“The Mormons” and Inoculation

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.


  1. I think that it was also useful inoculation for the target audience. When I think about the target audience, it is typical watchers of American Experience/Frontline, which would make them slightly more educated/liberal than average, right? I don’t imagine that the whole world decided to switch to PBS just because a documentary on the Mormons was being shown. I can’t imagine PBS did better than normal or attracted a larger non-Mormon audience than normal.

    In assuming that the target audience (slightly more lib/slightly more educated) would be put off/bored by a fluff piece, I think that this worked better as a missionary experience than most of the online reaction is taking for granted. Think about the effect, not of Will Bagley and Glenn Leonard disagreeing with each other, but of Elder Dallin H. Oaks frankly saying that members of the church were responsible, that it was an atrocity, and he prayed for all involved. Think about the number of times that President Hinckley was presented simply bearing his testimony. Think about Terryl Givens waxing weird about dance or Ken Verdoia trying to explain everything, but failing. Think about the range of reactions shown regarding 19th century polygamy (I think that the 20th century polygamy section could have been clearly on the disconnect between the church and the offshoots). There were a number of articulate, intelligent spokespeople for the church in this piece and quite a few of them weren’t even LDS. In what other context is the target audience going to experience that? Although I know it wasn’t the filmmaker’s intent to present a Mormonad, it couldn’t have been done better for the target audience.

    So, I think that I would invite a neighbor to watch the show with me, if the neighbor wanted to learn a little about church history. It is promised that there will be more regarding what we actually believe today…er…today.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I had this very discussion with my wife last night. I read Bushmans Rough Stone Rolling shortly after it came out, and it was a bit of an eye opener for me, only because of things that I hadn’t heard about. I wasn’t really phased but I could easily see how it could do that to some people.

    At this time when we have a prominent Mormon running for President and the church appearing in more places, I think it’s time for that innoculation that you talk about. This documentary could be the first shot. My guess is that more members are watching this documentary than non-members. I think this will end up strengthening rather than weakening in the long run.

  3. Amen.

  4. “As I like to say, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”’

    You and Justice Brandeis, eh, Kev?

    I think we need to be careful about singing the praises of inoculation. I believe there is a time and place to introduce these concepts, and if we overdo it people will freak out just as much as if they watch the Godmakers.

    But I sense that the real effect of this “inoculation” is not to keep people in the Church, necessarily, but to help members see our history and get a more living sense of who we are and where we come from. It’s like intellectual genealogy to a certain extent.

  5. Some of the mainstream Mormon internet boards are raising some interesting questions today, that’s for sure. (“Joseph used a stone in a hat. Really?!”)

    Two wider observations culled from the reaction of some Mormons to the programme:

    1. It is not “anti-Mormon” to not believe Joseph was a prophet.
    2. Mormon clannishness is on overdrive when we have aneurysms over slightly inaccurate factoids and language.

  6. Shine the light baby.

    I tell all investigators about everything if they are serious about joining the church and they want to know.

    It seems to work

  7. If you read the LDS reactions posted at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/talk/ it looks like lots of LDS are cheesed it wasn’t Legacy or something similar. I thought the topics covered were given balanced perspectives, but did we really need an hour on MMM and modern polygamy?

    Also, the interviews at http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/ are fascinating, particularly the candor of all involved- Elder Holland on LDS disbelievers in BoM historicity for example.

    Dan Peterson also speaks in favor of inoculation and calls it such in his interview linked there.

  8. I agree with Kevin. Very nice treatment. Seeing the reaction helps me realize just how out of touch I am with mainline culture of Mormonism and hopefully helps me to be more sensitive to Mormons just beginning to learn more about their complex (and beautiful) history. I think polygamy was very well handled and entirely sympathetic.

    Also: are there any threads on identifying participants? Who was the formon CES guy? Why was the tribune journalist featured so prominently? Who was the obscure anthropologist or the British author?

    And who else laughed at the statement by an esteemed archaeologist that “shamans always lie at first”? Somebody is going to have the sensitivity/postmodern police all over him if anyone was listening (and even though I’m not by any stretch a postmodern, I’m inclined to think that many shamans probably do believe in important ways and would be loathe to indict them on the basis of New Haven hyper-rationalism–I’ven ever trusted the Elis anyway.)

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    HP/JDC, I agree that this could actually be a useful “missionary” experience for a lot of people who would never sit through a PR fluff piece, but would be open to a more nuanced examination with a variety of viewpoints and perspectives expressed.

    Steve, there are certainly risks with any inoculation. But I think we tend to err on the side of hiding things under a bushel as opposed to frank disclosure. In general I think it is good for Mormons to be exposed to a perspective on their faith that isn’t a sanitized GD lesson.

