The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, has been on the receiving end of persecution since its organisation in 1830. The Church has become accustomed to suspicion and negative press coverage over the years and in recent months, publication surrounding the Mormon Church and its beliefs have been the focus of attention. The question to be asked, however, is to what extent have the media depicted a fair and unbiased presentation of the Church or, have they helped to fuel the argument that the religion is ‘weird’ and ‘cultish?’
When asking practising Church members about their opinion on the media’s representations of the Church some roll their eyes, some chuckle and some become frustrated. Since the establishment of the Church, press attention has not been kind and whether the situation has actually improved remains dubious in the eyes of many. Over the years, the Mormon Church has been the subject of political cartoons depicting Mormonism as a deviant cult, so it goes without saying that Mormons remain wary about what the media will say next.
Why the increased interest in the Church? Apart from being the world’s fastest growing religion, over the last year, the Church has been on the receiving end of more intense scrutiny than ever before thanks to Mr Mitt Romney, a practising Mormon, running for American President. The Church, too, has made a conscious effort to rise from obscurity. Is this possible, however, when the Church is often represented by the media as a ‘cult’ and extremist in its views? Mitt Romney has been heavily targeted with criticism surrounding his faith, blamed if his religious views are mentioned and accused of being secretive and illusive if they are not remarked upon. Articles exploring his life, Mormon ‘beliefs’ and practises, have featured in countless forms of media and the most recent exploration of Mormon life, the hour long BBC 2 programme called ‘The Mormon Candidate.’
The BBC, prized for its neutrality, presented the British public with what it considered to be a ‘diverse’ representation of the Mormon religion. Some issues have been taken with the programme by both members and non-members, both of whom remain unsure of how truly unbiased the programme was. Many have noted that over thirty anti-Mormons and ex-members were interviewed and their comments represented as fact. With a large number of Mormon critics, it would be only fair to include the same number of accounts from average practising members; however, this was not the case. During the programme, not only was the mainstream church to which Mr Romney belongs associated with polygamous practises, furthermore, the name of the church was misquoted and John Sweeney, the presenter, provided the audience with at times, a somewhat provocative voice-over.
To what extent have these potentially controversial representations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter -day Saints affected members? Some members automatically wrote to the BBC to express their dismay with the programme. Luc Rasmussen, 26 and member of the Bishopric for a Latter-day Saint congregation in Cardiff expressed his opinion that much of what was said was taken out of context and the programme focused strongly on those who have angst towards the Church, rather than practising members and their lives. Others, however, such as Jazz, 30, convert to the Church says she actually felt the BBC programme, in particular, was ‘reasonably two-sided’ and of course, any religion when looked upon by an outsider will be viewed differently to those who are practising members.
Finally, how does the church react to negative media portrayal? President Gordon B. Hinkley, previous Prophet of the Church has noted that ‘we have nothing to hide. Our history is an open book.’ Moreover, another leader has explained how the Church stands in regards to criticism and anti-Mormon literature, ‘To the author of these words, we do nothing. We have no time for contention. Ours is to explain our position through reason, friendly persuasion, and accurate facts. Contention builds walls and puts up barriers. Love opens doors. Ours is not to avoid contention, but to see that such things are done away with.’