In March 2012, Time magazine’s Joe Klein and BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith—two top political journalists who also happen to be Jewish—took part in a panel at the City University of New York about the looming presidential election. Their conversation soon turned to Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and in particular to his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I think the fact that he’s a Mormon leads him to be mistrustful of the outside world and what it can handle about him,” said Klein, who then proceeded to prove Romney’s caution right by labeling the church’s practice of posthumous baptism “nonsense” and mocking “the underwear” worn by believing Mormons, to laughs from the crowd. Smith was less amused, however, and pointed out that every religion has practices that appear absurd to outsiders—and that Judaism has a sacred sartorial wardrobe of its own: “This is like making fun of people’s tzitzit or their yarmulkes,” he retorted. “I don’t get it.”
The dispute highlighted how difficult it has been for many Americans to come to grips with Mormonism and its practitioners. If even Jews like Klein—members of another minority faith historically maligned for its unusual beliefs and rituals—have trouble understanding and accepting Mormons, one can imagine how hard it has been for the rest of the country. It’s exactly this sort of discomfort that Meet the Mormons, a 78-minute documentary produced by the LDS Church that is currently playing across America, seeks to allay.
“For many people, their knowledge of Mormons has been shaped largely by the media and popular culture which surrounds us,” begins the film’s narrator, comedian Jenna Kim Jones. “Not necessarily the best way to get accurate information.” As both a Mormon and a former hand on The Daily Show, she would know. The film intercuts her opening monologue with casual wisecracks about Mormons taken from contemporary films and television shows. Some of them shade into the sort of jibes that would provoke online outrage mobs or worse if made about another minority group, whether women, Jews, or Muslims.
Indeed, Mormons have spent much of recent years being portrayed—and often misportrayed—by others, whether political pundits, Broadway, or Hollywood. Now, like many people of faith—from the evangelical Christian filmmakers of Son of God to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox auteur Rama Burshtein—they’re trying to take back the narrative by bringing their story to the big screen.
Meet the Mormons attempts this by introducing audiences to a procession of the faithful from around the world, ranging from Utah to Costa Rica to the remote mountains of Katmandu. Each subject has been carefully chosen to explode stereotypes about the LDS Church and its adherents. There is Jermaine Sullivan, an African-American bishop—a role equivalent to a pastor or rabbi in church hierarchy, but filled by rotating volunteers rather than trained professionals—of Atlanta. He recalls being told by a surprised visitor, “I didn’t know they had black bishops in the Mormon church.” (The church opened its priesthood to African Americans in 1978 and claims over 400,000 adherents in Africa.) Viewers explore Sullivan’s thriving interracial ward and watch him teach dance to the church’s youth, black and white. As one church member puts it, “God is the author of diversity.”
Next is Ken Niumatalolo, the Samoan head coach of the Navy football team at Annapolis, who guides his players throughout the week and then teaches religious texts to 10-year-olds on Sundays, when he holds no official team practices. He is followed by Carolina Muñoz of San José, Costa Rica, a competitive martial artist who runs the largest gym chain in the region with her husband and donates a portion of the proceeds to charity. Other profiles include a humanitarian in Nepal who pulled himself out of poverty in his remote Himalayan village and then returned to help others born into similar circumstances; a single mother and her biracial son; and a 92-year-old former U.S. Air Force pilot who spearheaded Operation Little Vittles during the Berlin airlift.
In telling these tales, the film and writer/director Blair Treu take on the tricky task of speaking to both a distrustful religious right and a skeptical liberal left at the same time. For more secular audiences, Meet the Mormons makes a point of the church’s charitable work and racial diversity, while occasionally spotlighting female empowerment. (In one scene, viewers watch Muñoz get up for her morning run while her husband cooks breakfast and takes care of the children.) Meanwhile, for conservative Christians—many of whom may be inclined to consider Mormonism a heretical cult—the film emphasizes its subjects’ faith in Jesus Christ, while carefully noting that the Book of Mormon does not replace the Christian Bible but rather augments it. The movie also showcases the harmonious relationships shared by its Mormon converts and their Catholic and Baptist families, as well as the church’s deep patriotism.
This focus on lived experience rather than doctrine exemplifies the film’s approach, which does not so much demystify Mormonism’s tenets as humanize its adherents. Thus, while there are many shots throughout of individuals reading the Book of Mormon, there is precious little exposition of its theology. Likewise, while viewers will learn much about the bonds of community forged by LDS temples, they will learn little about the rituals that take place within. There’s a reason, in other words, that the film is called Meet the Mormons and not Meet Mormonism. It is not so much instructive as illustrative—an effort to show how the LDS Church offers meaning to its followers like any other religion, and thereby to secure its place in the pantheon of American faith.
Needless to say, this is not an objective affair. You won’t find much in Meet the Mormons about the church’s internal struggles over women’s roles or the faith’s staunch opposition to gay marriage and fraught relationship to the LGBT community, or be introduced to polygamous LDS splinter cells. But then, you won’t hear much about the diversity, contributions, and personal fulfillment of everyday Mormons in the mainstream media. The film is certainly not a totalizing portrait of the LDS Church, which is unsurprising given its origins. But it is perhaps a necessary corrective to the cartoon caricatures of Mormonism that too often masquerade as respectable representation.
On the surface, there is little that Jews will find familiar in the film. No converts from Judaism are featured, and the church’s outlook toward the faith—including its prior practice of posthumously baptising Holocaust victims—is not discussed. Yet at the same time, even as the protagonists of Meet the Mormons reflect on what Jesus means to them, the film’s underlying narrative strikes a common chord. It is an attempt by a minority faith—often maligned as privileged and clannish—to dispel debilitating stereotypes and gain acceptance in the American mainstream. The modern Jewish and Mormon stories are not the same, but they share certain aspirations that the film brings to the fore.
Beyond these not-inconsiderable substantive merits, Meet the Mormons is worth seeing as an object lesson in how religious communities can respond constructively to outside criticism. Pundits love to debate whether any particular religion—typically Islam—is more prone to violence when critiqued from without. But little attention is paid to religious groups that excel at taking the opposite tack. In recent years, Mormons have been subject to anti-LDS political potshots aimed at Mitt Romney, a popular parodic Broadway musical, and countless other indignities. But rather than penning angry op-eds or indulging in victimhood, the LDS Church placed tongue-in-cheek ads in the playbill for the musical The Book of Mormon, posted a detailed explanation of its sacred undergarments on its website, and produced a documentary about itself that is utterly devoid of resentment.
It’s an example from which many others, both religious and secular, would do well to learn.
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