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The Publicity Dilemma and Narratives of Persecution

By: Christopher - March 18, 2009

Let me begin with two disclaimers:

1) I do not want to rehash the debates regarding the (in)appropriateness or offensive nature of HBO’s recent portrayal of portions of the endowment ceremony on Big Love. Please take any comments regarding such matters elsewhere.

2) Others who participate on this blog know much more than I do about Latter-day Saint narratives of persecution. If my analysis seems oversimplified and unsophisticated, that’s probably because it is. Hopefully others with more understanding than I will offer their thoughts.

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When I read the Church’s response last week to the breaking news that the HBO television hit Big Love would be dramatizing portions of the LDS endowment ceremony, I was struck by the narrative the PR folks crafted, constructing the episode as the most recent example in a growing body of “gross portrayals” of Latter-day Saint religiosity perpetrated by the modern media. JI’s own Matt Bowman has astutely observed that grouping last week’s ordeal with previous episodes of South Park and the motion-picture mega-flop September Dawn is “insufficient” and not entirely helpful for a variety of reasons. Another interesting component of the narrative in the Newsroom’s release is the linking of this persecution (a word, it should be noted, the authors carefully avoid) with the growing number of Mormons that constitute an expanding worldwide membership. “Like other large faith groups,” the document begins, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sometimes finds itself on the receiving end of attention from Hollywood or Broadway, television series or books, and the news media.”

Sometimes depictions of the Church and its people are quite accurate. Sometimes the images are false or play to stereotypes. Occasionally, they are in appallingly bad taste. As Catholics, Jews and Muslims have known for centuries, such attention is inevitable once an institution or faith group reaches a size or prominence sufficient to attract notice. [emphasis added]

The reason given for the “entertainment media insensitively trivializ[ing] or misrepresent[ing] sacred beliefs or practices” was the size of the Church. This trope is again utilized a few paragraphs later when the authors attempt to dispel any notions that such trivializing portrayals would have a negative impact on the Church.

As someone recently said, “This isn’t 1830, and there aren’t just six of us anymore.” In other words, with a global membership of thirteen and a half million there is no need to feel defensive when the Church is moving forward so rapidly. The Church’s strength is in its faithful members in 170-plus countries, and there is no evidence that extreme misrepresentations in the media that appeal only to a narrow audience have any long-term negative effect on the Church. 

All of this stands in contrast to many of the ways that Latter-day Saints understood their persecution in the church’s earliest days. While Latter-day Saints have long acknowledged that other sincere Christians throughout history were persecuted, they almost never identified with large, established groups like Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. Rather, they noted the persecution aimed at smaller sectarian groups. And the reason for their persecution was most certainly not their visibility or prominence in the public mainstream. John Taylor, for example, noted in an 1858 lecture that “there has never been a time, since the world began, but men of the most elevated character, of the most exalted natures, of the best and most moral habits,-virtuous men that feared God and worked righteousness, have been persecuted, cast out, and trodden under foot.” [1]

In his MA thesis, David Grua identified the following religious groups as those receiving some mention by early Mormon essayists as “having some claim in the history of God?s persecuted people.” “[T]he Waldenses, Baptists, Quakers, Shakers, Methodists, the followers of Jemima Wilkinson, the early modern martyr John Rogers, and even such individuals as Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton.” [2] A far cry from the large and respectable communities the Catholics, Jews, and Muslims represent today, these groups of the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were largely marginalized as religious and social outsiders. It is with these groups that the earliest Mormon tentatively identified.

But with the growth of the LDS Church over the last 170 years, the narrative has shifted. It is difficult to identify as a small, misunderstood, and persecuted group of outsiders, while at the same time noting the rapid growth and eventual worldwide destiny of the church. Nevertheless, both narratives are compatible with unique truth claims as God’s chosen people—a point proved, at least in part, by the utilization of similar discursive tactics by other religions today. In his book, A Nation of Behavers, Martin Marty identified Pentecostals as one such group. “Whereas once [Pentecostalism] was ‘true’ because it was small and pure, now it is ‘true’ because there are so many drawn to it.” [3]  

It will be interesting to see how such narratives continue to develop in Mormonism as the Church continues to grow and attract more attention from the news and media.

