Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: A Bad Year for the Mormons

Jan Shipps sums it up well, it was as has been often mentioned “A perfect storm”. The year started out appropriately enough (in a symbolic sense) with the death of Gordon B. Hinckley, the Church’s president and arguably the greatest public relations man in its history. Two months later, on the same weekend as the official sustaining of Hinckley’s successor, Thomas Monson as the Church’s 16th President, news broke of the government raid on a compound of the polygamist FLDS Church near El Dorado, Texas. It was an uncomfortable reminder of a past that the LDS Church’s public relations people, to put it mildly, wish to deemphasize.

Though it was by then only April the Church had already experienced one wake-up call, the humiliating and unexpectedly server trouncing of Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primaries. Coming into the race with perhaps the biggest fund raising advantage of any of the GOP contenders, Mitt Romney just had a heck of a time getting people to vote for him. This was particularly true of many evangelical Christians, who perhaps felt themselves saved from the existential angst of having to vote for a Mormon because he was the most socially conservative of the viables, by the appearance of the affable Baptist preacher/Frmr. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (who himself may have engaged in some subtle anti-Mormon pandering).

In deed by late spring it was obvious that anti-Mormon feeling was very much alive in this country, and stronger then many Church members had previously appreciated. But then came proposition 8, and all that came before it would seem as nothing. Though the lashing the Church took for its role in the anti-gay marriage initiative in California (previously dealt with on this blog) no doubt earned the church some sympathy from Catholic and Protestant quarters, they still remain theological enemies, and weary culture war allies. But it was the response from the left, already no fan of Mormonism, that so thoroughly cast the Mormons as enemies of tolerance and that will have the biggest long term impact. The media I think will not by on the LDS side for a long time to come, and that panicle year of Mormon media kudos, 2002, now seems much more then just six years past. Now we know how George W. Bush feels.

As this year also closed with the death of another Church leader born in the 1910’s, there has been speculation in some limited quarters that the selection Elder Wirthlin’s replacement in the 12 could have a large public relations element. Perhaps now would be a good time for Latin American Apostle, as that is the part of the world in which the Church has been experiencing the most growth for the past 40 years. Or maybe someone like Marlin K. Jensen, a favorite of the Church left and sympathetic outsiders. Though most likely it will be another white, conservative, gray haired lawyer, educational administrator or former business man. It probably won’t do much to make 2009 a better year for the Mormons.

Sacred Marketing

I’m fascinated by Mormon nitch marketing, from come to Zion’s bank and open a mission savings account for your infant, to most anything pushed by Desert Book. In the Improvement Era, and other now defunct official or semi-official church publications you use to get adds for products like Postum, the then Church owned Beneficial Life Insurance company, and Salt Lake area hotels (where you and your family can stay when you visit to attend General Conference or go to the Temple). But I never thought I’d see adds like these (click here). I guess it makes since in an odd way, commerce and Mormonism became quite intertwined do to social and physical isolation from the larger world, only in recent decades has the Church thoroughly divested itself from most of its business holdings, though what it still controls now can hardly be called small.

The Garment ads are fascinating in that they showcase a parallel society, running just to the side of the rest of free market America, and surprisingly unconcerned with what they think. Well at least it was more that way back then, now we're much more concerned with what others think, but still pretty stubborn about having our own way in some areas. Garment sales were surprisingly unregulated until I believe the 1960’s, when it started to catch on that ‘Gentile’ tourists to Utah were buying the things as souvenirs of their visit to Mormon country, much as you would by a sombrero in Mexico. You shall not make light of sacred things, so the adds were pulled and one must now posses a temple recommend to buy a holy Mormon undergarment (unless one can find some on eBay).

