Podcast #13: An Interview with J.B. Haws

For generations, Mormons have navigated the tumultuous waters of public opinion. Whether defending themselves against charges of racism or making charming advertisements about the importance of family, Mormons have sought to be conscious about how the outside world sees them. Russell Stevenson sits down with Dr. J.B. Haws, an assistant professor of religion at Brigham Young University, to discuss his award-winning book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind: 50 Years of Public Opinion. They discuss the civil rights movement in Utah, the blowback from Mormon opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and Mormon efforts to dodge attacks even as they hoped to disseminate a message of Jesus Christ for all who would listen. Haws’ story gives us the Mormon need for flexibility, negotiation, and principle in an age when the public eye is always watching. Stay tuned!

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Reviewing Meet the Mormons

tumblr_ncvpg5YAuH1tggrpfo1_1280Meet the Mormons, a documentary/informercial produced by the LDS Church about six remarkable Mormons across the globe, shows Mormonism at its coolest.  Would I see it over Guardians of the Galaxy? Tough sell, that. But I attended, if only out of filial loyalty.

The profiles range from a humanitarian in Nepal to a kickboxer in Costa Rica. Occasionally funny and genuinely touching, I found myself moved and inspired to see my faith community in new, more vibrant ways. But if you’re expecting an intellectually stimulating and innovative discussion of Mormon theology from Mormonism’s leading thinkers, then you’ve really picked the wrong Mormon documentary. Theological/historical types are sure to grumble a bit after watching it. There’s not talk about deification, the afterlife, the premortal life, Kolob, the Nephites, polygamy, Bruce R. McConkie, ecclesiastical structures, prophetic (in)fallibility, the pioneers, Joseph Smith, seerstones, translation, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, blood atonement, Freemasonry, etc.

But is that what they’re going for? When you “meet a Mormon,” is that the topic of conversation you will have?  (If you’re talking to me, it probably will be, as my dissertation is on Mormonism in Nigeria, making the priesthood restriction almost part of my casual dinner conversation. It’s great party fodder).  Perhaps it is. But as numerous public relations studies have shown, people still don’t know what Mormonism is about.  They don’t know what Mormons do, why they do it, or what they care about. And if nothing else, a great documentary is crafted to make you want to care about what makes a person wake up in the morning.   Unless you’re an avid student or a history freak (I strive to the be former and certainly am the latter), theology doesn’t exactly set will with your dinner conversation. They want to know what your values are, what matters to you, and why it should matter to them.  A colleague of mine, also a Latter-day Saint, was considering a graduate program in European history, and when the director of graduate studies learned that she had served a Mormon mission, he asked her not about Kolob but about how she could teach people to have a relationship with God.  Basic stuff.

As an academic resource, it enjoys limited utility. In my own work, I might use a clip or two as an intro-warm up to give a presentation on the history of  Mormon public relations or perhaps to frontline a presentation on the history of Mormon racial identity–but never more than a few minutes of it. It offers no discussion of change over time, origins, or Mormonism’s Big Ideas.  The only historian used in the film was Andrei Cherry, the author of a popular history of the Candy Bombers during the Berlin airlift.  I would never use it as a teaching tool in any academic classroom. But when I was chatting with the director, Blair Treu (as savvy as they come, by the way) about the making of this film, it was clear to me that he was not making a film to appease the Mo-intelligentsia.  The vast majority of the population don’t have Kolob on their minds.  When people still think of Mormons as just screwballs in the Intermountain West (a charge to which I would have pled guilty last year), then the solution isn’t to inundate them with historical scholarship. And Treu knows that as well as anybody.   Those who cry foul at the film’s lack of theology are like people at a fine restaurant complaining about why the cheeseball and crackers aren’t more filling.

The Hollywood Reporter declares that the film’s message is that “Mormons are people, too, and really nice ones at that.” But a caricature such as this in fact ignores such a wealth of backstory of race, class, and gender in the Mormon community.   Every story is intended to tackle stereotypes of various kind. A kickboxing mother? Not exactly what comes to mind when you say “Mormon wife.”   An African-American bishop? While it doesn’t give anything on the history of that (inexplicably, I would add), to go ignore the significance of this story is to be willfully ignorant.  Likewise, while Gail Halverson, the famous “candy bomber” of the Berlin airlift, carves out a fabulous narrative, his Mormonism doesn’t really appear in the story.

Love the production or hate it, everything done reveals how Church wants itself presented to the world. Their triumphs are many and varied: whether they’re showing us how they overcame personal obstacles in their youth or building infrastructure in rural Nepal, these individuals have the street cred to force us to revisit some of the holdover insularity we’ve inherited from nineteenth-century Mormonism. I know countless, remarkable LDS humanitarians, athletes, and mothers whose stories are as compelling as anyone’s on the film. But what if they’re not representative?  Neither were Peter nor Paul, and we have large texts detailing their travels.

Would I attend it if I weren’t part of tribe Mormon? Certainly not.  I wouldn’t lay down ten dollars for documentaries of any kind when I can find them in plentitude on Netflix or elsewhere.  Did I come away proud of what Mormons could be? Certainly.   Richard Bushman has told the Saints that warming people up to Mormonism is a “matter of familiarity.” Will this do the trick? I don’t know that it will, but it will have accomplished its purpose if only by giving some alone time with our collective self to have a heart-to-heart about what it means to be a Mormon in a 21st-century global community.