The real Big controversy

I just finished watching this season’s second to last episode of HBO’s Big Love soap opera, and I believe there may be another hidden reason that the show makes Mormons uneasy. Much of the media’s attention has been on the fact that this episode portrayed a scene in a Mormon temple, however, the show did have one line that caught me: the main character expressly claimed that the Mormon church was just as corrupt as the show’s main antagonists who are practicing polygamy and generally in trouble with the law.

This theme has underlined the entire season of the show. Without giving away the details of the show, it is fair to say that the Mormon Church is not portrayed favorably. The Church noted as much in their non-statement regarding the temple portrayal. And true to form, the show continues to portray the main characters as sincere individuals who truly belief their faith and way of life (polygamy) will lead them to eternal salvation.

As many of the comments noted, the Mormon Church has officially said they were disappointed by the show’s attempt to portray a temple scene, along with this season’s general theme involving the Mormon church, but have not officially opposed or boycotted the show.

It would be interesting to see less focus on the temple scene and more focus on the veracity of the show’s attempt to portray the Mormon Church as somehow corrupt and sinister. There has hardly been any noise on this issue as compared to the controversy surrounding films such as The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ. That seems to be the deliberate strategy of the Mormon Church, but that doesn’t mean journalists can’t look into it.

True to form, much of the media’s discussion involves the portrayal of plural marriages. Here is The Chicago Tribune‘s The Seeker blog:

Wilde can relate to much of the show, which often illustrates how plural wives usually get along.

“One thing I have especially liked about the show so far is the family solidarity; even though the three wives have disagreements, they usually support each other in the long run,” she said. “I also like the fact that the Hendrickson family lives in a relatively upscale community, is not in an isolated area, is able to support themselves … dispelling the stereotypes that all polygamous wives are controlled and uneducated, dress in different styles, depend on government assistance.” . . .

But Wilde hopes more people do watch the show and realize that all Americans (including polygamists) should be granted equal civil rights. She said plural marriage between consenting adults should be a constitutional guarantee.

“By learning more about this lifestyle, they hopefully can see that a polygamous family is very similar to a monogamous family in many ways,” Wilde said. “Except there are usually more members of the family, thus more people to love and more people to love you.”

The show certainly has a significant element that is about polygamy, but there are questions that journalists aren’t asking about the portrayal of polygamy.

For instance, earlier this season the show briefly considered why the polygamous family only has multiple wives, and not multiple husbands in a relationship. The beliefs of the show’s protagonists only allow for a solo man to marry a plural number of women, not the other way around.

Under the current constitutional scheme for determining due process rights such as marriage, if the Supreme Court were to declare state bans on polygamy as unconstitutional, it would be almost certain that the restriction would apply equally to both genders. In other words, any number of people, regardless of their gender, could marry any number of other people. Not that there are cases at this point that would come close to advocating for this, but an interesting question for plural marriage advocates would be whether they are comfortable with that sort of interpretation of constitutional guarantees.

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  • Mickelle

    Amen. We’ve really been missing the true, subtle, hidden-in-the-shadows story. Long term the series as a whole will be much more powerful in shaping people’s opinions than the single temple episode.

  • Mickelle

    So, I did things backwards and read your entry before watching the intro. …I had NO IDEA Tom Hanks had a hand in Big Love. Sure doesn’t seem surprising after his statement about the LDS’ role in defense of Prop 8.

  • Doug

    Since the HBO producers said they research the sacred Temple ceremonies in every detail, they would have invariably come across the warnings that are built into the ceremony not to reveal them or they would call down the judgments of God. I would hate to think what kind of repercussions that might entail knowing that these things aren’t things to be trifled with and that God cannot stand idly by. If they truly understood what the ceremony is saying and that God has built into the ceremony a warning voice that these things aren’t to be spread outside the walls of the sacred temples, it certainly is evidence that these producers disregarded any attempt to keep them sacred and have blatantly come out against the very ceremonies themselves. They will have no one to blame for what is to come forth, for the judgments of God will surely come as is stated in the very ceremonies they researched and overtly depicted. I am so appalled at the total disregard by HBO of religious rites being blatantly displayed without any regard for their obvious sacredness.

  • Chris Bolinger

    An HBO production presents a church in a negative light? Stunning!