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[1] John Taylor, “The People of God in All Ages Led by One Spirit, and Subject to Persecution-Condition of the World,” January 10, 1858, Journal of Discourses, 7:120; as cited in David W. Grua, “Memoirs of the Persecuted: Persecution, Memory, and the West as a Mormon Refuge,” (MA Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2008), 33-34.

[2] Grua, “Memoirs of the Persecuted,” 34.

[3] Martin E. Marty, A Nation of Behavers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 124.

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17 Comments

  1. Interesting, Chris. I agree there’s an important shift here. The PR statement retains an element of the early church’s persecution discourse by arguing that the church will continue on in spite of persecution. But as you note, there’s an element here that wasn’t present in the early narratives, that we’re being persecuted because of our size and prominence, just like Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  2. Christopher,

    Here is something have noticed. A lot of us think of the media as the enemy, and consequently we see almost any kind of reporting as negative, even it the reporters tried to be even-handed and fair. The best example I can think of is the PBS production, The Mormons. I know people who draw an unbroken line from Lilburn W. Boggs to Helen Whitney.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 18, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  3. Thanks for the write up. I don’t have anything to add, but I’m glad to see David’s work being referenced.

    Comment by Jared T — March 18, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  4. David, thanks for weighing in and for pointing out that the PR statement does retain that element of earlier discourse. Are you aware of any other sources that utilize the “we’re being persecuted because of our size and prominence” approach?

    Mark, I’ve observed similar reactions by Mormons today to The Mormons or Big Love or whatever else, that situate such episodes as a continuation of the physical harrassment of earlier generations of Latter-day Saints. It would be interesting to see how widely spread such ideas/perceptions are within the church today.

    Jared, thanks. David’s work certainly deserves a wider audience.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  5. Chris, I have heard people say that the Mormons are the new Catholics (meaning the Catholics get smeared all the time, but no one gets outraged), which I’d say is a variation of the approach.

    Comment by David G. — March 18, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

  6. Mark, you’d be surprised — there’s no lack of people who insist that Boggs never persecuted any Mormons — it’s all just a Mormon persecution complex. For those of us whose ancestors lost everything, including family members, at the hands of mobs and to the extremes of the weather in forced migrations, we’re just a party to this victim mentality — it’s all just a mental construct.

    In spite of that, I agree with you that it was sad to see how the PBS documentary was lambasted, even if it did indulge in some sensationalism at the expense of Mormons.

    Christopher, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the approach the Newsroom took in this release although I thought the core advice was sensible (i.e. that Mormons shouldn’t boycott or make a huge fuss, which many Mormons ignored). I don’t think that current persecution of Mormons has become analogous to treatment of the accepted, established groups, like the Catholics, but rather that it is the same that it always has been. We are an infinitesimal minority in all societies except on some parts of the Wasatch front. Thankfully, mobs aren’t burning us out of our homes and driving us from states anymore but the content of the persecution that we receive is virtually unchanged since Eber D. Howes’ Mormonism Unvailed of 1834 and takes the form of ridiculing our practices and beliefs, particularly in our origins. Although it is unpleasant to be aware that this is what many think of us, we can live with that as it’s no longer coupled with violence.

    There can be no doubt, however, when reading some forums and websites that many of the ridiculers who are former Mormons genuinely mean us harm and would inflict it (typically on the institution itself rather than on individual members) if only they could. They seem to take the position that the Church is harming people so whatever it takes should be done to bring it down and to cause people to leave the Church. (This seems to overlook the harm that this would cause to devoted Latter-day Saints who believe in the Restored Gospel and who derive immense spiritual strength and well being from the Church.) Reading the material on such forums and websites, it is actually remarkable how much it resembles Howes’, John C. Bennett’s and Thomas Sharp’s writings about the Church and the beliefs of its members way back in the 1830s and 40s. Very little has changed — the substance of the persecution is the same, and it’s no mere complex. What has changed is that American society has matured such that there is more robust protection of the Church’s right to house the beliefs that the members hold without those beliefs becoming the basis for expulsion or other violence against its members.

