Last week, for probably the first time in history, TV Guide broke controversial news. And this week, it came to pass; Big Love showed a portion of the LDS temple ceremony; specifically, a fraction of a prayer circle and a portion – probably the most sensitive portion – of the veil ceremony. The consequent and rather predictable Mormon uproar has taken the form of a rally to protect the temple; tiresome email petitions and facebook groups and YouTube videos abound. But what, beneath the surface, is this debate really about? Big Love is a complicated show, and deserves an interpretation that scratches below the surface.
The temple content aside, this was a reasonably typical Big Love episode. That is, it offered a rather soap opera-esque story about a group of fundamentalist Mormons (whom we like!) struggling to survive in a hostile world, mixed with a few malapropisms (Barb declares she wants to “take her endowments,” full stop, which on top of the grammatical weirdness seems strange for a woman in her mid-forties; there’s some confusion about how exactly recommends work; apparently you can only stay in celestial rooms for fifteen minutes before the old ladies toss you out; multiple characters talk about being “unsealed”), set in a vaguely paranoid Salt Lake valley where the LDS Church’s omnipresence looms behind every business deal and in every “heck.”
But here’s the interesting thing about Big Love; despite all that it’s actually sympathetic to Mormonism as a religious tradition, just not exactly the brand most LDS folks are familiar with. It takes its characters’ belief in God, in Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon, in sealing, in ordinances, in an afterlife and all of the rest seriously. It’s not out to prove Mormonism is silly or weird; indeed, quite the opposite: it wants us to identify with its main characters in all their fundamentalist convictions. Many of which (noted above) Latter-day Saints happen to share. To compare the show to the last bit of pop culture that reproduced part of the endowment session . . . well, this is not September Dawn. Christopher Cain and his band of merry pranksters wanted their viewers to think the temple was cultish and pagan, so they set the ritual in a barn and lit it in much the same way as the Phantom of the Opera’s secret lair; Cain’s heroes have to be literally forced into participation. There is a qualitative difference between that and Big Love; Barb wants to go to the temple because she believes it is what it claims to be; being excommunicated and losing access is devastating to her. She tells the others in her marriage that “I miss it. I miss the ritual and the sense of purpose.” She tells her mother she wants to go to find peace in a time of stress. It is clear to the viewer how hallowed the temple is.
Given all this, the temple content in the episode is oddly dissonant. The most obvious problem (aside from its very existence) is that the plot grinds slowly to a halt while Barb recites an entire cumbersome chunk of the veil ceremony. This is unusual for Big Love, whose imitations of Mormon rites are generally suppler than this; see for instance the baptism for the dead episode a few weeks back. For unfamiliar viewers who lack the sense of violation that might keep Mormons tense and at fever pitch throughout, the monotone recitation of archaic phrases would quickly become tiresome. It is thus not impossible to imagine the show’s producers are aware both of their transgression and its ability to goose the Mormons. It’s skillfully presented and within the still-sympathetic arc of Barb’s character, but it simply goes on too long to work artistically. Bind that to the particular content – perhaps the pinnacle, the most sacrosanct moment of an already private ritual – and we are left with the sense of a production team that knows precisely what it is doing. It’s not useful, however, to simply cry foul; to accuse these folks of cartoonishly malicious motives; to take our ball, accuse them of being haters, and go home. That does them, but more importantly ourselves a disservice. What’s more useful is to use this episode to learn more about who we are and where we are in American life.
I would argue this particular poke in the Mormon eye is bound into larger debates about religion and politics and the public square. Most contemporary Mormons feel that regardless of whatever the ceremony itself says about what should or should not be kept secret, all of it should. This extends even to official discourse within the institution itself. Noah Feldman’s concept of ‘soft-secrecy,’ twentieth century Mormons’ proclivity to minimize those things which might seem odd or disturbing to contemporary is a useful way to conceptualize this, both within and without the boundaries of the Church.
The secrecy that surrounds the temple is one of the last bastions of peculiarity within a rushing tide of Mormon cultural assimilation. Maintaining that silence within the church is a way to assure ourselves that we are still possessed of holiness, of that special set-apartness that once characterized our entire lives. It’s a way to maintain the power of the distinctions and initiations that make Mormon culture strong and give it clarity. Mormons have sacrificed much of their identity for the sake of acceptance in American life, but still suffer penalties for keeping the scraps that remain. The rough and tumble American public square approaches Mormon secrecy warily. It is for many observers inherently suspect, indicative of an illiberal culture, and incompatible, ultimately, with democracy.
And of course, recently the Church has been accused of precisely that; of subverting democracy by proxy, of manipulating American politics from the sidelines while still trying to remain aloof from the demand to fully participate. This shadow over the plot was darkest in Barb’s last speech to the disciplinary council which excommunicates her at the end of the episode. “I love the church but I believe the church and its leaders are in grave error on polygamy and on the kinds of marriages and families it creates,” she said (emphasis added). “I can’t forsake my family.” This episode of Big Love, if it does nothing else, strips away Mormon secrecy and in so doing attempts to shove the Church unwillingly into the bright lights and cacophony of the public square.
Among other things, then, I think this whole affair demonstrates how complicated Mormonism’s engagement with American life has become. There are an ever multiplying variety of ways in which the world might engage with the faith, and several of them are at work in Big Love. This was not the show’s finest hour as a work of art, but it is perhaps the most interesting, because the several gears here ground more loudly than usual. However, it’s insufficient to simply (as the Newsroom did) lump what happened in this episode in with September Dawn, or either of them with South Park. If nothing else, this affair might convince us that the usefulness of the hypersimplistic term “anti-Mormon” is rapidly narrowing.