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Mormon mystery

Television | Why does America love hearing so much about the Mormons, anyway?

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

Everyone, it seems, wants to know more about the Mormons. TV magazines have been consumed with them for a decade. We have books, too, like Jon Krakauer's bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven and even the HBO series Big Love, which seems to suggest that Polygamists Are People, Too.

But if you'd like less tortured information about the Mormons, you might turn to The Mormons, an artlessly titled four-hour, two-part special on PBS (airing April 30 and May 1 at 9 p.m. ET). Part One covers the history of the religion to the mid-20th century. Part Two brings the wagon train up to the present in all its glory, from polygamy to presidential candidates.

But why does America love hearing so much about the Mormons, anyway?

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Some reasons are easy: Joseph Smith has a profile that ranks with the best of them; born 150 years later, he might have made the cover of Vanity Fair. And then there's polygamy. This is the most immediate fascination of ours-never mind that the Mormon church now excommunicates polygamists-and it borders precariously near the voyeuristic.

But two other reasons might further explain our fascination. First, the cultural elites have never tired of warring with theism, and Mormons make for an easy target. It's as if the elites are saying, "Look, Jo Smith was a fake. Brigham Young was a despot. The Book of Mormon is clearly an unhistorical work of dementia. And thus, your faith-like all faith-is nonsense."

A second reason is that Mormonism's history and evolution function as a priceless case study in church-state relations. In some sense, it's as if thousands of years of world religion had been compacted into two centuries-and right here in America, for us to study.

In the upcoming PBS special, director Helen Whitney interviews an unconventional roster: those from within Mormonism and without, including descendants of Joseph Smith, excommunicants, an evangelical or two, and even the notorious Harold Bloom. This makes for a better four hours of television than most.

Yet, one problem persists-in the PBS special and every other popular feature on the Mormons: Most people have very little idea as to what, exactly, Mormons believe. But the same can be said for most theistic systems discussed in the media: What do the warring sects of Islam believe? What do different Christian churches profess? What, exactly, do Jews believe? If the world wants to understand theistic religions, then it might start with the ideas driving those systems. Ideas, after all, have consequences.

Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key

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