Religion News Service: In-depth. Impartial. Engaged.

Blogs » Jana Riess - Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood has moved: Click here to read the latest posts

Is Mormonism as Mature as the Wall Street Journal Thinks It Is?

Last week I heard former Senator Bob Bennett speak about Mormonism in the 21st century, in a very interesting presentation. At one point he commented approvingly about a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal which lauded Mormons for not fighting back when our religion is attacked, unlike Muslims, whom the article singled out for censure because of violence related to the Innocence of Muslims movie trailer. The editorial stated:

So let's get this straight: In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam. Why? Maybe it's because nobody has ever been harmed, much less killed, making fun of Mormons.

Uh, not exactly. Mormonism does not have a clean slate on this score. In 1844, when a Nauvoo newspaper dared to print unsavory things about Joseph Smith (some of which were true, some of which were not), he didn't turn the other cheek; he destroyed the press. And I don't mean in a metaphorical way; he had the printing press physically destroyed, never to produce another newspaper. Even LDS Apostle and legal expert Dallin Oaks agrees that Smith's act was illegal by the standards of the time.

True, no one died in that incident, but the Mormons' violent reaction begat more violent reactions: the printing press destruction was just the evidence local officials had been waiting for so they could arrest Joseph Smith, and it proved to be the catalyzing event that an angry mob cited as a good enough reason to assassinate him.

Mormons have come a long way since the 1840s in handling what the media says about us. In fact, we've had a remarkable evolution just in the last decade:

  • In 2003 the LDS Church released an 8,251-word rebuttal of Jon Krakauer's bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven, which was rife with inaccuracies and misleading conclusions. A sampling: "This book is not history, and Krakauer is no historian. He is a storyteller who cuts corners to make the story sound good. His basic thesis appears to be that people who are religious are irrational, and that irrational people do strange things. He does a huge disservice to his readers by promulgating old stereotypes."
  • In 2006 -- before the new HBO series Big Love had even debuted on the air -- the Church condemned it as "essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds." (Not cool to condemn something sight unseen. . . as if Mormons don't know what it feels like to be judged before getting the chance to speak for ourselves.)
  • In 2009, however, the Church started changing its tune. When local Mormons began a grassroots protest movement to express their anger about Big Love's depiction of an LDS temple ceremony in an upcoming episode, the Church rose above it all with this statement: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series."

Well played, LDS Church. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped reacting to criticism like a self-conscious teenager. Somewhere along the way, it had learned to say "So what if we have acne? We're actually pretty terrific if you take the time to look a little deeper."

And then the zenith, the shining moment, when the Church responded in a pitch-perfect way to the 2011 Book of Mormon musical. Its entire official statement about the show was just one sentence long:

The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.

So here's what I have to say to the Wall Street Journal: You were a little too generous to Mormons by ignoring the long and painful history of how we got to this magnanimous point where we can, as you say, be a people who "tend not to punch back" when mocked. But we're moving in that direction.





Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: big love and mormonism, big love temple episode, destruction of the nauvoo expositor, flunking sainthood, jana riess, jon krakauer, joseph smith, mormon history, mormonism, problems with under the banner of heaven, the lds response to the book of mormon musical, wall street journal


  1. I’m going to have to disagree. Even the “bad” examples you cite from Mormons are tame in comparison to what’s been going on in much of the reaction to “The Innocence of Muslims.” While the WSJ’s article could perhaps have used some more nuance, the fact remains that every example you cite except the first one (from 1844, no less) involved the church writing a response. Are Mormons getting better in our responses to such mocking? Sure. But they sure started in a better place than you’re insinuating. Their reaction to these things and the reactions to “The Innocence of Muslims” are hardly commensurate. They write responses. Many Muslims (but not all, obviously) hold riots. The WSJ’s point still stands, in my opinion.

  2. I think the General Authorities and the Church PR office are handling criticism, mocking and satire about Mormons at a pretty healthy mature level.  Having said that, I think many of the members have a ways to go in handling criticism of their faith or leadership.  It seems they are quick to condemn and invoke the name of the adversary. As the LDS Church continues to grow around the World, I feel there will be more tolerance towards Mormons and they in turn will less sensitive to criticism and satire.

  3. The actual passage from Dallin Oak’s book, Carthage conspiracy, that he wrote when he was a law professor at University of Chicago, said that it was legal in 1844 for the Nauvoo City Council to declare the Nauvoo Expositor a “public nuisance” and copies of the paper subject to confiscation in lieu of money damages collected through a lawsuit.  He noted that the City Council went too far in destroying the printing press (as opposed to just the type plates the newspaper was printed with).  So a tort claim for an improper government “taking” of property without just compensation to the owner became the excuse for a mob of Illinois militia shooting their way into a jail, where Smith and his brother were awaiting the return of the circuit judge so they could have a bail hearing (they had not been convicted of anything), and shooting down Jospeh and Hyrum Smith in cold blood.  Not exactly a legal solution.  At the murder trial of the perpetrators (they could not help bragging about it), they defended themselves by asserting that it was the sacred right of men to kill people who held offensive opinions.  Sounds like they were working from the same playbook as the current Muslim Brotherhood. 

    There was an earlier case in Illinois of a man who had printed a newspaper that was viewed as libelous, who had his printing press destroyed in the same way as the Expositor.  Nobody died as a result of that incident, but Abraham Lincoln was asked to comment on it when he was running for Congress.  It set a precedent for the Nauvoo City Council. 

    As to “Under the Banner of Heaven,” there are still people out in the world who think that a book that is entertaining and reinforces their own prejudices againist Mormons or religious people in general must be reliable.  Krakauer in interviews said that he is an atheist and does not understand how anyone can sincerely believe in God and angels, so he deduces they must be insane, and therefore dangerous.  The truth is that human against human violence is the natural state of mankind, and what has controlled it has been, more often than not,  religious beliefs that men will be held accountable in a life after death for their violence against their neighbors.  I don’t see any reason not to offer a corrective rebuttal to a best selling book.  Presumably someone wo read the book is a reader, and would be willing to read a response that gives a larger context to the statements in the book.  On the other hand, TV shows like Big Love and a musical satire like The Book of Mormon look to different audiences, and the best response is to offer the audience something else about Mormons that also has its drama and entertainment value, but is actually true.  Enter the “I’m a Mormon” videos and ads and links to, including ads in the playbill, that take advantage of the heightened interest in Mormons and redirects it to the real Church. 

    The church has had a long-standing effort to put good news about the church and its members out into the news media, to balance a lot of the ignorant attacks.  I think the Church leadership realizes that it has always been true that a certain real percentage of people who originally encounter Mormonism through negative portrayals are prompted to learn more about it, often out of recognition that what they have seen is biased and wanting to be fair to the Mormons.  There has always been negative portrayals of Mormons in the media, so the success of Mormons in recruiting has always been in spite of that opposition, and of responding in judo fashion to use the momentum of anti-Mormonism against it.

  4. Jana committed the fallacy of composition here, “turning the other cheek” applies to individuals, not institutions. It would be nice if the U.S. did not need a defense budget.

Sign In

Forgot Password?

You also can sign in with Facebook or Twitter if you've connected your account to them.

Sign In Using Facebook

Sign In Using Twitter