Another Round Of Mormons On The Mind!: Four Streaming Tv Reviews

Poster for Under the Banner of Heaven (TV Show) – Fair Use

Murder Among the Mormons. 2021, BBC/Netflix.

Under the Banner of Heaven. 2022, FX/Hulu.

Keep Sweet Pray and Obey. 2022, Netflix.

Mormon No More. 2022, ABC News/Hulu.

At best, our semi-regular public dialogues about Mormonism, fostered by popular media, offer an opportunity for discussion of religious settler colonialism that might be otherwise absent from the minds of most liberals. At the worst, such exhibitions are a sensational, titillating exegesis of superficiality and stigmatizing “those people.” Such dialogues have arisen several times in my (admittedly limited) 30-odd years of cognizance about the media, such as during the 2011-12 US presidential election when the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney to run against President Obama.

Recently, several American streaming services have provided case studies spanning this entire spectrum.

Properly speaking, when the media raises the specter of Joseph Smith and his infamous Book of Mormon, they are specifically referencing the Utah-headquartered Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the LDS Church. While understandable, such framing fundamentally fails to articulate the truth of the matter. The LDS Church is instead only the most prominent and powerful polity of a much larger Latter-Day Saints movement. It contains a wide theo-political spectrum, spanning from quite liberal (the Community of Christ allows same-sex marriage and LGBTQQIAA+ people as well as women to become members of their lay priesthood) to conservative (the Salt Lake church counts amongst its most powerful leaders Sen. Romney, one of the most rapacious Yuppie businessmen imaginable) to fascistic reactionary (various Fundamentalist cults maintain solemnity to the “Gospel truth” of child brides, polygamy, and the racist “Curse of Ham/Laman” theologies).

Murder Among the Mormons is a true crime procedural documentary about the forgeries of Mark Hofmann, whose attempts to defraud the LDS Church climaxed with his letter bomb murders of two people in October 1985. Our perpetrator had devised a method of producing seemingly-antiquated documents that would generate great concern for the Salt Lake church elders. The most famous, the so-called “White Salamander Letter,” was supposedly authored by early church leaders and privately disclosed awareness that the faith’s founding was not as miraculous as claimed in the official accounts from Joseph Smith. Hofmann honed in on the neurotic habit of LDS elders to vacuum up into their closed archives any and all documents it thinks might rupture their stranglehold on the minds of the faithful, creating a cash cow like no other. Regrettably, owing to his own fiscal irresponsibility, Hofmann chased himself into a corner and, rather than being able to skip town with a suitcase full of cash, he decided to blow up the patrons he had been defrauding.

Like any true crime miniseries, this presentation traffics in a kind of folksy Americana disrupted by violence that David Lynch so brilliantly skewered in his films. The subtle stigma assigned the talking heads and their “bizarre” beliefs is typical and discloses little new insight about the faith to the viewers. The mise-en-scène dabbles playfully with the concept of textuality, taking advantage of the film’s construction being reliant upon analog newsreels and videotapes from the Eighties. Subtextually, the series ponders the concept of forgery. Did the secretive, conspiratorial LDS Church all but invite the opportunism of a Hofmann by making their theology and the faith of communicants so highly dependent upon a primary documentary record created during the industrial epoch? The late Fawn Brodie, biographer of the movement’s founder, likewise pondered this when she opened her No Man Knows My History by writing “Joseph Smith dared to found a new religion in the age of printing.” What exactly divides a forgery authored by Hofmann from The Book of Mormon, a volume whose anthropological claims about the Indigenous American nations have been disproven repeatedly for decades? Regrettably, this does not extend deeper into a contemplation I hereafter suggest is necessary in these discussions. Unless the film is trying to subtly channel Lynch, making it a true life version of Twin Peaks, I think it is a rather standard-grade offering.

Under the Banner of Heaven, adapted from Jon Krakauer’s 2003 nonfiction bestseller (and the best of the lot), recreates the tragic Lafferty family murders of 1984 through a fictional police procedural frame narrative. At the time of the book’s publication, Krakauer was riding high on the success of two earlier hits, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and the US was still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. In this sense, the author used the story of how the Lafferty family became ensnared in Fundamentalist Mormonism to implicitly reiterate the old Arabic adage “When you point one finger, three point back at you.” While neocon hawks and ideologues like Christopher Hitchens proliferated obscene and sexually-lurid Islamophobia, Krakauer urged his US readers to look not in the deserts of the Middle East but instead the Southwest for exactly the same extreme habits of the Taliban. Why wander off to Kabul when you can find “divine inspiration” for misogynist marital habits alongside the murder of women and infants in the middle of the most wholesome white-bread American polity humanly possible?

