Jana Riess – Mormonism in 21st Century conference

Jana Riess – From Pariah to Model Minority: Mormonism in Popular Culture

In opening scene of 2003 South Park “All about Mormons” it told of a new student who was a squeaky clean and active youth. It mocks and praises us. It also ridicules our story about Joseph Smith, angels as ancient Indians, etc.

Routinely shows us as tolerable, as a good people, but are scorned for theology. We’ve gone from vile debauchers to upright knights in shining armor.

Cosmopolitan in Mar 1911 attacked Church w/polygamy, slimy and its influence spreading.

Economist Mar 2011 – what is more American than Mormons? Church spokesman says, “we’re prepared not to be defined by others anymore.”

Fascination with Mormon sexuality, Suspicion against its power, and assimilation into mainstream.

Since 1990s, Mormons have turned to media for self expression.

Mormon Sexuality – shows political cartoons from early 1900s. Joke about polygamy, while others warn about dangers. 1887 Life magazine cover shows woman protecting home from polygamy. Cartoons compared Mormonism with Islam and harems.

Plays, novels, etc., condemned polygamy. Much of it written by women. Women were being made play things and slaves.  Many novels talk about men joining Church and dragging their families along. Man starts getting ever younger wives, who mistreat the first wife. Usually, the first wife ends up dying from some terrible disease.

Madame LaTour and Elder Northfield’s Home are two anti-Mormon novels. Such fiction sold well. Madame LaTour sold 100,000 copies.

One Civil War cartoon shows women marching to war, holding high their babies, while the men crouch behind the wives. Women are buxomy, suggesting open sexuality among Mormons.

Today, Mormons are based as repressed or prudish.  Today, 20% of Americans disapprove of premarital sex. 79% of Mormons disapprove of it.

We see shows and movies as Latter Days, Big Love, etc. Mormon Bachelor (web only), of all the good outstanding shows, this is not one of them.  The dates are clean and have no sex. It includes discussions of life goals, missionary talks, and discussion of temple marriage. The minority explains its distinctions and disparities from the main culture.

Emma Watson commended by Mormons for being modest.  Mormons “modest is hottest” movement, but promotes women sexualization because it focuses on a modest dress.  (M* discussion on this, remember?).

BYU student exed for shirtless former missionaries calendar.  OTOH, we have Twilight, which talks about abstinence.  Deseret stopped carrying them from complaints they were to steamy.

Hannah in the book Wonder Boys is a talented Mormon. In film version, Mormon affiliation was cut, and Hannah is sexualized.

Over a century after polygamy ended, it still is a leading issue. Most magazines have discussed polygamy, even though Mitt never has been one, and dislikes it.  Cartoon where Mitt asks Newt Gingrich, “What’s your position on polygamy?”

Show Sister Wives and other shows promote concept of polygamy, but de-sexualizes polygamy. One of the biggest events on the show was when one wife said things were going well, and another said, “bull crap!”

Popular media showed Mormons of sexually promiscuous in 19th century, and now we are prudish.  They’ve gone from satyrs to saints.

Suspicions of LDS institution’s power. Is it legitimately American?  Can they be good citizens? Shows cartoon of Brigham Young as octopus, with tentacles spreading out to overcome America.

Angels of America shows Mormonism in good light, play filled with angels and buried texts. Author loved past history, but repulsed by modern conservative institution.

Issues from Reed Smoot to Mitt Romney shows Mormonism as having ascended into control and danger.

Proposition 8 became a rallying point for crying against the Church. Documentary: 8 a Mormon Proposition, clearly had impact on warning against institutions undermining democracy. This obscured Catholics and others’ involvement, to show Mormon action.

Book of Mormon musical. noted as tenderness and blasphemy. Stone and Parker write about missionaries going to Uganda. Plot is Church does not have a monopoly on truth, though Mormonism can help. The only Latter day that matters is tomorrow.

Rise of the Nones are those who have no religious affiliation. 2007 Pew survey showed 17% are Nones. Young Adults are 25%. Anti-Institutionalism is growing.

Growing counter trend is to show regular Mormons as moral exemplars.  First was Donnie and Marie Variety Show. Clean music and dance, old fashioned values.

Covey – Seven Habits, and J W Marriott rise up in business in the 1970s and 1980s. Mormons had many top execs in many businesses, based in missionary training and confidence and discipline developed.

Reality TV Mormons are far out of proportionally misrepresented. 7th season of Survivor had 2 finalists. So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with Stars commonly have Mormons. Mormons like popularity contests. When Derek Hough shows his number, Mormons pick up the phone to vote.

2007, show House had black Mormon who challenged stereotypes of Mormons.  Frazier fires agent, and new Mormon agent who dresses in boy scout uniform may be too ethical.

Slate 2009, states “Mormonism is an American religion. In 19th century we were viewed as an extreme. Now, we have another extreme view.  But there is an unease still of Mormons as a model minority. Members are considered great people, while Church is still considered secretive.


What kinds of problems does the Church need to solve to become more mainstream or legitimate? I’m hesitant to prognosticate. Need to deal with question of secrecy as an institution, but also the secrecy Senator Bennett mentioned about the reporter that asked if he wore magic underwear.