  • Kelsey

    In Response to Doug:

    Your statement is oddly disturbing, i personally don’t believe in a vengeful god but it appears you do. And although you probably spent some time and effort in making your statement….it doesn’t really matter because obviously the producers of the show do not share your religion otherwise they probably would not have made a temple scene or better yet they wouldn’t be associated with the show.

    So you can make your threats of eternal damnation…but it doesn’t really matter. If anything your anger and your objections make me think your religion is more of a fraternal society. Secret handshakes…secret rituals…sounds like a Sorority ceremony not a religious experience.

    So you have the right to be angry or upset that your secrets are being aired for public viewing, i know any fraternal organization would be, but is god going to send the producers to hell? No, i believe even your vengeful god, if he is going to punish anyone its going to be the murders and the rapists…not the producers of a dramatic television series.

  • Jann

    In response to Kelsey:

    Your statements “Sounds like a Sorority ceremony not a religious experience” and “vengeful god” are disturbing. Who are you to say what is or isn’t a religious experience for someone else? And why do you assume that a God who punishes is purely vengeful?

  • Chris

    It is disturbing when things that are truly sacred to people are disrespected.

    Hanks, HBO, the ex-Mormon consultant, et al have disregarded and disrespected the covenants that are made in the temple to not disrespect the covenants made therein by disclosure – except as the Lord has specified.

    As to Heavenly Father being a vengeful God – the Lord does not suffer fools, will not be mocked, and has rained fire upon various cities and destroyed groups of people who have chosen evil-even flooded the earth once to wipe it clean.

    And before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, many people will be burned as the stubble in the fields. As in “whoosh” and turned to ashes, as specified in many places in the Bible.

    The scriptures are clear about those who go to hell: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (Book of Revelations)

    What Hanks and HBO do is up to them. I resigned myself a long time ago to the fact that some people will choose to do wrong and can do so because they have their God-given agency to choose. There is little or nothing that I can do about it.

    So it’s sad to see them make bad choices. But it is also disturbing that people choose to commit fornication, use and or deal drugs, or that millions of mothers in the USA EACH year choose to abort their unborn children, etc. Very sad that.

    As to the effect on the LDS church? “The dogs bark and the caravan rolls on.” HBO and others of their ilk just don’t make any difference in the Gospel of Jesus Christ being offered to the world or to all the people who embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its benefits, blessings, privileges, and bilateral covenants.

    But clearly, the Lord will not be mocked and those who knowingly disrespect Him will be held accountable for their actions and pay a heavy price for their sins.

  • MinJae Lee

    In my experience/belief, God’s commandments are meant to show us the right way to live if we hope find true and eternal happiness. They are not arbitrary rules God made up to keep us from having fun. Violation of these laws (commandments) denies us the blessings that are associated with them. That is the punishment and we bring it upon ourselves. God shows us the path to eternal peace and joy and we reject it – the punishment is that we end up without that peace and joy. God loves ALL His children and wants them to be happy – but even He cannot/will not change the rules nor can He / will He force you to obey. If you violate them you do so to your own detriment and sorrow.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Daniel has drawn attention to the larger issue of negative stereotyping of Mormons in this show, which I see as a continuation of a long practice in the entertainment industry in general.

    In his perceptive post at NRO, Big Love, Big Deal, Orson Scott Card identifies the “open season on Mormons” as a response to our involvement with California Proposition 8. I see this episode of “Big Love” as Tom Hank’s take-back of his take-back of his charge that our involvement in Prop. 8 made us “un-American.”

    This episode also happened to air at a time of high interest in LDS temples, as evidenced by the 650,000 who attended the recent open house of the Draper, Utah Temple.

    For me the inscription on the outside of every LDS temple should be sufficient to invite respectful treatment: “The House of the Lord. Holiness to the Lord.”

    I don’t subscribe to HBO and did not see the episode, but I did join with thousands of other Latter-day Saints who responded via our personal blog and Facebook posts to spread a positive message, such as the YouTube video “Why Mormons Build Temples.”

    Flirtation with anti-Mormonism may generate a temporary ratings surge for Hanks et al, but we Mormons are pretty good at turning lemons into lemonade.


