Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mormons, They Get No Respect! This Mormon's Perspective on Media's Coverage of LDS Church

Mormons, They Get No Respect!

There I was, sitting with my wife on a Thursday evening as NBC’s Rock Center began to air.  Tonight it was a special edition on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church as it’s commonly referred to by outsiders.  I’ve been a lifelong member.  I rarely miss church services on Sundays, I attend the nearby Mormon temple several times a year and rode a bicycle on the streets of southern California as a missionary in the 1990’s.  I usually appreciate attempts by the media to share information about who we are, however it rarely is met with any level of optimism.  

Television and news media portrayals of Mormons are usually received with disappointment by active members.  Whether it’s HBO’s ‘Big Love’ or Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” or with aforementioned NBC news program, Mormons feel misrepresented and no one seems to care that they are.  Mormons feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of religion, ‘they get no respect.’  Often it’s the inaccuracies in statements where a little more research by a journalist could have made all the difference. Some of these perpetual mistakes include the association of modern polygamists with the mainstream church, the overemphasis on extemporaneous matters in the church’s history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the extra attention critics or ex-members receive as they put words into our collective Mormon mouths on television about an organization they are clearly hostile towards. Or, as in the case of “The Book of Mormon” musical, an obvious cheap stab at a church who rarely fights back publicly.  Could you imagine a musical of this nature based on Jews or Muslims called “The Torah” or “The Quran?”

It’s almost humorous as a member to see the a ratings hungry media treat an interview with Mormon family of 8 in Salt Lake City like an exclusive pass to do an interview inside a North Korean prison camp.  We’re not quarantined into monasteries, we do watch television and we don’t all live in Utah.  We’re businessmen and women, nurses and doctors, financial planners and veterinarians, we’re scientists and professional athletes, Republicans and even Democrats in your own community.  You probably work with some and don’t even know it.  You’ve probably had a drink with someone who used to be.  

We feel as Mormons our every action and word is under a microscope on some level, let alone without the presence of a camera and television audience.  Even official public relations representatives of the church give uncomfortable vanilla answers about controversial issues, strewn with lingo that only a Mormon in Sunday School would understand when answering questions about the church’s policy on blacks not becoming priests until 1978.  My mother, a lifelong member who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and early 70’s was introduced by a friend of hers in college to another friend by saying “This is Jeanne...she's a Mormon. Don't ask her about it, because she'll tell you."  It would even be hard for a seasoned comedian to come onto a stage after that introduction.  Maybe that’s why Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is so evasive about his faith with the media.

So what needs to change?  If I were a member of the media, I would do a number of things.
  1. Study your subject matter from the source.  Have an open mind and reserve your own personal judgment when doing it.  I’m sure it’s nice to get the juicy interview with the angry ex-mormon or “scholarly” outsider, but rarely are such perspectives objective or completely factual.  We don’t expect you to evangelize Mormonism for us, but don’t paint us with a broad brush of ignorance and bigotry from the mouth of antagonists either.
  2. Attend the nearest church service in your area (you don’t need to travel to Utah to do this).  You won’t be required to do anything but to sit quietly and listen.  You might have several people introduce themselves to you, but they won’t drug you and toss to into a baptismal font against your will, nor will they do that to your deceased ancestors.  Everybody but maybe small children are there because they want to be.  No brainwashing tactics are used.  You will also find it the topics the media seem to focus on so heavily are rarely discussed during a service.  For example, you won’t find a Sunday School lesson on polygamy, homosexuality or what is “wrong” with other churches.  You will also find that Mormons are very informed about their own faith and aren’t as robotic and perfect as you might think.
  3. Read excerpts from The Book of Mormon.  I promise your face won’t melt a la ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ nor will your head sprout devil horns. Mormons don’t proclaim to replace existing beliefs but rather “bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.”  The previous statement from former church President Gordon B. Hinckley would be considered blasphemous to many evangelical opponents.  However, you will find The Book of Mormon rich with Christian teachings, that, for this Mormon, enhance what is already taught in the Old and New Testaments.
  4. Attend a Mormon Temple open house.  There are over 100 operating temples across the world, and nearly a temple in every state.  Prior to the dedication of a new temple, they are available to the public and free tours are given.  You might have to travel to see one.
  5. Interview members that live somewhere outside of Utah.  You certainly wouldn’t go to Vatican City every time to interview a Catholic would you?  You might find that the majority of Mormons who live farther from the heartbeat of Salt Lake City have a different perspective about living as a Mormon.  You might also learn how diverse we really are.

As members of the church, I admit we need to grow thicker skin as a whole.  Not everyone has to agree with us or like us.  But not everyone should oppose us either.  In my experience, when I’ve answered honestly about my faith I’ve rarely been ridiculed or persecuted, even by associates who are clearly antagonistic toward Mormonism.  As a Mormon, If I truly live and practice what I believe, I have nothing to hide, even if outsiders and media pundits disagree with me.  I don’t expect the media’s perception of my faith to change in order to sway others to my church.  I just feel we deserve a little more respect than Rodney Dangerfield.