Some Deaths in 2008 I Forgot to Mention

Normally I make a habit of mentioning the deaths of people who have some significance to me on my blogs. Typically actors, directors and the like on His Other Band (a.k.a. my movie blog) and others on The Great Accommodation (my Mormonism blog). To save space I’m going to mention them all here:

October 31st- Studs Terkel: A kind of Paul Harvey of the left (speaking of which Paul lost his wife Lynne Cooper Harvey this last May, she was the first producer entered into the Radio Hall of Fame). Terkel was also an oral historian and writer of note, host of his own weekday radio program from 1952-1997, and a major figure in the now largely forgotten Chicago school of television in the early 1950’s. He never learned to drive.

November 4th- Michael Crichton: One of the most successful writers of the later half of the 20th century, his works were particularly popular as movie source material in the 1990’s. He seemed to have become kind of crotchety and right wing in his later years.

December 5th- Nina Foch: I really only think of Nina from her role in one film, the loyal secretary in Executive Suite. It’s not a huge part but she leaves an impression of quite dignity that sticks with you.

December 12th-Van Johnson: Johnson had a pretty impressive and diverse career if you think about it, ranging from war films like A Guy Named Joe, to musicals such as Brigadoon. But my favorite Johnson role is his supporting part as Spike McManus, newspaper man turned political ‘advisor’ who is won over by the family of a dark horse presidential contender in Frank Capra’s State of the Union. He just makes that film for me.

December 18th- W. Mark Felt: It still astounds me that we actually found out who ‘Deep Throat’ was. One of the great mysterious of the 20th century, turns out he was a Jew from Idaho who had been the number two man at the FBI, and whose motivation for whistle blowing may well have been Nixon’s passing him over for the top job at the Bureau. It just makes so much sense.

Also December 18th- Majel Barrett: The actress and Rodenberry widow who attempted to heal the Star Trek/Babylon 5 fan divide.

December 20th- Robert Mulligan: He directed To Kill A Mockingbird, he must be mentioned.

December 25th- Eartha Kitt: I hate “Santa Baby”, but you got to admit its incredible she actually died on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

MORally MONStrous: A Response/Analysis to Bill Cope

Well here I go with one of those delayed response blogs I do on occasion. The subject matter in question, California’s Proposition 8, was really more immediate a month ago, but local columnist Bill Cope’s piece (the titular MORally MONStrous) didn’t appear in the Boise Weekly until its December 3-9 issue. In it the liberal Cope (whose political view point I mention simply for context and not as a judgment) laments the recent passage of California’s anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. This amendment of course takes away the legally recognized marriage rights that became available to the states homosexuals this past summer, subsequent to a ruling from the state supreme court. As is well known many members of the LDS Church contributed time and money towards the campaign for Proposition 8, this at least partly do to the prodding of the Church hierarchy, though doubtless many Mormons would have done the same in the unlikely event that the Church had refused to comment on the issue. That the Church has incurred considerable public relations blow-back from Mormon involvement in Proposition 8, particularly from the homosexual community and the left, is also very well known; just do a YouTub search on the subject and you’ll see many a rainbow flag in front of many a Mormon Temple. Such indignation is not surprising, nor is it the part of this column that really got my interest. No what interested me about the column is best introduced in the following quotations there from:

“My opinion this week will upset many local people, I’m certain. It will bring responses about how bigoted I am. How intolerant I am. <> Specifically, it has to do with the Mormon Church, which swung its considerable clout to the travesty of denying gays the respectability and dignity that Mormons have spent well over a century trying to get for themselves. And which now, they themselves should be denied.

“ That’s right, you hear me. The Mormon Church has become a hateful bully and should be treated as such. Other people voted for Proposition 8, true, and much has been made of how black voters probably ensured its passage. But black voters aren’t a money-soaked, monolithic, corporatized, sanctimonious monstrosity that poured $20 million into the effort, are they?”