  10. I agree, Kevin. This proves once again that if the Church doesn’t educate its members, the world eventually will. Not that that is a good thing. This “strategy” (or lack thereof) reminds me of the parents who are too scared, embarrassed, or nervous to have the Birds-and-Bees discussion with their kids, leaving the responsibility to the world (friends, television, internet, etc.). In this case, a parent can only be so lucky that their child happens to learn of the Birds and Bees from such an understanding “friend” (Helen Whitney). Other “children” will not be so lucky.

  11. Ben, I thought that Whitney was about as close to Legacy as you could get without actually being Legacy. Yeah, you wonder about interviewing a formon non-specialist who added little academic light, but that’s a part of our heritage.

    I thought MMM was so sympathetic, included an official apology from an apostle (how else do you interpret Elder Oaks’s comment), and sought to contexualize the war, including Glen Leonard’s response to Will Bagley’s he-did-it-he-did-it. And I thought polygamy was wonderfully done in the same sympathetic and honest light (direct footage from Gordon Hinckley decrying the practice is pretty hard to argue with: the main body of the church no longer practices polygamy; to think otherwise after seeing the documentary implies a persistent vegetative state), and I hate to say it but we’re all curious about polygamists, even if we hate being lumped with them, and if you ask them where they got the doctrine, they say “Joseph Smith and Brigham Young,” so to skip it would be strange to say the least.

  12. Anything that leads someone to say, “The beliefs and practices might be a little weird, but the people aren’t weirdos”, is a good thing. That’s the biggest hurdle I have seen in others accepting the Church. Once that breaks down, at least we can work together to go about doing good.

    As part of my thesis many years ago, I read just about every negative commentary published at the time. As a documentary done by someone “from the outside”, I couldn’t be more pleased.

  13. Matt W. says:

    I have been recently studying the retention studies of volunteers and participants (Maybe for my dialogue submission you encouraged) and I will say that one important thing to volunteers and participants is met expectations. And if the expectations are false, they are hard to meet.

  14. I don’t know how you can watch this documentary and not feel as though the church has already decided to do more to teach its members about weird or troubling episodes from its history. The church obviously knew that difficult questions would be discussed but not only provided access to church employees and leaders but subsequently promoted the documentary in its official English language magazine.

    The process of innoculation is already underway and I’m guessing this documentary is part of a larger game plan to use non-official media to educate the membership. When Dallin Oakes acknowledges church members participated in MMM in a PBS documentary he defuses criticism that the church is not honest about its history without making the issue central to Mormon practice and belief. For Mormons interested enough in questions of history to make a minimal effort, a quasi-official church position is explained.

  15. Well, I’m still mulling the whole thing over. I have read the other threads, too, but haven’t been moved to comment.

    Kevin’s point is well formed and I agree that innoculation is benneficial. Is this the way to do it? I can’t say, but for now, it’s what we have.

    For myself, I am indeed glad I already had come across and pondered the issues presented- and I remained unshaken. I am certain there are members in my ward and stake who are reeling this morning, and I feel for them.

    The little devil sitting on my shoulder is more than curious to hear what a few people I know have to say, and the next FT meeting might be really fun. Bad me.

  16. larryco_ says:

    If last night was an innoculation, it was certainly a mild one. I can’t help but think the brethren broke out the champagne (metaphorically speaking) after the broadcast, as so many of the “problematic” things that could have been brought up…weren’t. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking, as each time period would pass, “I’m glad they didn’t bring up…” The only thing I had to go over with my wife was the multiple versions of the first vision.

    Was there a favorite moment for me? Oh, ya. When they positioned the 2006 BYU Ballroom Dance Tour Team – which my daughter was a member – over the trek across the plains, coupled with Terryl Givens remarks, I wept like a baby.

  17. I think the latest edition of the LDS Sunday School manuals clearly teach that Polygamy was started by Joseph Smith who also practiced it. I was teaching the 16-17 year old class and was pleasantly surprised to see it in there as such.

  18. Will Bagley wrote about the MMM, so I guess he got called in and was generally informed/had opinions so he got more widely used.

    Someone answered with the identity of the formon CES guy in the pre-game thread.

    About my only complaint w/ the first half was that so many of the folk speaking were unknown to me. Why should I care what these people think and what sort of credentials do they have to give what they say any validity. I suppose I should wander over to pbs.org and see if there’s more info there.

