It can be a veritable pastime watching how various religions confront controversy and defend themselves. These days the Roman Catholic Church, Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are among the most constantly dogged by a miscellany of events, scandals or controversies.
Much of it, of course, is just defending itself from raw hostility.
On Sunday nights, the premium cable channel HBO has brought forth “Big Love,” a modern-day polygamy story set in a suburb of Salt Lake City. It features Bill Paxton as a man with three wives and some children living side by side in three handsome houses. HBO tries to have it both ways, feigning that the show’s characters are not to be confused with good monogamous Mormons, yet putting it in Salt Lake City and setting a scene that can only remind viewers that the 12 million-member church has polygamy in its past. The show’s patriarch, Roman, played by Harry Dean Stanton, opines about his family’s roots in a golden age of Mormonism when polygamy was part of it.
Religion has gotten a good shake in many TV series: “Touched by an Angel,” “7th Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Highway to Heaven,” for example. But lately, Scientologists have lodged complaints about how their faith is portrayed in “South Park.” In January, NBC canceled “The Book of Daniel” after just three episodes. It featured an Episcopal priest addicted to pain pills in a dysfunctional family. The laid-back Jesus character showed up periodically as a pop counselor.
HBO could have set up a fictional polygamist family in St. Louis with no allusions to the Mormon experience. But the Utah setting, with the fundamentalist sect relatives, led by Roman, brings some reality and turmoil to the story. Nielsen Media Research reported 4.6 million viewers the first week and 3.4 million the second week, compared with 9.4 million and 9.2 million for HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
The cable network posts a short, on-screen disclaimer that reports the Mormon Church banned the practice of polygamy in 1890. It acknowledges a joint report by the Utah and Arizona attorney general offices from last July stating that “approximately 20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States.”
Are Mormons watching the series? Ask Don Evans, a Mormon stake president in Mesa and the church’s spokesman for Arizona, and you’re told HBO is too edgy in its programming to appeal to his church members.
“The vast majority don’t have HBO,” he said, noting that “there is much on HBO that is objectionable and people don’t even have it coming into their homes.”
The Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City reported that “many polygamist families” its reporters talked to ordered the premium channel “just so they could see how their lifestyle is portrayed.”
Locally, Cox Communications said there is no way of knowing whether more Mormons have subscribed to HBO to watch “Big Love.”
“We have no way to determine whether or not any spike in subscribership was due to anything that had to do with this show,” said Cox spokeswoman Linda Nofer. People aren’t asked why they are signing up, “and we don’t ask them what their religion is.”
The church’s identity with polygamy is partly sustained by fundamentalist sects, whose multiple marriages are defended as God’s law. The most formalized group, founded in 1935, is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which was centered on the state’s north border, in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
The Mormon Church fiercely fights the common terms “Mormon fundamentalists” or “Mormon polygamists.” Excommunication is the fate of church members found practicing polygamy, it officially insists. Yet most fundamentalist polygamists follow a Mormon structure in their religious practices. The polygamists believe that original Mormon teachings, divined by God, said a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest of the three levels of heaven.
The church has posted its official reaction to “Big Love” (www.lds.org/newsroom/showrelease/0,15503,3881-1-23019,00.html) and makes three points about the show:
• As entertainment, polygamy’s seriousness is minimized in the series, and that adds to the suffering of victims.
• Setting the series near Salt Lake City, the church’s headquarters, blurs the distinctions and only perpetuates “old and long-outdated stereotypes.”
• It’s unworthy TV: “Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.”
Some Mormons are emailing others on “how to protest” saying the “sexually driven show” could have consequences for the church. It calls on church members to forward e-mail strategies; email a “polite protest to HBO”; send a letter of protest; or call HBO. A suggested letter text says the series “demeans and distorts sacred beliefs” of the church, and “blurs the line between the church and the long renounced practice of polygamy.”
Pam Jones of Scottsdale, who was a longtime church public affairs spokeswoman, hasn’t seen the show, but her husband, Jerry, watched it. He concluded it was “another excuse for sex in the form of entertainment.” Their 35-year-old daughter, Tina Ellsworth, has watched it and found the Salt Lake City setting objectionable because it insinuates the show is about Mormons. She found the show may be trying to stereotype Mormons by its characters, that it is “just another sex program” and a “dumb program” in general.
Jones said the least HBO could have done was to move the show’s setting to “a rural Utah town where the polygamists really do live.” A fifthgeneration Mormon, Jones said only one of the eight families in her genealogical line practiced polygamy. That was typical, she said. “It really was not well-accepted. There was only a small percent of church members who actually practiced it.”
“If they thought the idea of polygamy was one they wanted to explore for a TV show, why, then, didn’t they pick a Muslim family because polygamy is allowed in Islam, although there is a stricture that the husband has to treat all wives equally,” said Carolyn Warner, an Arizona State University political professor. That may have been inflammatory to Muslims, she said, adding that HBO was “walking a fine line” trying not to offend Mormons but taking advantage of the polygamy in the church’s past. The show itself, pioneering a major new look a polygamy, may even give the practice some legitimacy, she said.
Kim Farah, a church spokeswoman in Salt Lake City, said talks went on between the show’s producers and the church during the development of the series. “We had about a half-dozen different conversations with HBO,” she said. “They were constructive and amiable, and it led to the disclaimer.”
She said church leaders don’t think the end-of-theshow statement goes far enough. “It is really a situation where neither HBO nor the church wants to get into any kind of a public disagreement,” she said. HBO supplied early edits of the show so church leaders knew what to expect. In the end, she said, HBO and the Mormon Church are at “cross purposes — they are going to produce their show, and we are religious faith that doesn’t agree with it.”
Mormons should simply remind others that nearly every religion has had its ugly practices, made corrections and moved on. And that deep flaws still keep many today from fulfilling their mission.