Bill Long 3/12/06
Polygamy on TV
You can go online and find 22 reviews of the first five or ten episodes of this polygamy-family-drama which kicked off on HBO tonight. Rather than reviewing the themes of the first week, which relate to the tensions involved in a polygamous family (3 wives, about 7 kids), I would like to reflect on a deeper issue to which this series points--the way that Mormons are perceived in our culture and the future of Mormon acceptance/interaction with the mainstream of American culture.
LDS, by the Numbers
Accurate numbers of adherents to any religious denomination are hard to come by but the "official" numbers published by the LDS Church has the worldwide population of LDS's at about 13,000,000 and the US population at about 5.5 million. If this latter number is accurate, Mormons now are the fourth largest religious group in America, behind Catholics, Southern Baptists and Methodists. Nearly 1 million of the 5.5 live in CA and probably 4.5 of the 5.5 million live in the Western or Mountain States. This geographic reality has skewed American understanding of the Latter-Day Saints, because the information outlets in America are dominated by an East Coast culture, where LDS influence is still nearly non-existent. Thus, just as the typical New Yorker knows that Oregon exists somewhere "out West," the typical Easterner has only vaguely heard of Mormons and believes that polygamy is still rampant and widely accepted in Utah.
I don't have any really good information about the growth rate of the LDS in the United States. I do know, however, that most of the LDS students I teach (and there are many at my law school), are quite serious about their religion and vary on the political spectrum from conservative to moderate. Most want to have large families, though a significant minority recall their days in penurious circumstances growing up in a large family and are less eager to start having children while the legal bills pile up. Nevertheless, though almost all American LDS'ers are white and born in this country, they do form almost an ethic/religious group which assumes its own identity and culture, and which has been very reluctant to let "outsiders" share much of this culture over the years. The reaction is natural; it is a staple of "Seminary" teaching (the released-time high school instruction which Mormon students attend) that their ancestors were persecuted and chased out of the United States in the 1840s until they finally settled in the Salt Lake Basin in 1847. Indeed, the story is true, but how a people wants to handle its past victimization at the hands of a majority is illustrative of one of the large tensions within LDS thought today--to what extent a theology of victimization still dominates their thought.
Confusing Signals Sent out by Big Love
So, Big Love is supposed to depict the tensions and joys in the lives of a polygamous clan in the Wasatch Valley. But there was no disclaimer at the beginning, as I could see, which would say that this fictional family had nothing to do with the mainstream LDS church. And, indeed, there were several indications in the first 25 minutes of the first episode that the show was trying to tie the "Big Love" family with the mainstream LDS Church. References to the "Bishops" moving across the street and frequent shots of Temple Square tended to "baptize" this show as a genuine look into the realities of Mormon family life. So, I assume there will be tons of pleas by the LDS Church to disassociate the show from the official church teachings. I think that, by and large, the Church will be successful in rebutting the charge that polygamy is practiced in the mainstream LDS Church today. But what this controversy over polygamy does is obscure some of the real issues of importance in Mormon/mainstream American cultural dialogue today. Let me list three of those issues, without further comment at this point.
1. Does LDS theology truly believe today that the rest of Christendom is misguided, wrong and, ultimately, needs to be converted to the true faith of LDS teaching?
2. How much does the LDS Church want to have a "say" in how their members live their lives? That is, what "pressures" or "fears" are engendered by the religion if people tend to step out of line in slight ways? In other words, does the Church see itself as encouraging critical thinking? And, how will it relate to its membership, which is increasingly becoming a critically-thinking and educated membership?
3. When the LDS beliefs begin to become scrutinized in the mainstream American press (and this won't happen for a few years), which ones will stay and which ones will be downplayed? For
example, will LDS scholars go the mat on the fact that the Book of Mormon gives historically accurate information about pre-Columbian American civilization, for example?
I think the challenge of LDS culture to mainstream American thought is a significant issue that has not intelligently been written about or discussed in the public sphere. The visibility of Protestant Evangelicalism in the past decades has tended to obscure the way that the LDS Church is becoming more and more of a shaping force in the lives of individuals, communities and large portions of our country. I think significant clashes will arise in the future, especially when a serious Mormon presidential candidate (like Mitt Romney) emerges or an LDS "takeover" of important American institutions begins. We aren't even sure, at this stage, however, which questions to ask about it all. And, in my judgment, Big Love is, at best, only a conversation starter and, at worst, a diversion. But, this is TV, after all.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long