Public Perception, Personal Integrity & Big Love

As you may know, I write columns occasionally for the online interfaith magazine Last Tuesday I got a message from my beliefnet editor asking if I would review HBO’s premiere of “Big Love” from my Mormon point of view. (“Big Love” is the new modern polygamy comedy/drama set in Salt Lake which premieres Sunday, March 12.)

“Sure, sure!” I said.

He said he’d try to get HBO to send me a review copy pronto, but just in case that didn’t arrive, could I watch the premiere on Sunday night, write something up and send it to them faster than humanly possible?

“Sure, sure,” I said again.

Then I remembered that I was going to be in Utah this weekend. If the HBO review copy didn’t arrive, where would I find a place in Provo where I could watch “Big Love” on Sunday night? My family doesn’t have cable. I don’t think BYU dorms allow TV on Sundays (do they?) but certainly not for airing “Big Love”! And I didn’t want to pay big bucks for a hotel room to use their TV for an hour. I was also pretty sure that Provo doesn’t have any hotels that charge hourly rates.

Just in the nick of time, FedEx arrived with the bundle from HBO. After five hours of watching the episodes they sent and ten hours of pondering-writing-deleting-writing-fretting-rewriting, I sent off my piece. (You can check out my results at

Although it’s on the show which precedes “Big Love”, “The Sopranos”, where dancing naked on tables occurs, that’s what I felt I was doing. I — the card-carrying, Relief Society President, “committed misfit” Mormon that I am — had to acknowledge moles and cellulite in the spotlight. Granted, they were not so much my moles as institutional Church moles, but it’s part of the package.

How do I represent myself – who, on the one hand thinks polygamy savaged women’s hearts and left hundreds of children with little connection to their fathers, and who, on the other hand, thinks (if you can get over having any emotional engagement with your husband) polygamy provided a fascinating (possibly freeing) opportunity for women to develop strength, independence and sisterhood when things worked smoothly? (Did it ever?) Geesh, I don’t know. Mostly I think it was just a huge mistake and even this “Big Love” business is part of the price we pay for it.

To appease the Church, HBO runs a disclaimer at the end of the first episode and in their PR materials that “…the Mormon Church banned polygamy in 1890…” This disclaimer, however, doesn’t acknowledge that the Church didn’t ban plural marriage in Mexico or Canada for years after that.

As for representing myself and representing the “Church”, that’s a constant conundrum. It was the theme for my novel “The Marketing of Sister B” which Signature published. I don’t mean this as a sales pitch. It’s just evidence that this dichotomy between being an individual and being a representative of a community is a long-standing bee in my Deseret bonnet.)

And while I’m out there dancing, still committed, still wanting to wave banners of joy about what I think of as the Gospel, other folks are out there thinking we are all nutcases.

For example, I came across this little snippet in John Leonard in a review of “Big Love” wrote this:

Personally, I’d have preferred a straight-up series about nineteenth-century Mormons—a gaudy story by itself. Joseph Smith, son of an itinerant ginseng merchant and great-great-grandson of a Salem witch-hunter, dreams a Bollywood spectacular of lost tribes, golden plates, and sacred stones; dictates off the top of his head a 275,000-word book of revelation; ordains his own apostles in a fertility-worshipping mystery cult; and leaves behind 50 wives when he is defenestrated in 1844 by vigilantes in Carthage, Illinois. After which it’s up to Brigham Young—part Cromwell, part Moses—to lead his flock on a Transvaal voortrek from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Great Salt Lake. What could be more quintessentially American than this club sandwich of sacred and profane, this bowl of mixed religious nuts?

Here’s another segment from a review of “Big Love” by Harry Forbes in Catholic Online:

It goes without saying that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the church considers polygamy an offense against the dignity of marriage and ‘not in accord with the moral law,’ and negates God’s plan ‘because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.’

I think that’s the version of marriage our contemporary Church is trying to trumpet now, but somehow I think there has to be clarification on what the Church really believes about “the principle.” I believe this catholic definition of marriage – “equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.” I also know that, back in the day, many faithful Saints felt that living plural marriage was a sacred stewardship and an incredible sacrifice which they only did because they felt compelled by God.

How do you (familiar plural) manage the balance between individual convictions and a deeply held commitment to “building up the Kingdom of God on earth”? The polygamy embarrassment is only one example. There are plenty. I’d love to hear about your own dances with public perception and personal integrity. No visuals necessary.

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  1. jana says:

    You asked about the balance between personal commitments and the church mission…
    I have several deeply-held personal convictions that while they don’t necessarily go against the church, they aren’t really explicitly supported by it, either. For example, I’m a pacifist and vegetarian–neither of which is directly condoned by Mormon practice or doctrine. But these are fundamental parts of my life that I hold as close as my LDS covenants.

    I’ve learned to just quietly practice the things that I believe in–Mormon or not. I also participate in communities that support those parts of my life that the church doesn’t. For example, I avoid LDS potlucks (too much meat), I sometimes spend Sundays nurturing the veggies in my organic garden, I support the local Quaker Meeting, and I attend anti-war rallies.

    I also have some deeply-held personal convictions that explicitly contradict current LDS doctrines. I won’t list them here, but like those I listed above, I usually just quietly oppose them–only voicing my true opinion to those close to me while trying to believe in a loving God and exercising love and charity towards church leaders who perpetuate such, IMO, incorrect beliefs/practices.

  2. Caroline says:

    Linda, great post and great questions. I’ve been trying to formulate a response for the last few minutes – it’s not an easy question to answer.

