‘American Mormon’ Documentary Review

American Mormon, *** Stars for warm-hearted propaganda

American Mormon (2005) is a “man-on-the-street” style documentary gathering public reactions and misconceptions on who Mormons are–but my problem with it is that I don’t consider it to be a documentary. It’s the start of a documentary missing the second hour.

At 60 minutes long this is another LDS propaganda piece because Daryn Tufts and Jed Kudsen simply do not go further into what Mormonism is. They take the reactions of the bystanders they interview and turn the documentary into a feel good piece about the practitioners of Mormonism. The thing is, I don’t think anyone was ever disputing that Mormons were not nice, personable people–but that doesn’t excuse Proposition 8 (the campaign against gay marriage in California and homosexuality in general), Mormon history, and questionable “truths.”

What American Mormon does show are the myths people believe about Mormons, everything from modern polygamy to Mormons living such sheltered lives that they border on being Muslim women wearing what Bill Maher refers to as “beekeeper suits.” It’s nothing of the sort. Mormons may be clean cut or give the appearance of being clean cut, but they’re really just normal Americans with a kooky, mainstream religion. No different really from Christians who are good people too.

My big problem here is that Tufts does not go into what the Mormon Church believes. Maybe that wasn’t the point of the documentary, maybe it was just about nonMormon perceptions. However, Tufts does dispel the modern myth of polygamy without referring to the past. It’s true that Mormons do not currently practice polygamy. It’s also true that their founder Joseph Smith did. If Jesus, as the founder of Christianity, advocated something but then Christianity decided to eliminate the practice then wouldn’t you think that’s kind of odd?

What was the reason that polygamy ended? Was it suddenly a moral revelation by LDS leadership or was it the fact that the US Government cracked down on Utah making it unwise to continue the practice of polygamy? In other words, there was nothing moral about giving up polygamy; it was pragmatic  in order to keep their power structure. While it is a myth that Mormons, except for fringe splinter groups, do not practice polygamy it is also a myth that revelation was what stopped polygamy. And if Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, how could it be wrong? Or is Joseph Smith fallible and therefore we should doubt his credibility–not just on polygamy but on all his visions and revelations?

What American Mormon does is the same thing that the recent Mormon commercials “…And I am a Mormon” do. They provide an image without actually telling you what the Mormon religion believes. This is dishonest and yet it works and will continue to work because Americans want to be fair-minded and tolerant of other religious views. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t accept Mormons into society, far from it. I’m saying we should know what Mormonism really is and that if Tufts and Kudsen want to promote Mormonism they should do a follow up to this film and lay down what it is Mormons actually believe instead of leaving the issue hanging as they did with this film. If they were really sincere they should cover the history of Mormonism from good to bad. Christianity has had to endure this kind of investigation from both nonChristian scholars and Christian scholars (the History Channel is full of specials on Christianity in this manner). I may be too hard on Tufts on this point, because after all this was meant to be light-hearted. I’m just bothered by the incompleteness of it.

Otherwise, Tufts is enjoyable host and I found myself laughing at the reactions of the people he interviewed since one of my best friends growing up was Mormon and he was just a nerd like me. Tufts showed us that Mormons can be stereotyped but often the stereotypes are to their benefit. Almost everyone thought that Mormons were “good people.” The danger here is that good people can believe bad things or outright lies and being good doesn’t determine truth. Some atheists can be downright nasty, but what they’re saying can be completely true. We shouldn’t confuse a nice personality for truth.

As I recall from the film, there was only one person who came close to the weirdness of Mormonism when she said something to the extent that Mormons believe they can rule their own planet. That is true. If you want a primer in Mormon beliefs start with The Thinking Atheist’s video on the subject done with a little humor. As you read about Mormon history you realize it’s just a guy who made up a religion that was successful because of its persistence. The Mormon culture itself is very attractive due to that “clean cut” image, but when something is not true and you begin to see the holes appear  it becomes dissatisfying. Christianity is harder to decipher due to its age and has the same problem of truth. Mormonism is relatively easy to decipher, but once you’re in it, it’s hard to leave that culture.

I know any Mormons reading this are going to say I’m being biased for calling American Mormon propaganda, but it is a fair evaluation. If the documentary was complete it would explore more than just “man-on-the-street” interviews. We would get background information on the history of public perception of Mormonism including Mormon bigotry and Christian views of Mormonism as I know from growing up Christian there is a whole field of books, lectures, videos and other related media dedicated to proving that Mormonism is not Christian and that it is a cult. Christians are still actively against Mormonism even as inroads are being made into the American public as a whole.  I’m not sure it’s even fair to call Mormonism a cult by now as it is in the mainstream (Christianity was once a cult too) though technically we can call it that. Religions tend to lose cult status once they achieve acceptance by the public at large. Mormonism is certainly succeeding.

What American Mormon proves simply is that Mormons have a sense of humor and can be self-deprecating in how they are viewed. There’s more to the story though…

One thought on “‘American Mormon’ Documentary Review

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