To: James Jones, Producer, The Mormon Candidate
Re: This World: The Mormon Candidate (BBC2)
Dear Mr Jones,
If we are to follow the educational philosophy of Charles Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind — “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” — then we would find little to complain about in John Sweeney’s BBC account of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Sweeney, the BBC’s go-to cult hunter, famous for his aggressive encounter with Scientology, provided a number facts about Mormonism that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints simply cannot deny.
They are, inter alia: Mormon prophet Joseph Smith married upwards of 30 women. The Egyptian of the extant fragments of the Book of Abraham is not directly related to Smith’s translation. Mormons once swore blood oaths in their temples. As a conservative religion, Mormonism can be a rather alienating place for those whose faith wanders from orthodoxy. The church maintains its own Vatican-like Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. &c.
Some of these facts, and others besides, are bound to make uncomfortable viewing for Mormons. Some are defensible, others are not. Many strike at the heart of Mormonism’s curse as a pre-modern religion that has come of age in a modern and post-modern age. The patina of history has rendered benign the strange beliefs and practices of some more ancient religions. Mormonism is not so lucky and this is why facts, polemically deployed, are not always as truthful as Gradgrind, and Sweeney, would have us believe.
Facts shorn of context can mislead. The obsolete blood oaths once sworn by a young Romney were visceral commitments to a fraternity of faith. As Mormon historian Samuel Brown has noted by reference to similar oaths among Freemasons, “by pledging their mortal fates to the fraternity, candidates bestowed on the order a symbolic power over life and death.” In a similar way, Mormons understand their belief in Christ to be a matter of eternal life; they also understand their rituals to be symbolic, a nuance Sweeney was not keen to explore.
Mormonism is, unapologetically, a covenant religion. Its crime in BBC eyes seems to be that it has, in the past, symbolised its covenants in distinctly pre-modern ways. Ancient rituals performed by Zoroastrian priests or Orthodox patriarchs are acceptable; similar rites performed by western moderns are not. The underlying belief seems to be that educated folk like Romney should know better. This is an unfortunate kind of secular paternalism. It also bears repeating that these oaths are long dead.
That Mormonism is a conservative religion is obviously a fact and its occasionally fundamentalist tendencies can be difficult for some to endure. However, the Mormon church is not the gulag that the malcontents so gleefully interviewed by Sweeney would suggest it to be. The church would be the first to admit that it is a challenge to retain its members. Probably less than 30% of those who have received Mormon baptism in the UK are still active in the religion.
Sweeney might want to ponder on how a religion that is apparently so difficult to escape lost President Obama’s own Mormon ancestors. And what of Marco Rubio, a rising star in the Republican Party who has journeyed from Mormon to Catholic? Mormonism is also not monolithically conservative: Britain’s first Mormon MP, Terry Rooney, was old Labour, and the current leader of the Democrats in the US Senate, Harry Reid, is a Mormon convert. Is Reid similarly a Manchurian Candidate? If Sweeney would like to see what a committed Mormon feminist looks like, he might watch Kristine Haglund’s recent performance on C-Span (http://www.c-spanvideo.org/kristinehaglund). Alas, the drum beat of cult cult cult was deafening.
As we can see, facts are often deployed as caricature. Martin Luther King Jr’s sexual peccadilloes, whilst factual, say nothing useful about the rightness of the civil rights movement. The RAF’s bombing of Dresden is not the summum bonum of Britain’s war against the Nazis. And so it was with Sweeney’s documentary. He has excavated every possible Mormon misadventure and presented it as an indictment against the contemporary faith. Muslims, Catholics and others would rightly find similar caricatures of their faith upsetting. It ably showed why many Americans will not vote for a Mormon, but where were the counter voices, not just ambushed officials who rightly felt defensive but the contented rank and file? And what about the academics who could provide context? The programme was stacked in favour of Mormon foes 10-1.
The real fact is that at the core of Mormonism is a rather plain, low church Christianity, with decaffeinated adherents who go about their lives paying their taxes, loving their families, serving in their communities, helping the poor, and making mistakes along the way. The vast majority of Mormons would not be able to see themselves at all in Sweeney’s documentary. The British public, who could do with a sensible education in this interesting faith — let alone the tens of thousands of British Mormons who help fund the BBC — deserved much, much better.