  19. Hey, Tim J. How did it do in the ratings? Better than average?

  20. Just FYI, Kevin spelled inoculation correctly in the title of the post.

  21. This is funny Kevin but when I was a very active member of Institute back in the day (10 years ago) we talked all the time about “inoculation”. There’s even a talk by BKPacker about inoculation, that was referenced over and over and over again. It wasn’t however about historical truths. In fact I don’t know if those CES teachers, all of whom I really liked, knew true history or not but they clearly side-stepped, white-washed or even lied about church history to our classes. The idea, and the BKP talk, was about being full of true doctrines so that we could recognize and ward off false doctrines. This would have included anything remotely “antiMormon” a denial of the BoM, JS, or the Church not just doctrinal issues like whether or not we are spirit children of God or we can be like Him.

    I don’t think people need to know EVERYTHING all at once but I think if Mormons knew that they could access real history on more than just the internet, but in Sunday School or CES etc then the process of learning “the dirty facts” of some Mormon history wouldn’t be so jarring.

  22. MikeInWeho says:

    re: 14 That makes a lot of sense, Mathew. The Elder Holland interview on the PBS web site is remarkable. He acknowledges that “many” members of the Church don’t believe in BoM historicity, yet sympathizes with them and tells them they are welcome in the fold. He says it gently, but it’s there.

  23. Peter LLC says:

    Yeah, you wonder about interviewing a formon non-specialist who added little academic light, but that’s a part of our heritage.

    As are active members known for working jewels of academese like “Smithian Mormonism” or “ecclesial community” into their blog posts. We circle our wagons around them all.

  24. Peter LLC, an excellent reminder, duly noted. I agree that the fold includes us all, even if the fold is not necessarily coterminous with the short-list for a PBS documentary.

  25. The PBS station where we live in Missouri didn’t opt to show the documentary. I wondered if it had anything to do with the way the Mormons were treated by the people of the state back in the “Zion” days. Was the Missouri period even mentioned?

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, the troubles in Missouri received prominent treatment, so there may be something to your theory.

  27. HP #19,

    PBS usually isn’t reported in the ratings because they have no need for them–they don’t offer (traditional) advertising. I’ll look and see but it might not be reported until next week.

  28. wakarusa says:

    I don’t know what Missouri station was being referred to as not showing the program (comment #25), but I taped the show off of the Kansas City (Missouri) public television channel (KCPT). I don’t know if KCPT showed it in prime time, but they did air the program at midnight.

  29. Naismith says:

    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 not entirely sure this is “the hope.” Do you have a reference for that? In my experience as a convert (which most current members are, 64% in the last reference I heard), I just don’t care diddley squat about went on back then.

    I am too busy worrying about things that matter NOW, like fellow converts who are abandoned by their families, people having to deal with abuse in their lives, folks struggling to read all of the standard works for the first time, new converts who try to bring their old religion along into their church practice, and so on. I am sure there are lots of folks in my ward who have never heard of MMM, but more who don’t care about it and don’t feel it affects their lives.

    I attended BYU in my 20s and first heard about MMM then, but I never “got” the angst that so many feel about historical issues. (It happened, it’s over, get on with your life.) I feel sympathy for them, but I don’t relate at all.

    As to the treatment of MMM in the film, I thought it was very biased, not in what was said about it but in the amount of time spent on it, as if it mattered. If you give much credence to McCombs “Agenda Setting” theory of media effects, the filmmakers have told us that MMM is important, when in fact I don’t think it is near as important as other things that were not mentioned (that women in the Utah territory could vote, that Utah was one of the safest places to have a baby because of the female doctors and the nurses and midwives they trained).

  30. I think that you are spot on, Kevin. The Correlation and the Strengthening the Membership Committees have actually exacerbated the vulnerability of members to agitators and spin meisters, which are bound to come out as long as Mitt Romney has a chance of winning the Republican nomination.

    However painful Helen Whitney’s documentary might be, Mormon leaders are lucky that she is providing the members with a soft landing by discussing the problems in the Mormon experience in a reasoned manner and in their proper context.

  31. Naiah, I agree with you there. My husband and I both couldn’t understand what the big deal treatment was of the MMM. Especially since there is no proof that the church had a huge part in it or not… and whether or not BY ordered it, it couldn’t be shown or proven. It seems to me that other issues could have been focused on instead.
    And there ARE so many more issues…

  32. Kevin, I haven’t read any of this thread, just your post. I can tell you that broadcasts like this help diffuse somewhat the frustration that builds up among non-mormons when they sense their LDS friends ignoring the heart issues though continually handing them “church-approved” DVDs.