    I think I’ve come to believe this: that by maintaining and voicing my personal convictions (equality of women and men, frightening horribleness of polygamy, etc.)I am indeed helping to build up the kingdom of god. My opinions certainly might not always reflect the party line that we hear over the pulpit, but I’m coming to hope and believe that the Church needs all kinds of people. Including people like me who are willing to suggest that there are some things that might be improved in our institutional church. After all, the more kinds of members the Church has, the more types of people it can help and include.

    Of course, it is easy for me to say that because I do not have a calling in which I need to represent the Church in any way. If I were a RS president like you, I’m sure I would be dealing with that tension (saying what I want to say and believe vs. saying what I think the Church wants me to say) much more often.

    Speaking of this tension, I will always remember a conversation I had with a wonderful thoughtful LDS prof at UCLA, who told me that the loneliest, most frustrating, most stifled time of his church life was when he was in a bishopric. Because, as a formal leader of his ward, he felt like he couldn’t express his personal opinions the way he always had before. He now embraces and feels liberated by the role he has carved out for himself – that of a voice on the margins who kindly and thoughtfully expresses alternate points of view.

  3. Mike says:

    Your post is timely. Recently, many of my colleagues (I’m a university professor) have come to learn that I’m LDS. This has led to many opportunities to talk about the Church and my own personal religiosity. In walking the line, I try to follow a few rules of thumb.

    First, don’t shy away from questions about the sensational aspects of our history when asked. This, of course, assumes knowledge of some of the dirty details.

    Second, whether or not they are similar, make clear the distinction between my own personal feelings, official Church stances, and the various attitudes of other Mormons. I find that people tend to be surprised yet understanding that even the set of highly committed Mormons is a heterogeneous group.

    Third, make it clear that I’m devout, that it’s my choice to belong (even in the presence of difficult topics), and that I highly value my affiliation and commitment.

    I don’t always live up to these, but I generally do well.

  4. Dan says:

    When the Church emphatically denies that we currently practice polygamy, I wish they would put an asterisk by that statement. We still do seal men to more than one woman, so I think our official effort to distance ourselves from polygamy is a little bit disingenuous.

  5. Tigersue says:

    You wondered if Polygamy was ever successful and I can tell you it was, My husband comes from a polygamist backgroud and the family, and families were very strong and supportive of each other.
    I think the balance comes from completely commiting yourself to doing what God asks you to do! If God asks me to do something we need to do it to obtain those blessing we may recieve. Does that make it easy, no, but it is that submissiveness that makes us learn. We shouldn’t be afraid of what is in the past, I think therer are very good resons for the things that happened and why they happened. We need to learn from that. We also need to get over the idea of thinking that “they are mistakes”. I like to look at polygamy as the Churches Abrahamic Test, as well as for individuals. Would the church be what it is if it wasn’t willing to defend a practice that was in opposition to the world, I don’t think so. Would Heber C. Kimball have been as great of a Man without his own test, what about his wife Vilate? Do you think, they think it was a mistake. I don’t think so. Polygamy is wrong, in the wrong hands, that is were oppression and abuse occurs. In the right hands, and the right frame of mind, growth can occur. We all need to learn that no matter what principle we are facing or trying to learn. Obedience is ultimately what is required.

  6. John says:

    I work around this by interpreting “Kingdom of God” to mean much more than the institution of the Church–e.g., when I’m fighting hunger, illiteracy, racism, sexism, etc., I’m building up God’s kingdom on earth. This fits with my notions of obedience as well–when the Sprit and the Church institution issue contradictory orders, I go with the Spirit.

    How this all translates in public situations: I’m very open about my Mormoness, but I’m also clear about where I differ from Church. Makes for interesting conversations, and, FWIW, I gave a coworker a Book of Mormon a couple of days ago. Maybe I’m still building up the Church Kingdom after all.

  7. Anonymous says:

    An interesting subject I have thought and prayed long about. If I read the genologies correctly at the family history website, Joseph Smith was sealed to a married woman and Brigham Young father a daughter by a married woman. If these posts are true, then “Celestial Marriage” is not just a man having more than one unmarried wife, it includes married ones also. The Church History manual in the Church religon series makes reference to Joseph Smith being sealed to Heber C. kimballs wife. I can not find out if Heber was sealed to this wife at the time. If so then women would appear to be able to be seald to more than one wife. The other woman’s husband was a non-member and moved with her to SLC. I am sure I am not the first one to wonder about this. So far I have not found anyone with an answer. Also take a look at B.H. Roberts history of the church. Look under pologamy and some church leader made a comment “If Joseph wanted my wife, I would say he could have her, and any other….” Probably didn’t get that correct but certinly lends creedance to sealing to more than one wife. Side note, there are a lot of ugly stories on Joseph taking more than one wife, but I currently feel these noted above to be true. Also, anyone can put in a genology at the church web site. Not enough manpower to check the storie. I would appreciate any comments. thanks

  8. fMhLisa says:

    Great Post Linda,
    I wish I had something brilliant to add, but I rarely do. I actually handle myself much as Mike has suggested, and I have a lot of sympathy for Caroline’s approach too. I do think that by sticking to my personal convictions I strenthen myself and the the church together. I’m sure plenty of people disagree, but it’s a comfort to me.

  9. Anonymous says:


  10. cinnee sr. says:

    I am a jack mormon in the sense that I know the gospel is true however the politicalness of it is way too much for my fa mily to handle. to be looked down upon for having my own mind and thinking,another story, about plural marriage, I would love a sister wife i could handle it, not all can but i could, thank God it is not legal and not necessary in todays time. raising kids is difficult along with trying to keep up on housework, cooking and cleaning thats when I would love to have a sisterwife but for now maybe I should just hire a maid..

  11. Anonymous says:

    Excellent, love it! » »