Nearly twenty years later, however, the US has changed in several ways. The Taliban has retaken Kabul following a routing of the US military, the Republican Party has been taken over by the revanchist, nativist economic nationalists once known as their John Birch Society wing, and American liberals have slowly but steadily begun integrating settler colonialism into their understanding of the past, case and point The 1619 Project.

This is where the police procedural becomes most useful. Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) is a Utah policeman who takes the audience on a tour of Mormonism’s seedy underbelly. Simultaneously, his non-Mormon Paiute partner, Det. Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), serves as a kind of cipher for Mormon contempt of “Gentiles” and the Indigenous, reliably calling bullshit on the obstructionism of civilian Mormons and the naive, neurotic tics of his partner.

This synthesis, authored by former Mormon Dustin Lance Black, affords the viewer a useful reflective exercise. As Harold Bloom says, there is nothing especially more absurd about Mormonism than Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, or for that matter New Atheism. It is solely because of Mormonism’s newness, its theological audacity, its polygamy, and its undeniably explicit sanctification of America as a promised land that the faith has remained a taboo in the US.

This visceral reflex creates a certain distance between the viewer and the subject as it dissects the more sinful components of the faith’s origins, such as sex/gender inequity, racism, and settler colonial genocide campaigns against the Indigenes. The virtue of this comes afterwards when the viewer is forced to confront the fact that their ancestors practiced a faith that did exactly the same thing two centuries earlier at the founding of Boston, Providence, New York, Charleston, and the rest of the Atlantic colonies, not to mention every other constituency within the contemporary US. The LDS Church is a frightening doppelgänger of every Euro-American, collating and accentuating the impulses and failures of their national character, as well as their childish faith in American Federalism and liberal democracy, in a way that creates discomfort owing to the refracted, exaggerated truths which cannot be denied. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when the white man stares at Mormonism, Mormonism stares back into him.

Like its Scandinavian police procedural brethren that were so highly esteemed by my friend the late Louis Proyect, the series does not strike me as mere cop-aganda; rather, the ultimate revelation of the mystery (in both theological and genre terms) is the utter decrepitude and bankruptcy of American governance. As in classic film noir, Det. Pyre comes to a crisis of his Mormon faith, which is really just a stand-in for the wider population’s faith in US democracy. At one point, a character tells Det. Pyre “If you really still believe your God is love, then you don’t know who you are, brother. This faith, our faith, breeds dangerous men,” which applies to every settler colonial religion in the US. This is why the series ends with the most poignant expression of spirituality coming from the Indigenous Det. Taba, singing an old Paiute prayer wishing that the settlers would disappear and the buffalo return, which he immediately follows with an explicit pledge of allegiance to atheism. He doesn’t sing it out of fealty to ancestral beliefs because “When the white man saw us singing it, they just mowed us down like blades of grass with their Christ-sickles. I like singing it anyhow. It reminds me of home. We all need a home, Jeb. So I think its okay to sing now and then, even if I don’t think it has power anymore.” Could there be a better statement of the Euro-American national ennui and disenchantment with the American dream? Perhaps ironically, the series is set during the go-go Reagan Eighties, when the suburbs occupied by the characters were absolutely blossoming with seeming prosperity. By the end, when Pyre has become so thoroughly disenchanted with his patriotic faith, there is a jarring juxtaposition between him and his contemporaries. He seems like an ambassador from this new, cruel century, a Marty McFly with post-traumatic stress.

The LDS Church was born of two contending impulses. First was the growth of American religious socialism, which sought to attenuate itself to the needs of communicants in an egalitarian manner as American capitalism’s contradictions heightened following the Industrial Revolution. Some faiths, such as the more radical Quakers, were passionate Abolitionists and embraced internationalism, sourced to sibling-hood in the Creator rather than the Marxist theory of labor alienation. Others, including Joseph Smith, maintained settler colonial theology, which ultimately is indebted to the Vatican’s Doctrine of Discovery.

The second, opposing impulse was the unitary charismatic power of Smith himself. His Book of Mormon, in the most coherent terms of comparative theology and textual criticism, is a time capsule into frontier-era upstate New York during the Second Great Awakening. It pieces together, however ungraciously, various impulses of that culture, including reverence for the Jacobean linguistic ornamentation the King James Bible (Mark Twain quipped “‘And it came to pass’ was his pet. If [Smith] had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet”), the Pentecostal and Quaker power of divine revelation and bearing witness, the emerging ‘Mark of Cain’ theology used to justify chattel bond slavery, and sexual reliquaries of English Puritanism and continental Calvinism. As Bloom once observed in The American Religion, the Jesus of Mormon theology is the resurrected Savior, with nary a cross in a Mormon church building. This exaltation, one promised to faithful communicants, underwrites a strand of thought that can (and repeatedly does) serve the needs of Mormon egomaniacs, narcissists, and sociopaths.