  33. larryco_ says:

    I’m not sure why there is so much concern over the time spent on MMM. Much of it was spent on presenting the circumstances and atmosphere surrounding the horrible event. My guess is that if they would have edited it, that is what would have been left out, leaving a stark telling of the event. By using Haun’s Mill, the extermination order, the Nauvoo expulsion, Parley P. Pratt’s murder in 1855 in Arkansas (he was not named in the documentary), Johnson’s army, and the secluded nature of the LDS communities in 1857; they framed what is still inexplicable to most of us in it’s historical setting.

  34. Aaron B says:

    In a sense, I’ve also never understood the fascination with MMM. I read Juanita Brooks back in the day, but haven’t read much of the later treatments of the topic. My sense — from people whose opinions and expertise I respect — is that Bagley hasn’t replaced Brooks as the definitive source on Brigham Young’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the massacre. Until someone makes the argument for Young’s culpability more persuasively, MMM will never fascinate me like it does some.

    The bit of angst I have had over MMM has centered on what I feel is the opportunity the incident provides us to reflect on religious fanaticism and violence in our own history and tradition and to have interesting conversations about same. An opportunity lost, obviously, since it’s almost never talked about in the Church. Oh well.

    Also, I do think I understand why non-Mormons are so fascinated by it (other than those anti-Mormons who just want to beat us over the head with it). Look — weird polygamous cults in the news, poygamous killings back in the 80s and 90s, books like Krakauer’s, etc. Combine these with general ignorance about the tenets of the LDS faith, and of course people want to hear about a massacre of 100+ people by a marginalized, isolated religious sect.

    Aaron B

  35. Aaron B says:

    I think the question of innoculation vs. paternalistically shielding our fellow members from hard truths is something of a false dichotomy. I suspect we all favor innoculation much of the time, and that we all favor being careful with what we share much of the time. You have to call these things on a case-by-case basis. I, personally, have certainly told myself how important it is to “tell the truth” about X, Y and Z in Church, and then when I’m confronted with an occasion to actually do so, I incorporate all sorts of contextual issues in the moment to decide whether and to what extent I will share some deep, dark Mormon historical factoid.

    Aaron B

  36. Nice post Kevin….Yes the beauty of many LDS blogs is also the ability to keep the process of innoculatig going on as well…..


  37. Aaron,

    Authority is an essential piece of Mormon theology. It implies an obligation of obedience. That’s why the events at Mountain Meadow are important. They constitute the ideal case at the negative end of the spectrum, not in the philosopher’s ivory tower but in history.

  38. Todd,

    In what way is MMM a “heart” issue?

  39. Naismith says:

    I think the question of innoculation vs. paternalistically shielding our fellow members from hard truths is something of a false dichotomy.

    I agree. While inoculation as a theory has been around for decades, measuring the efficacy has been more recent. In cases where it has been demonstrated to be effective, such as Michael Pfau’s work, there is often a “window of exposure” during which it will work, while messages given before or later will not work as well. For example, for messages about unhealthy drug use, that window is pre-adolescence, last years of elementary school.

    My guess would be that for converts, there is also a window.

    So maybe you are subconsciously considering the situation and determining whether the exposure will likely cause inoculation or something less favorable in that case?

    And of course the other point is that while social inoculation is an intriguing theory, much of the time it does not have the intended affect.

  40. The most successful “inoculation” is one that uses the subject matter for a positive casuistic purpose. For example, MMM can be used to show the dangers of fear and resentment, and can be instructively contrasted with the Anti-Nephi-Lehis in the BoM, or even the contemporaneous offically approved guerilla campaign against Johnston’s Army which astonishingly avoided direct enemy fatalities. Polygamy can be a case study in thoughtful obedience, emphasizing the independent spiritual witnesses that hundreds of Church members testified they received before they accepted the doctrine. Joseph’s use of the seerstone to translate the BoM without even looking at the gold plates can be used to illustrate the importance of divine inspiration in the process. Of course, this doesn’t work in every case – I can not think of any useful moral message to be taken from the priesthood ban on blacks. But trying to approach these issues in this way is far more effective than the debunking, wink-wink spirit that is so tempting in disclosing facts which do not fit easily into a hagiographic approach.

  41. Michael Lai says:

    Re: # 16
    I loved Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon and found his segment on the “dancing God” very refreshing. Is he a formal BYU ballroom dancer? I’m curious to know if the dance piece was inspired by Givens during the interview process or if it was a part of the initial outline.

  42. Harold says:

    After watching this “documentary”, I couldn’t believe how inaccurate and biased it was. It made me wonder if PBS were to produce a similar documentary on Blacks, would they ask the KKK to research and present their history. It’s amazing to me that after all this time that Mormons are still persecuted.


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