In reading the comments around the DAMU and the Bloggernacle over the last week on the PBS dcoumentary The Mormons, one thing became clear: mainstream believing members of the LDS Church reacted very negatively to the program. As noted in my earlier reviews, many who expressed their displeasure cited an alleged lack of balance and perceived inaccuracies (generally without supporting their assertions). Many also lamented the amount of time spent on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I think, though, that what really made devout Mormons squeamish, what really set them off, was the subtext that ran throughout the documentary. They might have been able to stomach the Mountain Meadows segment if not for the way it was used by the producers to accentuate what I think is the main message of the documentary: that for whatever monumental changes Mormonism has undergone from its inception to today, one constant has remained a bedrock principle of the religion, and it is this fact that justifies, at least to a degree, the trepidation many feel about having a Mormon in the White House.
The bedrock principle is obedience to priesthood leaders, right or wrong. Mountain Meadows was an example of the violent, deadly consequences that flow from taking the principle of absolute obedience and loyalty to one's leaders to its ultimate conclusion. Of course, most members of the church naturally will argue that Mountain Meadows is an historical anomaly, an aberration, and in no way connected to Mormon teachings and practices. If the documentary had taken that position, I don't think so many faithful members would have been as upset with the program. But what the filmmakers did, and I think did brilliantly, was connect 19th-century Mormon fanaticism with 21st-century Mormon zeal. And the church's leaders, especially Dallin Oaks, were the producers' unwitting accomplices. The documentary's stated purpose, of course, was to examine how a small religious sect of outcasts, hated by the American government and the American people in the nineteenth century, managed to become almost the definition of the American mainstream. So, in the first installment the producers focused on a lot of the historical things that made Mormons different from their fellow Americans in the nineteenth century and then, in the second installment followed the mainstreaming theme through the renunciation of the practice of polygamy, the Smoot hearing, and the McKay years, focusing on the church's efforts to downplay its differences with mainstream Christianity, its embrace of capitalism, and its willingness to support the U.S. military and government. But interwoven through the entire piece are the stories of Mormon zealotry. The missionary whose mother dies and he doesn't return home for the funeral. Later, the unveiling of the story behind why his mother died--his parents, believing fervently in the Mormon folk doctrine of premortal spirits being assigned certain families on earth, felt compelled to have an eighth child, knowing that it would endanger the mother's health. The images of children being taught from preschool age onward to sing "I Hope They Call Me on A Mission." Pictures of missionaries on the street literally accosting passersby. The descriptions of absolute control over mission life both in the MTC and in the mission field, punctuated by the Tal Bachman quote where he says he'd have done anything his Mission President asked him to, including sacrificing his life if necessary (incidentally, many have criticized this quote as being extreme, but the producers could have said more on this point--they did not, for example, include any of the language from the temple ceremonies in which members agreed to have their throats slashed and in which members still today agree to consecrate their lives if necessary to the church). Discussion of genealogy and the vault that can sustain a direct nuclear strike. Mention of the vast financial holdings of the church which are kept strictly secret, hidden from not only the world but the members, too. And, of course, the whole segment on what the church does to those who dare question or in any way get out of line with their priesthoood leaders. Toscano, Nielsen, Johnson, Fielding, Palmer, Quinn. And what crime did these folks commit? Church apostle Dallin Oaks summed it up nicely: "it is wrong to criticize church leaders even if the criticism is true." With that quote, the producers expose the one thread that ties 19th-century Mormonism to 21st-century Mormonism: the absolute authority the leaders seek to exert over the followers. All else has changed: ordinances, doctrines, practices, culture. The only thing that remains firmly ensconced in the Mormon experience is deference to authority, obedience to the Prophet and priesthood leaders, loyalty to the church as an institution. I imagine that some of my faithful-Mormon readers will take issue with this statement. They might argue that the fundamental, bedrock principle of Mormonism is the atonement of Jesus Christ, not obedience to priesthood authority. To test this proposition, simply look at the statements of the church leaders interviewed for the program and the actions the church has taken against dissidents and critics in recent years. When asked what sorts of things could subject a member to church discipline, for example, Elders Jensen and Holland and BYU Professor Daniel Peterson focused on things like not believing in the literalness of the Book of Mormon, supporting gay marriage and speaking out against the church's activities in trying to curtail equal rights for gays, and saying Joseph Smith lied (about anything). Not a peep about Jesus Christ. And what do all the scholars who have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated in recent years have in common? At the root of their clash with the church has been the fact that they upset their church leaders. The truth of their positions was not an issue. Michael Quinn was disciplined for publishing on post-Manifesto polygamy. The church did not contend that he published anything untrue about the church. The truth he did publish, however, was seen by leaders as critical of past church leaders. That was his great crime. But Quinn has said he has a testimony, particularly of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were the true foundation of the LDS church, it seems that a testimony of Jesus would outweigh any criticism one might have of a past Mormon leader in determining one's "worthiness" to be a member of the church. Likewise, Grant Palmer has always maintained that he has a strong testimony of Jesus. Like Quinn, Palmer was disciplined for publishing a book that could be viewed as critical of a past Mormon leader, in this case Joseph Smith. He was disciplined not because anything in his book was false but simpy because his leaders feared that some members, exposed to true accounts surrounding the origins of the church, might lose their testimonies (since Palmer's book shatters many of the myths members are taught in church-correlated materials). That Palmer had a testimony of Jesus was not material to his ecclesiastical accusers. So, it is clear from the LDS church leaders' words and their actions that dissent from, debate with, and criticism of church leaders will not be tolerated. Whatever else has change in the church, absolute obedience to priesthood authority is still very much alive and well in modern Mormon culture. And it is that fact, exposed for all to see on a nationally televised broadcast, that inspired the apoplectic reaction among so many devout Mormons this past week. And it is that fact that has so many Americans justifiably questioning whether they really want to vote for a Mormon for President, even one with great hair and brilliant white teeth.