Chris Hedges writes “Sin is…a way of describing our estrangement from others and ourselves, from what [Paul] Tillich calls ‘the ground of our being.’ It is estrangement from the origin and aim of life. When we carry out acts that further this estrangement, when we violate our relationships with others and with ourselves, we sin.”

In early Christianity, the Crucifixion was a powerful attempted vaccination against hubris. Christ died in the most miserable, ignominious, and tabooed fashion known to antiquity. His torture, mutilation, and exhibition alongside two petty criminals was the most lowly ending known to Roman imperial culture. This death is the opposite of Achilles, the warrior son of divinity also felled by the vulnerability of humanity. In seeking the “imitation of Christ,” the early Christian mystics and hermits saw redemption in voluntary austerity. Compounded with the mystery of the Paschal sacrifice, that God made man had died for all sinners, the early faith sought to denounce the Greco-Roman cult of the body, the authoritarianism of a theocratic Caesar, and the hypocrisy of religious fealty being made manifest by the riches of the believer.

Mormonism’s deletion of this and replacement with the idea that communicants can become gods themselves, when combined with the petit bourgeois impulse of frontier settlement commerce that quickly became hegemonic under Brigham Young, explains the truly sociopathic impulse manifest in figures like Mitt Romney. It returned to the Roman tradition of the Caesar as god, fused it with that uniquely US form of blood-and-soil divine election wherein only “whites” could achieve grace, and let the participants rampage across the horizon, massacring Indigenous nations with a sense of Providence that likewise informed the Nazi Ostkrieg against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, for the earlier followers of Joseph Smith, sin was reduced to disagreement with the Prophet. It was a “sin” to dispute his “divine duty” to take multiple wives, including teenaged girls. This authoritarianism in service of the most venal, and at times despicable, impulses known to humanity is why the Salt Lake Church remains forever scandalized by their estranged Fundamentalist cousins that are holed up in Southwestern desert enclaves. Try as they might to paper over these inconvenient theological aberrations, the LDS Church will be unable to break with it truly until they reject Joseph Smith’s infallibility, as their brethren in the Community of Christ did when their schism with Brigham Young was founded by Smith’s disenchanted and alienated widow Emma.

This fact is borne most vividly in the disgusting Keep Sweet Pray and Obey, a lurid documentary about the convicted Fundamentalist pedophile Warren Jeffs. Perhaps other viewers can derive some sort of virtue from the series, but alas I cannot. When the final episode opted to showcase an audio recording of Jeffs “sanctifying” his union with a young girl, I threw up my hands in disgust. What is the point? Who is served by such exhibition? This is sensationalist trauma porn of a sort that has led me to become quite disgusted with American documentary for over a decade now.

Mormon No More spares the viewer such decrepitude. It does not delve deeply into LDS Church theology, instead opting for a set of human stories about how the institutional homophobia and racism has harmed communicants. One narrative strand, the most prominent, follows Lena Schwen and Sally Osborne, two Mormon moms with an aggregate total of seven children who fell in love with each other, came out, left their husbands, and are now headed towards same-sex nuptials on the California coast. Meanwhile, Brigham Young University student Brad Talbot risks campus censure and arrest by Salt Lake police for organizing Pride events on campus. The 2019 valedictorian of that same school, Matt Easton, explores the repercussions of coming out to his class during the delivery of that graduation speech and meets the father of Harry Fisher, another gay BYU student who died of suicide. Brad Aiken confronts David Matheson, a cofounder of American “conversion therapy” practices who himself later came out as gay. And Polly Choque-Mendoza, a bisexual Indigenous Bolivian, explains the ostracism and stigma she faced for having a relationship and then a baby outside of marriage with a non-Mormon.

While the series relies upon some of the most saccharine narrative tropes known to television documentary, it still rings true with its honest examination of the spiritual defenestration experienced by any believer (your present reviewer included) when forced by any house of worship into a “choice” between being “faithful” and being honest about the most intimate, private part of our souls. In this sense, the series is a triumph as an exercise of reflection upon the adage of Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It is not perfect, especially in how Choque-Mendoza’s story feels tacked-on and essentially in service of a token gesture, but it still merits respect.

I hope in this summative assessment that my thoughts might provide some further modes of reflection and contemplation. Under the Banner of Heaven provides one such useful moment when it describes the efforts of Mormons as “building Zion.” All Euro-American occupants of this hemisphere, to a certain degree, bear a certain role in this North American Zionist project, with Mormons merely being a most enthusiastic element of the settlement project. The undeniable sense of oddity felt by observers is one that we should instrumentalize in reflection upon how we occupy space in this landmass. All of these pictures, to a certain degree, compel the viewer to a sidewise glance upon the Mormon camera subjects.

But we must not shy away from casting this glance upon ourselves. Again, “When you point one finger, three point back at you.”

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.