I only watched the first half of the second installment of PBS's The Mormons on Tuesday night. After the segment dealing with Margaret Toscano's "Court of Love," I just couldn't bear to watch anymore. The full text of her interview can be found here. I watched the rest of the program today. I must say, I actually found the first couple segments a little dull and disjointed. I did like the scene of the missionaries on the street contacting people. It reminded me of . . .
the movie Borat, where Borat is on the streets of New York and he keeps going up to unsuspecting strangers and tries to hug them and they run scurrying away from him as fast as they can. I actually felt sorry for both the people being accosted by the missionaries and the poor missionaries who feel compelled to do this kind of thing for 16 hours a day over two years, often with very little to show for it in terms of baptisms and retention of converts.
I enjoyed the story of the African American woman who converted from a life of drugs and lawlessness to a life of peace and joy in the church. I liked whatever ward or branch she was in that allowed such enthusiastic musical worship. Not sure how representative it was, though, either of the typical convert or of the typical ward.
The segment on the priesthood restoration was nothing much new for me. I had seen the church-produced video on the establishment of the church in Ghana. It's a great story. However, one statement was new to me. I have heard and read numerous viciously racist remarks from past LDS church authorities but had either overlooked or forgotten about the one they quoted from President John Taylor that people with black skin are the devil's representatives on earth: "after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham's wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God;..." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 22, page 304). For other shocking statements LDS leaders have made on the subject, see here.
The segment on the church's response to Hurricane Katrina was nice, though I cringed when I saw all the people wearing shirts proclaiming in big bold letters that they were Mormon. I wondered (again) why the church can't just do nice things for people without trying to milk it for as much positive PR as possible. Still, it was a nice reminder that for as much as I criticize the church, there's some good there, especially in the hearts of the members who volunteered and sacrificed their time and consecrated their energy to helping people in need. The segment might have been improved if they had put it into a little context and pointed out that while the church has enormous financial resources, it devotes less than 0.5% of tithing income to humanitarian purposes while it builds billion-dollar+ shopping malls with money thrown off from its revenue-generating church-owned businesses and investments.
I was sickened by the story the father told of a missionary son who was in Brazil when his mother died. The father had no way to contact his son. The local Branch President informed the missionary of his mom's death by posting a note on his door. And the missionary didn't come home. Families, isn't it about . . . your total fanatical commitment to church busywork?
There was a lengthy segment about the mainstreaming of the church that began with the Smoot hearings and was really given life with the McKay administration. I found it mildly interesting but don't know how many average American viewers would have been anything other than bored with it. Yawn.
And then came the segment on dissenters and intellectuals. I'll leave my review of that segment to the end. The segment on families I actually enjoyed quite a bit. I thought they did a nice job of showing a "typical" American Mormon family that appears to be living the ideal that the church tries so hard to portray in its commercials and missionary materials. But they also talked a little about the difficulties those who don't fit the Ozzie and Harriet mold have in the church. I was surprised by the statement that Mormon women work outside the home in about the same proportion as the general population. And I think the interview with the medical doctor left the impression that working moms are on equal footing with stay-at-home moms in Mormon culture, a proposition I find dubious.
I found Trevor Southey's story quite moving. Putting a human face on the gay experience in the church made Elder Jensen's comment that gays ought to just suck it up and remain celibate throughout their lives, as sincere as he appeared to be, ring hollow. Southey's remark that he thought that Jesus Christ's idea of family would be inclusive and welcoming was poignant.
The temple segment was a bit generic. Nothing new or particularly interesting. Until the story of the Dalrymples--the family with seven children who decided to have another one despite knowing the severe risks. Why? Because they had some idea that there was another spirit out there that needed to be in their family. In other words, they denied reason, exercised faith in Mormon folklore, and the result was the death of the mother in childbirth, leaving eight children motherless. I think this is a story that some might find faith-promoting, illustrating the firmness of conviction that some Mormons have. But I find it pitiable, honestly.
Now, back to the segment on dissenters and intellectuals. Boyd K. Packer looked smarmy when confronted about his comments to the effect that the three greatest threats to the church are feminists, gays, and "so-called" intellectuals. Packer, incidentally, did not look well. Dallin Oaks defended the church by saying that criticism of church leaders is always wrong, even if the criticism is true. Any hope that that sound bite was taken out of context was quickly extinguished.
And then Margaret Toscano told her story. Toscano's sister Janice Allred was excommunicated for publishing a scholarly article on Heavenly Mother (and whose heart-wrenching account of her own kangaroo-court church trial can be found right here) and her story hit me like the sucker punch that killed Houdini. I was floored, overcome with a wave of undifferentiated emotion--a mingling of anger, sadness, liberation, enlightenment. I had read Allred's story and some of the stories of the September Six. But Toscano tells her story so eloquently and passionately that I could not help but be deeply, profoundly moved. And then I went to the PBS web site and as I read her whole interview, two years of searching, praying, meditating, discussing, reading, and thinking about Mormonism and my relationship to it coalesced in my soul.
The totality of thoughts and feelings from hour upon hour of exploration and examination gathered into tight focus. And I was left with a conviction stronger than the cords of death. I now believe that, in good conscience, I can no longer sustain an organization that finds women like Margaret Toscano a threat; an organization that inspires a misplaced zeal that tears families apart; an organization that inspires the kind of unblinking obedience that keeps a missionary from coming home for his mother's funeral (and whose death was a direct result of sacrificing reason on the altar of a misguided faith); an organization that fears the search for knowledge, discourages the publication of accurate history, and punishes the telling of truth; an organization that scapegoats gays, subjugates women, and vilifies intellectuals; an organization that, in short, dehumanizes people to advance its own interest in self-preservation. In sum, I have arrived at the conclusion that the LDS Church "as presently constituted" does violence to my sense of morality.
It is not a matter of the "church being true while some people are not true to the church." It's just the opposite: there are many good people in the church in spite of, not because of, the church's doctrines, practices, and policies. That many members of the church are able to free themselves from the mental slavery their leaders seek to impose on them is a testament to the strength of the human will. And those who remain faithful in the church without losing their sense of self, without submerging their intellect and reason into the sea of blind obedience are deserving of praise and admiration. I believe the problems in the church are not a result of the people failing to listen to the wise and inspired counsel of their supposedly divinely inspired leaders. Rather, it is the leaders who are corrupt; it's the rulemakers, not the rulebreakers, who have made the church into what it is today: an affront to human dignity. And until the church undergoes radical systemic changes, I cannot, as a moral matter, continue to associate with this corrupt institution.