  • John D

    Chris posted the same thing to this and the earlier post about Big Love. His comments got me thinking because they point right to the justification for this blog.

    When the press “gets religion,” they’re not acting as cheerleaders. They’re providing complete and accurate descriptions.

    If the Pastafarians feel that the Holy Recipe for Spaghetti Sauce should never be given to unbelievers, a journalist reports that. If it’s germane to the piece, the journalist can even report that it’s a standard marinara. It’s not the journalist’s job to protect the hermetic nature of a group’s beliefs and practices.

    Various groups may want to keep their rites or writings secret. Journalists don’t have to respect that. They just need to get the facts right. When the bloggers here point out that an article has portrayed a religious group in an inaccurate or incomplete fashion, my thought it, “thanks for looking out for us.”

  • Chris

    All polygamy in the USA is under the radar polygamy, that is, illegal, and so it is self-defining. It is practiced by criminals, those who commit criminal acts. People who commit criminal acts usually do not stop at one crime or one type of crime. So it is with polygamists:welfare fraud, child abuse, wife abuse, etc. Unfortunately, this is an accurate generalization of polygamists in our time.

    The principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are typified by honesty, consideration, helping others, and ethical behavior. The LDS people live those principles to varying degrees–with effort being sometimes more obvious rather than success.
    Thoreau said something about a church being a group of sinners trying to do better. (Someone who cares can dig up the exact quote.)

    So I appreciate it when news organizations report accurately concerning the LDS church and do not blend/smear the LDS church with polygamists. And clearly distinguish between the LDS church and the polygamist groups.

    @ John D… I’m not sure what you are referring to about my post.

    But these thoughts come to mind:

    1st: HBO and Hanks are not journalists and have no journalistic license to disrespect anything. They do have freedom and agency to do so.

    2nd: I don’t agree with your idea that journalists have some sort of unlimited license to report anything they want to. They do not have that license, legally, ethically, or morally. They have legal constraints and that is appropriate.

    3rd: And yes, even journalists do need to respect that which is sacred because first of all they are children of our Heavenly Father and that which He deems sacred is still sacred whether or not an errant “child” likes or acknowledges it or not.

    It makes no difference whether a journalist has denied his eternal origins or has not yet recognized He who from all life and light flow. A journalist’s level of accountability may be lower if he has not received a knowledge of the Lord but the journalist is still accountable-to the Lord.

    Now… I have used the male pronoun referring to journalists to avoid the distraction of he/she pc (political c…). If I used a female pronoun, the feminists wouldn’t like it. So relax re that. If you want.
    Or get excited. That’s fun too. :D

    Here’s a link about LDS temples which can provide some info for journalists and others.
    (not sure if the html is right)

  • John D


    I must disagree.

    And yes, even journalists do need to respect that which is sacred because first of all they are children of our Heavenly Father and that which He deems sacred is still sacred whether or not an errant “child” likes or acknowledges it or not.

    It makes no difference whether a journalist has denied his eternal origins or has not yet recognized He who from all life and light flow. A journalist’s level of accountability may be lower if he has not received a knowledge of the Lord but the journalist is still accountable-to the Lord.

    Certainly the rites and teachings of the LDS are not sacred to me, even though they are sacred to members of the LDS. I’m not a member of that religious tradition. It does not fall to me to treat your religion as sacred, although I should still treat it with respect.

    Just about every religious group deems some aspect as sacred, and sees that sacredness as an essential aspect (not mine, but I’m in one of those tiny liberal groups). “Sacred” is not an objective characteristic, “sacred to” is. The non-Catholic can be respectful of Catholicism without subscribing to the belief that the Host is the actual body and blood of Jesus. It’s a tough line for journalists who need to respect that view while writing for a readers, many of whom will not share that view. They report, while neither denigrating or endorsing.

    While you may feel that these things are by definition sacred, they are not sacred to most people. Therefore, they must be described with respect, but we are not required to follow the same prohibitions. Here, we sharply disagree.

    Ironically, I suspect there are many things my religious group considers laudable (remember, we’re not a group that uses “sacred”), that you would consider beyond the pale. If you expect me to follow your prohibitions, can I expect you to endorse our celebrations? My religious group celebrates things that your religion prohibits.

    How do we balance this with respect?