Mr. Cope recognizes, as again have many others, that it was the black vote (which went something like 70% in favor of prop 8) that was really the deciding factor, electoraly speaking, in the amendments passage. Yet he like many others refuses to place blame on that community, no doubt motivated in part by a kind of secular ecumenicalism, in which the left, the gay movement, etc. desires to have the nations blacks firmly within their big-ten coalition. Latter-day Saints however, are not desired as part of this collation, they have been given up on even before they were seriously considered, and not without plentiful reason. Mr. Cope is right, the Church is intolerant of opposing voices on this issue, it does seek to deny “gays the respectability and dignity” that the Church has spent most of its history attempting to gain for itself. In fact the parallels of the two movements long drives for ‘legitimacy’ are rather striking, which should only serve to cast further relief on the articles not even submerged, but rather blatant subtext. Again from Mr. Cope:

“We could challenge their tax exemptions and I would love it if someone asked some serious questions as to why there’s always a damn Mormon seminary within a stone’s throw of nearly every high school from here to Salt Lake City.

“But frankly, those o f us who grew up around the smug self-containment of our Mormon neighbors will realize none of that would work and, in fact, would probably only make them more smugly self-contained. The Mormon Church has always luxuriated in their history of being picked on.

“ Yet after this orchestrated disdain for the happiness and emotional well-being of their fellow citizens, my fear of saying what I really think of them (that variety of cowardice I spoke of earlier) is a thing of the past. I am now free to be as unaccepting of them as they are of gays.”

That for me is the key and reveling line: “My fear of saying what I really think of them is a thing of the past.” It says as much about life in large chunks of the Mountain West, where the Mormon/ “Gentile” divide is probably the most tense inter-group fissure; as it does about what is really an anti-Mormon bigotry held by many of the supposedly “enlightened”. “Yes the black vote is probably why Proposition 8 past, but I hate the Mormons anyway, lets vent our anger at them.” Mr. Cope would never equate being a Latino to being gang member, though many Latino’s doubtless are gang members, yet he seems more then willing to imply that Mormons are by nature bigoted. Yes many, even most Mormons (in this country at least) do have views about homosexuality that are decidedly retrograde by mainstream contemporary standards. Yet there are those who are decidedly not, such as Barbara GrahamYoung, Levi Peterson, and even Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Mr. Cope should learn those names because they are undoubtably the kind of people he would like to see more Mormons become. Expressing unabashed hate will not help this happen, Cope admits this, but its just to satisfying to pass up. Not unlike the pleasure others get from gay-bashing.

I was not a supporter of Proposition 8, I would have voted against it for a number of reasons, just as I voted against Idaho’s anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment two years ago. I recognize the “smug self contentment” of many of my fellow Church members, it irritates me as well, I hope we as a people can overcome it. But I also think many outside the Church are to sensitive to the perceived slight of a people they claim not to care about anyway. Mostly I’m sick of intolerance, from whatever quarter, it’s so exhausting and I’ve had my full of it. Mr. Cope condescendingly offers to readmit the Mormons to American cultural pluralism once they “renounce the evil in their hierarchy and escape the sin of their dogma.” Perhaps Mr. Cope can come to recognize the extent to which he to suffers from exclusivity syndrom.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Joseph B. Wirthlin: 1917-2008

I was surprised to discover this morning that LDS apostle Joseph B Wirthlin had died on Monday. Very little has been written about this on the net as compared to other semi-recent apostolic passings such as Gordon B. Hinckley (Wirthlin’s second cousin incidentally) and James E Faust. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, when members are asked to name the current compliment of the Council of the 12 Wirthlin’s is typically one of the last to be remembered. He was an unassuming man, a decidedly non flashy, non controversial figure, who was probably the least dynamic speaker among the Twelve. But that’s why he was my favorite, a boring man to listen to, if you focused just on his delivery, but there was a tremendous humility, and a little bit of a sense of humor that always showed through for me. His stories about University of Utah football games from the 1930’s I always found uplifting, because you could tell how the lessons learned on the field still meant so much to him. While in some ways not as accomplished in the world as his much younger brother Dick Wirthlin, who was Ronald Reagan’s chief pollster, Elder Wurthlin’s life was well lived, and his quite presence I will miss.