Suddenly, there were The Mormons. Two hours of them in the past two nights on PBS primetime. Each night viewers were given a richly produced, gauzily photographed documentary in the Ken Burns style–lush music in the background and people in the foreground saying personal things.
Many of the things said sounded like testimonials of faith for the Church of Latter Day Saints. In our era of sensitivity and exposed, delicate nerves, a documentary about anyone’s religion demands a lot of tiptoeing, especially if it is a religion whose beliefs are regarded by some as peculiar and many of whose members are rich, powerful and well connected.
Hence the gauze over the lens when it came to issues such as Mormons and women, Mormons and African-Americans, Mormons and free speech, Mormons and gays and Mormons and the Republican Party. It’s not that the subjects were entirely avoided. They were addressed, but softened by soothing background music and four hours of very nice pictures.
This added up to a failure to convincingly address the questions about this organization and its adherents. You did not hear, for instance, a sharp description of Mormon ecclesiastic polity. Who are the apostles who govern the church? How are they selected? What are their powers? Where do their powers end–or, as one is led to wonder, do they claim and are they given something close to an absolute suzerainty over members in good standing?
Discussion of the founding of the LDS Church induces a condition of historical vertigo. True, one of the experts quoted declared, “If you want to think about the fertility of religion in the nineteenth century, think of mushroom soil–the richest stuff you can imagine, that will grow almost anything–and there you have what it was like to be a believer in the early nineteenth century.”
Ignoring mycology, the great religious skeptic Mark Twain once called the Book of Mormon “chloroform in print.” And Whitney Cross, a historian who studied the period of Joseph Smith’s founding, shows that the Mormon faith was not part of the general nineteenth-century religious experience. Instead, it grew out of the social situation in northern New York State in the first half of the century, a time and place that also gave birth to parallel movements ranging from table-knocking, Shakerism, spiritualism, Sabbaterianism, prohibitionism, Seventh Day Adventism and so on.
Cross writes that Smith and his collaborators “crystallized and provided an apparently authoritative formulation for what had perhaps been from the beginning the most prominent legend in the region’s folklore.” All of this is hardly touched on in the documentary, leaving nonbelieving viewers with little to explain the birth of a religion based on the belief that 600 years before the Common Era, prophets from the Holy Land arrived in upstate New York.
Ignorance of a religion and its practitioners is risky business. And in the end, The Mormons shed little light on the questions that set Joseph Smith and his followers apart from other homegrown American religions. And yet there’s plenty of evidence that over the years members of the LDS Church have made themselves a place in the political and cultural mainstream.
Marriner Eccles, a Republican Mormon who, before Keynes had invented Keynesian economics, advocated for deficit spending as a way to end the Great Depression, was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve Board by Franklin Roosevelt. George Romney, an outstanding automobile executive, was governor of non-Mormon Michigan and might have made it to the White House in 1972. His son Mitt, former governor of equally non-Mormon Massachusetts, may make it there yet. Mormon Democrat Harry Reid, from intensely non-Mormon Nevada, is Senate majority leader.
As a general rule, it pays to be leery of people who declare themselves saints. But obviously, some saints are as regular as the rest of us.