    Comment by john f. — March 19, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  7. there’s no lack of people who insist that Boggs never persecuted any Mormons — it’s all just a Mormon persecution complex.

    John, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever encountered any of these individuals. Are you suggesting this is a common attitude, or merely noting the beliefs of a few wacky individuals hellbent on denying Mormons the benefit of the doubt under any and all circumstances?

    And while I certainly agree that “current persecution of Mormons has become analogous to treatment of the accepted, established groups, like the Catholics,” why do you think the Church employed such a rhetorical tactic in framing the news release? What was the Church trying to accomplish by linking Mormons with Catholics, Jews, and Muslims? And what does that reveal about how the church sees itself and its standing in the public square?

    I’m also curious about your apparent equation of any anti-Mormon media with persecution. I think we can all agree that the websites and forums you refer to largely qualify as anti-Mormon drivel that is indeed mean-spirited. But how much does that actually affect you or the church’s reputation? What about the issues at hand? The Big Love episode, September Dawn, or the South Park episode, for instance. Or Lawrence O’Donnell’s rant, the protests at Mormon temples over Prop 8, or jabs at Romney’s poorly-articulated religiosity during the Republican Primaries?

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  8. Christopher, just to be clear, I don’t think that current persecution of Mormons has become analogous to treatment of the accepted, established groups, like the Catholics.

    But why would anti-Mormon media not be persecution? Anti-Semitic media would be considered that way. It is a spectrum, of course. The clear examples are the forums and websites I mentioned. September Dawn is a relatively straightforward example of a hatchet job — hard to see how that evades being lumped in with anti-Mormon media that also generally has a spirit of persecution about it. The South Park episode isn’t persecution by any means any more than John Stewart jokes are. O’Donnell’s rant, on the other hand, seems a simple example of both anti-Mormon and persecution. Not sure how this is complicated. We laugh at Justice Stephens for his “I know it when I see it” test but there’s something to that — it’s called common sense.

    It’s hard to see how the Evangelical Right’s treatment of Romney and Mormons during the election wouldn’t qualify as good old fashioned persecution. A hardwired disability to participate in the political process because of one’s religion is a hard pill to swallow. A baptist might think it’s perfectly justified for the system to prohibit a Mormon from political office because of his or her religion but that doesn’t mean it’s not religious persecution — what the baptist thinks is justified is not the touchstone.

    I don’t know what the Church is trying to achieve in grouping itself with the Catholics etc. in this instance. As a guess, it’s probably an urge to claim a mainstream status — to claim a position of acceptance within broader society. Also, by doing this, the Church might be trying to tap into pre-existing Catholic/Evangelical/Jewish discontents with insensitive or anti-religious depictions of them in the media and thereby engender some common ground with those groups who otherwise would not identify in any way with such a tiny minority religion.

    Comment by john f. — March 19, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  9. Christopher, just to be clear, I don’t think that current persecution of Mormons has become analogous to treatment of the accepted, established groups, like the Catholics.

    Yeah, I got that. Sorry for the sloppy cut and paste job I did in my response. It should have read, And while I certainly agree that “current persecution of Mormons has [not] become analogous to treatment of the accepted, established groups, like the Catholics …”

    For the record, I never said any of the things you cite do not qualify as persecution (though I probably would not be as quick to lump it all together under the umbrella of “persecution” or “anti-Mormonism” like you do). I was just confused as to why (in your initial comment) you brought up silly anti-Mormon websites when they seem far outside the content addressed in the church’s news release or this post.

