‘The Mormons’ gets mixed response

Adverse criticisms of the faith were left uncountered, some viewers feel

Response has been voluminous but mixed to a four-hour documentary, "The Mormons," presented over the Public Broadcasting Service April 30 – May 1. The program, carried as episodes on two popular PBS series, "The American Experience" and "Frontline," exposed millions of viewers to some of the history and doctrine of — as well as adverse criticism directed toward — the Church.

It featured interviews with President Gordon B. Hinckley, three members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the Church Historian/Recorder, as well as scholars, historians and other Church members. But it also included participation from some dissident or former members of the Church who were critical of the faith.

A Web site for the program, www.pbs.org/mormons/, is rich with features, including a downloadable transcript of the program (available within seven to 10 days of the broadcast) and edited transcripts of some of the interviews excerpted on the program.

A statement published May 2 in the "Newsroom" section of the official Church Web site (www.lds.org) gave a temperate but largely positive response to the documentary.

Calling it a "serious treatment of a serious subject," it concludes that the documentary is "a welcome change" from typical superficiality by the news media in the coverage of religion.

"Parts of it were very positive, and parts of it, I thought, were, surprisingly, one-sidedly negative," said Daniel C. Peterson, a BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic who was one of the interviewees featured in the documentary.

A frequent writer and public speaker in defense of the Latter-day Saint faith, Brother Peterson is a director of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU.

"There were some areas where I wish members of the Church had been permitted to be heard on the film," he said.

For example, in treating the subject of the position of women in the Church, the film dwelt at length on the account given by a former member who had been excommunicated.

"And I thought, 'Well, what about the Relief Society?"' he said. "What about all the women in the Church who are happy? Where were they?"

Moreover, he said, people in the film were repeatedly allowed to say in effect that Mormonism, like all religions, has to overcome its origin stories if it is to survive.

"I would like to have had at least one Latter-day Saint say, 'Well, we actually think there is a basis to our claims in history and fact,"' he said.

But instead, the denial of validity of Church origins was allowed to go unchallenged, he said, "so I think the take-home message that many people would get from the film was that Mormonism is really great for some people; it makes them happy and gives them meaning in their lives; but it's ultimately, at its basis, irrational, like all religions."

Similarly, the fact that there are varying accounts of the story of Joseph Smith's first vision is given in the documentary with the implied conclusion that the story evolved over time.

"Again, this is a place where someone is pretty much allowed to make a critical accusation against the Church and no Latter-day Saint comes on to counter it," he said. "So the sense the film leaves is that we don't have a response. We do. I think it would be the only fair thing to allow someone to at least come back and say, 'No, that's not true.' Even if you don't give much more than that, at least say the Mormons have heard of this criticism, and they have a response."

Brother Peterson said he was also bothered by a segment in the documentary in which excommunication was discussed while a filmed sequence showed a room from various angles.

"It looked like a 1920s courthouse with a single chair sitting out by itself, 15 chairs facing it," he said. "I thought, 'Does that look like the typical high council room? Our high council rooms are pretty cookie-cutter; they look about alike. They don't look anything like that, and there's no room, even, for that kind of a seating arrangement.' But the idea was to give you the stark sense of a poor defendant faced by 15 hostile accusers. And that's not true."

Some viewers have commented on the amount of time devoted to discussion of plural marriage and the 1857 tragedy at Mountain Meadows.

"I thought that was disproportionate," Brother Peterson said regarding the segment on plural marriage. "I mean, after all, if you're trying to overcome stereotypes about this 'most misunderstood religion,' why go on and on and on about fundamentalist schismatic groups that have no connection with us and, as President Hinckley actually points out in some film footage shown in the documentary, have never been Latter-day Saints, in many cases?"

He said he found the filmmaker, Helen Whitney, to be fair, sympathetic and intelligent when she interviewed him. And there were parts he liked about the documentary.

"You can't expect it to come across like a (Church) visitors center film, and it's not going to," he said. "So you have to ask not, 'Would we have produced this?' but 'Is this the best that we can expect from PBS?' And in some ways, maybe it is: bad parts and good parts; too much time spent on some negatives, but some very, very moving parts too, I thought."

But, he said, "At the end of it, I thought to myself, 'If I am a non-member watching this, I don't think that I come away from it understanding why people would go through all that the Mormons went through…. It didn't really explain the doctrines in a way that would move me."

In view of the interest in the film, the Church News is embarking on a series of occasional articles in which troubling questions and adversarial criticisms against the faith of the Latter-day Saints — whether they come from the PBS documentary or from some other source — will be addressed. Responses will not be presented as official Church statements, but rather, as insights and analysis from faithful and knowledgable Church members that will be shared in the articles.

Accordingly, readers are invited to submit suggestions for topics to: R. Scott Lloyd, LDS Church News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, Utah 84110; e-mail: [email protected].