“Under the Banner of Heaven.” “Keep Sweet.” “Murder Among the Mormons.” “LuLaRich.” “Mormon No More.”
All five of the above are 2021 or 2022 series streaming on television. All five present Mormonism in an unflattering light in some respect — “Banner” being the worst of the lot by locating Mormonism as a religion that “breeds violent men.” As the only partly fictionalized series in this string of documentaries, “Banner” takes massive liberties with 19th-century Latter-day Saint history.
The other entries are more nuanced, but all shine a light on darker aspects of the Mormon faith and its culture.
In “Keep Sweet,” it’s the terror of polygamy in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway sect that became known for the forced marriage of teenage girls during the reign of Warren Jeffs, the group’s prophet.
In “Murder Among the Mormons,” it’s the 1985 bombings engineered by forger Mark Hofmann. As depicted in this documentary, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were among those taken in by Hofmann’s deceptions.
In “LuLaRich,” it’s active Latter-day Saints who are the perpetrators of lies and fraud, as the couple who founded the LuLaRoe leggings company are shown blithely defrauding their workers and customers even as they spout passages from the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, at corporate events.
Even “Mormon No More,” likely the most emotionally sensitive of the bunch, still conveys the underlying message that it’s practically impossible for anyone to be loving, LGBTQ-affirming and true to themselves while remaining members of the church.
It’s been a tough couple of years for Latter-day Saints on TV.
A reporter asked me recently if we are living in another “Mormon Moment,” referring to the national scrutiny that fixated on Mormonism during Mitt Romney’s 2012 run for the presidency. It’s possible. It does seem that every decade or so, the general public remembers that Mormons exist, and then that they don’t like us much. Before 2012, it was the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that focused the spotlight on us — sometimes in a flattering light, but often in a negative one.
For me the question is: Is the current wave happening to us more than to other faiths? Are Latter-day Saints being singled out for religious persecution, as some members claim? These people are deeply attuned to (and hurt by) unflattering portrayals of our religion on the small screen, and they are crying foul.
I can understand the feeling, but let’s put the recent spate of attention in some context. In particular, let’s place it in the context of two trends happening in America simultaneously.
First, there’s simply an explosion of television content in the past five years or so. It’s not just that there are more docuseries on Mormonism; it’s that there are more docuseries, period.
In fact, that whole genre is exploding. It used to be that a documentary filmmaker worked for years to create a roughly two-hour film that would get limited distribution in theaters — often, in small urban art houses rather than the megaplexes. Now, opportunities exist for the same filmmakers to reach a much wider viewing audience on streaming platforms — and to have more hours of content. A docuseries might run four, six or even eight hours.
The public has responded. IndieWire reports that in 2021, documentaries and docuseries had risen to comprise 16% of all Netflix original content. On HBO, it was 18%; on Disney+ and Amazon Prime, it was a quarter.
The second trend is the rise of non-religion and ex-religion in the United States. According to Pew, in 2007 only 16% of Americans said they had no religion. By 2021, it had nearly doubled to 29%.
The fastest-growing religious segment in America is made up of those who profess no religion.
In the context of those two trends, it’s important to realize it’s not just Mormonism that’s being criticized. Catholicism is seeing the worst of its dirty laundry aired in public: the sex abuse crisis that the church covered up for years. Thousands of kids were molested by priests, and they are telling their stories in docuseries such as “Procession” (Netflix, 2021), as well as dramatizations such as 2015′s “Spotlight,” which won the Academy Award for best picture.
Evangelicals haven’t fared well lately, either. While “Jesus Camp” (2006) may be the defining documentary of this whole genre, more recent additions have included “The Family,” a 2019 Netflix production that looks at the outsize and shadowy role some evangelical Protestants have played in conservative politics.
And let’s not forget “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a 2021 dramatization of the rise and fall of TV’s much-mocked, cosmetically enhanced televangelist.
Orthodox Judaism has had its turn, too: In addition to the 2017 feature film “Disobedience,” a host of series have depicted the tensions of life in closed, deeply conservative Hasidic communities. “One of Us” and “My Unorthodox Life,” both from Netflix in 2021, follow former members as they try to make their way in the world after leaving their faith. Those may have been greenlighted by the tremendous success of Netflix’s breakout 2020 hit “Unorthodox,” based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name.
As a viewer, I was disturbed by the go-for-the-jugular additions Netflix made to Feldman’s story. In the show, the main character, Esty, flees to Europe and is chased there by a gun-wielding Hasidic thug who is determined to bring her in line. It’s a ridiculous and gratuitous subplot that is nowhere in Feldman’s book.
“It’s scary to give someone your story for the screen because you can’t control it,” she told The New York Times. You can say that again.
If Mormons are being persecuted on television, then they’re in good company. Religion in general is being carefully scrutinized, especially its more conservative expressions. Given the trend lines about people leaving religion in high numbers, we can expect this to continue. I’m aware of at least two new docuseries being made now about Mormonism, and I’m sure more will be on the way.
It’s safe to guess that future portrayals of our faith may be even less flattering. Consider the recent investigative AP news story about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long covered up the sexual abuse of minors and encouraged bishops not to report it to the police.
It’s hard to remember all the good the church does in the world, which is considerable, when faced with the reality of how many times it has done the wrong thing.