There are open threads all over the Bloggernacle on this documentary (to which I direct you for general commentary), and so here I simply want to comment on one particular ramification of it. But first let me say that I enjoyed it and thought it was very well done. There was the occasional mistake, and there were choices made that I wouldn’t have made, but overall I think Helen did a superb job.
The particular thought I had as I sat in my family room watching it last night had to do with the topic of inoculation. To illustrate: I feel pretty confident that I could stand up in front of my ward’s Sunday School class and ask whether Joseph Smith started plural marriage in the Church, and only a small minority would have the confidence and knowledge to be able to answer in the affirmative. Most members of the Church today really don’t know; for them, hmmm, maybe it was Brigham Young.
The Church as an institution doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to educate its members on this and other controversial topics. The hope appears to be that they will manage to navigate their entire lives and not come face to face with them, a hope that is becoming less rational in the internet age. I’m of the view that intelligent Latter-day Saints in developed nations with internet access sooner or later are going to come across these kinds of issues, and that it would be in our interest to broach these subjects first in a faithful context. But for the time being, that simply is not going to happen.
So the thought occurred to me that the PBS special is actually serving to some extent as an inoculation, in a way that the Church itself could never accomplish. It is exposing not only non-LDS, but many, many LDS, to difficult issues in our history, of which the average LDS is ignorant. And while it is not doing so in a faithful context, it is doing so in a sympathetic, sensitive context. I think average Mormons who view this special might be troubled by some aspects of it over the short term, but over the long haul their faith will be strengthened and made less vulnerable to easy attack on these topics.
As I like to say, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Surely it is not easy to hear Richard Bushman talk about Joseph pressuring women to marry him. But getting that out in the open and on the table in a responsible way can only be good for the Church.