    I am more interested in exploring how LDS persecution narratives have changed and what that reveals about Mormonism and its understanding of itself (and/or Mormons and the understanding(s) of themselves) than I am in making a judgment about whether Mormons are indeed persecuted today and whether that persecution bears any resemblance to that of the 1830s and 40s.

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  10. I’m not sure Mormon persecution narratives have changed but you seem to be studying it so you might have seen some other indication than this Newsroom release. I am not sure the Newsroom release alone constitues evidence that Mormon persecution narratives have changed.

    What exactly do you think I am lumping under umbrellas of persecution and anti-Mormon?

    Comment by john f. — March 19, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  11. It seems like this paragraph from Joseph Smith, from the lesson a few weeks ago, might be relevant:

    “The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”

    So here we do have a direct comparison of the early Mormons to the Catholics, but as another example of a small and unpopular faith, rather than a large and mainstream one.

    About denying that persecution of Mormons took place in the 19th century, John may have in mind the misguided view that Joseph Smith can’t be considered a martyr because he fought back (a view that ignores the distinction between “martyrdom” and “suicide”), or comments like this that reduce persecution to mutual misunderstanding.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — March 19, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

  12. Thanks Jonathan. The JS quote you provide is certainly interesting and relevant.

    And thanks for providing the link and explanation to John’s earlier suggestion. I have heard of critics attempt to downplay JS’s role as a martyr, though I’ve still never heard anyone suggest that “Boggs never persecuted any Mormons.”

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  13. John F.,

    In the 1830s, persecution narratives emphasized that the Church was persecuted in part because it was small and pushing against the bounds of orthodox religion. In the newsroom release, the narrative suggested that persecution was a result of the Church’s growing size.

    Do you really fail to see the difference? And how does the newsroom release not constitute evidence?

    Comment by Christopher — March 19, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

  14. I’m not aware of anyone who denies that the early Mormons did not suffer violent opposition. What is contestable is what caused that violence. In particular, people debate whether the Missourians and Illinoisans were motivated by a hatred of Mormon religion, or if political and social factors led to the violence. For Mormons, we’ve often insisted that the violence be attributed to religious prejudice, as being persecuted is a key component to how we see ourselves as God’s people. While people disagree over what motivated the violence, no one really argues that the Mormons were not violently expelled, or that JS didn’t die a violent death.

    I suspect that John is arguing that the PR statement is not representative of general trends, and that generalizing from it is fallacious. Although Christopher does generalize a bit in the post, his focus is on the PR statement itself, which I think does clearly demonstrate a discursive shift from nineteenth-century narratives.

    Comment by David G. — March 19, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  15. This is a very interesting post, Christopher.

    Regarding the Joseph Smith quote Jonathan cited in #11, if my memory is correct, Catholics didn’t come to the US in large numbers until the late 19th century, so they were a persecuted minority at the time he said it. (I realize you all are historians, so what I’ve said is likely either trivial information or false.) I wonder how American Catholics’ narratives about their persecution might have changed over time. I guess at least even when in the minority, they knew they had lots of fellow believers in other countries, while the US has always been the center of Mormonism.

    Comment by Ziff — March 22, 2009 @ 3:35 am

  16. Chris-

    Interesting post. I hadn’t really noticed the shift you mention, but the quotes you offer are convincing.

    I think the Newsroom post points up, as you and others have shown, the tension between characterizing the church’s success (showing how large the church has grown) while still admitting persecution. Your question at the end of the post is worth thinking more about. In my words: How long can the narrative of persecution be sustained in the face of continued success?

    Comment by Brandon — March 23, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  17. Thanks for the additional thought on Catholicism as a comparison, Ziff.

    Brandon, I agree that the questions deserves further attention. It will be interesting to see if any future statements by the church repeat the narrative in the newsroom release, and if they attempt to reconcile the question.

    Comment by Christopher — March 23, 2009 @ 4:44 pm