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Is LDS Church culture under attack?

Posted at 9:48 PM, Oct 04, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY — From a recent chant at a BYU away game to several documentaries to various news articles in recent times, there tends to be a lot of negativity surrounding the word "Mormon" these days.

By no means should the church escape criticism or scrutiny just because of its nature, but in light of recent headlines and events, it is worth an in-depth look at the light in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is painted.

Just over two weeks ago, a video showing chants from University of Oregon fans degrading the church became a nationwide news story.

Former BYU football player Dean Painter saw the viral video.

"I don't think they'll stop. I think that's been the case ever since the time of Christ and before," said Painter. "I mean, you're always going to have people of goodwill who are trying to worship, they're always going to be under attack."

As a member of the church, Painter said the chant caught on video is just the beginning.

"I think it's just, it's just exploitation, I would say would tell you. The reason is because there are forces out there that we want to get in the way of, those that are moving forward."

Patrick Mason is a professor at Utah State University and one of the foremost authorities on the culture of the church in Utah.

"You can't demonize an entire group. And if you paint with a broad brush, then that becomes really problematic," said Mason. "And that's corrosive to the kind of toleration that we want to promote in our society."

"Mormonism has always been an object of fascination in American culture. You go back to the 19th century, its history of, you know, angels and gold plates and polygamy and all these kinds of things. And so, it's always captured the public imagination. And it seems that in the 21st century, the same is true. And we saw the church was in the news all the time in the early 2010s because Mitt Romney was running for president and there was the 'Book of Mormon' musical."

More recently, the "Under the Banner of Heaven" book and limited series on FX attracted heavy attention about the faith, while "Murder Among the Mormons" was one of the top documentaries on Netflix.

"Producers and so forth, they're following the numbers, right?," asked Mason. "And so if a lot of viewers are watching documentaries about Mormonism or about, you know, other conservative religions, then guess what, we're gonna see more documentaries."

The media shares in that fascination.

Author J.K. Rowling of the Harry Potter series made an odd jab at the church in response to criticism of her saying “It's like when Joseph Smith found the golden plates and nobody else was allowed to look at them.”

Just a week ago, The Guardian published an article pointing toward Latter-day Saints being at fault for Utah’s current water crisis, even going as far as calling it a Mormon version of Manifest Destiny.

"I wish they would have reached out to us because we could tell the whole story, it was very one-sided," said Joel Ferry, Director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources." 

Ferry and his agency obviously don't share the same sentiment or opinions as The Guardian.

"Whether you're a member of the LDS faith or not, I think this is, this is something that all Utahns are recognizing as being an issue," said Ferry. "And so my experience, the church has not encouraged, you know, its general membership to have green grass."

The church was caught in a scandal in August when allegations surfaced of sexual abuse by an Arizona member that a church helpline allegedly helped to cover up.

Church leaders issued a statement saying, in part, that the abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable, but added that the "story presented in the AP article is oversimplified and incomplete and is a serious misrepresentation of the Church and its efforts."

While the Associated Press obtained thousands of documents and brought to light terrible abuse, the article's headlines had one error, the name of the church itself.

In 2018, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the word "Mormon" was out, but still in headline after headline, the Associated Press, which dictates style to almost every news organization in the country, continued to use the term.

"There is, there's no question there is a, there is a prejudice that exists," said Painter.

Painter has spent most of his life in newsrooms and cultivating journalists.

"It's just lazy. It's sad," he said. "It has an effect on some people. Some people look at it go, 'Okay, well, I was just interested in what that church does, but you know, not so much anymore because of that. Wow, they're, they're causing the drought and you know, whatever.'"

But many ask why there is a lack of fighting back on the church's behalf. Examining any number of negative headlines and rarely does the church issue more than a statement.

The answer as to why is simple.

"You grow up in our church, making sure you're checking the boxes, going on the mission, getting married in a temple. As you get older, you realize that, that the reason you do all these things, is because you're coming, you're trying to become more like your God. I mean, it's right there in the gospel of Matthew: be a peacemaker. Turn the other cheek," explained Painter.

Johnathan Silva is another member of the church with a different perspective, that of a younger member who has his faith frequently questioned by his peers. But he doesn't fight back with words, but by example.

"They know who I am," said Silva. "They know I'm LDS, and they know how I conduct my life and how I treat others. And I think that's been a much bigger example, than any piece of media."

However, that doesn’t mean everyone always agrees.

"Just because I'm a member of the church doesn't mean I agree with everything, just how I am an American, I don't agree with everyone in Texas, in New York, and California. I'm one of millions, and that's a very similar thing in the church," said Silva. "It's okay. It's okay to feel uncomfortable. I think in all things."

"It will always be the case that in a dark room, the easiest way to make it light is to flip on the switch," said Painter. "Yeah, there are people who are really bothered by the bigotry, by the animosity toward the church. And it's hard. It's not easy. It's pretty straightforward, but it's not easy all the time."

It's not easy, but it's to be the choice most are making. But what about those who continue to be critical?

"When you sit in that chapel, there, there's one on every corner it seems like in Utah, right? When you sit in there, you look around at your neighbors and some other folks, you realize that they're all just there to be trying to be better people, and I just wish people could experience that by themselves and not hear it from, you know, some crazy thing that went on in a movie or something," said Painter.

"Walk into our church someday. You can ask the questions. I’ll give you my best answers."