, but I can also see the appeal of the Morman message: "Build a wall against evil?" "live in purity and thrive?" I just turned off the world news, and boy, that all sounds pretty good right now...

Posted by: tschafer on May 4, 2007 12:02 PM

From the con-man Joseph Smith's Golden Plates to the Mormons' certainty about becoming gods themselves, the whole she-bang is an aesthetically displeasing American fairy tale. Only a nation of fetishistic corporatisms, whether built around economic rationalism or religous tribalism, could have produced such a poetically tone-deaf theology. It's homegrown kitsch that is taken seriously by an embarassing number of people.

I wish Romney had been asked this in the debate: "What are your personal plans for the planet you'll inherit after death?"

J. Goard: I second your thoughts above. Per Unamuno, the best we humans can do is to hope against the obvious, given the tragic situation. If that is a kind of irrational faith, at least it has no idols requiring violent defense or coercive offense.

Posted by: Tim B. on May 4, 2007 12:25 PM

I know that the mormons dont believe in any kind of alien nor do they do things in "secret" in thier temples. they simply do things sacred only for the mormons themselves. And the whole thing on polygamy is wrong. the LDS (Latter day saints aka. mormons) Quit polygamy a long time ago. the polygamists today are known to the church as FLDS. they refused to give up polygamy and there for broke off from the church.
People are constantly saying that things are just coincidence even when Several decades before scientests discoverd that eating meat raw was bad, Joseph Smith rold all the mormons not to eat raw meat any more. so before you judge the mormons, talk to one first. and make sure they are truly mormon.

Posted by: Mane boo on May 4, 2007 12:28 PM

Wow, if these are the feelings people have about Mormons, no wonder we stick with our own. No one treats us as people, just stock stereotypes.

It is interesting that everyone can't believe people can believe such absolutely unbelievable things. Yet, doesn't that beg the question of why they do? Oh wait, the stock stereotypes of oppression, secrecy, stupidity, and etc. answers that questions. Nothing better than circular logic to keep yourself feeling as equally smug as the accusations toward a group of people.

Posted by: Jettboy on May 5, 2007 4:09 PM

People are constantly saying that things are just coincidence even when Several decades before scientests discoverd that eating meat raw was bad, Joseph Smith rold all the mormons not to eat raw meat any more.


See my comment about "rewriting history".

Posted by: J. Goard on May 6, 2007 10:32 PM

The fact that Mormonism's founder believed in polygamy is conclusive evidence the founder cannot claim Christianity as one of Mormonism's bases. There is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus' apostles and scribes were anything less than saints when they wrote the gospels. In contrast, Smith proselytized polygamy without ever correcting himself. It follows that every single line of his writings are questionable as the work of the devil or of insanity, which cannot be said of the writers of the New Testament. To associate Mormonism with Christianity is like associating St. Paul's pre-revelation Jewish beliefs with Christianity. For goodness sake, have we Christians become so deceived as to disregard the commandment against adultery? There seems to be no way to reconcile this false prophet's writings with Christianity. Mormons need to be watched as carefully as Muslims. Mormons, according to substantial evidence, murdered non-Mormons during the 19th century. Islam's murderous history is much more highly visible. This indicates the kindness of individual Mormons is insufficient evidence of the Mormon potential for evil.

Posted by: Paul Henri on May 8, 2007 1:42 PM

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