What do you think of Mormon tenets not being in keeping with Ryan’s budget not in keeping with helping the poor?  Read my blog for personal views. In popular culture, the media has exposed the discrepancy between Catholic bishops agenda and Ryan’s agenda. Not sure if Mormonism is understood right now regarding its position.  Mormon practices will not change. Its welfare program is a great PR tool that shows we are not insular. NBC show last month spent 15 minutes on Church welfare.

Define culture and how is American culture changing?  Several aspects in cultural products. High culture with barriers to entry (opera, ballet), folk culture. Then regular culture.  We are seeing high and folk cultures disappearing.  Mormons are known for folk culture that will not disappear that helps make us different. We quilt.

Church’s efforts to direct the media war, who is winning?  I am a Mormon campaign is doing lots of good. In terms of exploding misconceptions, the campaign has been effective.  What can the Church do to continue on this path? We need to humanize Mormons, and are the people next door. We are not exotic.  I live in Cincinnati and give talks, as pastors have learned there are Mormons here.

Is it a problem that our culture is being watered down?  Mormonism has changed in our approach to sexuality. I do not think conversion rates are affected by this. Conversion rates are down for religion. I’m researching on how to stem the tide. What are the staying factors? Some results are interesting. Again, we need to humanize it. We need to be careful of growing so fast we lose the people already there, as we see is happening.  We need more spiritual events.


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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery (joelsmonastery.blogspot.com). He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

8 thoughts on “Jana Riess – Mormonism in 21st Century conference

  1. Rame,

    Please use the “More tag” when making posts. We don’t want the front page to fill up with a single post. (Especially when it’s one of my posts vanshing out of sight LOL.)

    I’ve been fixing it for you. But please put a MORE tag in yourself. If you don’t know what I’m taking about, say so and I’ll show you how.

  2. I don’t think anyone made a video. I’m sure we can discuss such concepts here, and I’m sure we could invite Jana Riess to discuss questions regarding her talk more in depth here.

  3. What facts did she discuss in asking whether our culture has been watered down? Correlation? And in what ways does she believe our approach to sexuality has changed?

  4. Our sexuality has changed in two ways: first from polygamy to strict monogamy, and second on how others view us sexually.

    I don’t think Jana went into details on the issue of our culture being watered down, but only said it is an issue to consider. I would agree that our correlation (which Philip Barlow said our manuals go for the lowest common denominator) may water down our religion. I think we have to be aware of what we’re willing to give up to be more mainstream. Would giving up the Book of Mormon or the temple make us more mainstream? Yes, but at what cost?

  5. Of course, as a devout Latter-Day Saint, I know that the church will never deny the witness of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon and Temple are essential for our salvation. We have heard from our living prophets and apostles on this already. Have you seen the new church video by Elder Walker on Temples? It’s not only precisely to the point of why temples are SACRED, not SECRET, but shows many gorgeous pictures of celestial rooms, sealing rooms, etc. Because they are guided by the Spirit, our church leaders always lead the church by helping others see and understand the purpose of our spirituality.

    I am sure that as we continue to share our testimonies as we are guided by the Spirit through humble faithful prayer and by our Christlike actions, we will gain the respect of honest people everywhere, having earned it. I see that this really is about the parable of the wheat and tares growing up together.

    On another note, the church is the fourth fastest growing religion, so in this vein, it is not growing slowly. I do understand and appreciate the point you’ve made about slow and steady, though. Certainly the steady part is our real blessing that can be recognized and respected.

    And retaining members needs to be where our caring concern is. When I take time to think of how Christ would deal with my situation, I sometimes have to make a great effort, which always makes me feel the Spirit and feel centered and know that I’ve done the right thing and feel good about myself.

  6. Saying the temple endowment is “sacred, not secret” is just playing with definitions. The reality is, the Church does deal in secrets. When a bishop takes a confession from a member, he keeps it secret.

    Pictures of Celestial Rooms in the temple do not explain the endowment. It is still secret and sacredly officially kept from the public. Last Spring, I was in a Conference, where a non-member who is studying Mormonism at Claremont stated that too often the Church says many things about the temple, but really does not say anything. There are pretty rooms that people walk through. They make covenants. They are baptized for their dead. They are sealed as families. It says things, but really does not give any information.

    There are both sacred AND secret things in the temple endowment. We can speak of sacred things in sacred settings. We cannot speak of the secret things, the covenants that command us to keep them to ourselves, outside of the temple.

    Jan Shipps did note that such things really are not secret anymore, anyway. The endowment is available on the Internet for people to read. So, for endowed members it is secret AND sacred. For those who read it on the Internet, it is not a secret anymore, and it probably is not sacred to them, either.

    As for church growth, it is growing. But it is mostly in places like Africa. In place like Chile, where they baptized thousands a month in the 1980s and 1990s, they are retrenching. In many areas, the full time missionaries spend their time in reactivation of the tens of thousands of members who are no longer active. As Pres Hinckley and Pres Monson have noted, we need to focus on “real growth”, which means retention of those we baptize.

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