Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

The Public Faces Of Mormonism
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

To tell its story, the Church sponsors a variety of pageants based on the Scriptures or Church history with huge casts, brilliant costumes, and special effects. The senior pageant takes place in Palmyra, New York, at the Hill Cumorah, site of the golden plates. The pageant, an hour and a half of religious scenes performed on ten levels of the steep hill's face, celebrated its sixty-eighth anniversary in 2005. Staged over two weekends with a cast of 650 playing to an audience of about 9,000 each night, the show is full of effects, requiring 500,000 watts of electricity, "absolutely breathtaking and an experience for all ages," with special waterfalls, volcanoes, fireballs, and explosions. Similarly, the Mormon Miracle Pageant, "A Message of Peace," is played in Manti, Utah, a small temple town. Seven hundred participants perform for eight days to audiences that total 100,000. On a hillside stage larger than a football field, with the Manti Temple as backdrop, visitors watch scenes from Church history, climaxing with the local Mormon story. To celebrate Joseph Smith's 200th birthday in 2005, Nauvoo unveiled a new pageant. All of this is very Mormon. Members play out their past to understand the lives of their ancestors. They also hope that their rocky, heroic history will engage the interest of others.

In Utah towns, celebrations often blend Mormon history with American patriotism. On a scorching July 4 in Provo, Utah, patriotism is in high evidence. Provo's "Freedom Festival" is a tribute to both Church and state. With the theme, "America Welcomes the World," the 2001 festival featured a week of baby competitions, speech and essay contests, historic tours, food and entertainment, golf tournament, carillon concert, art display, blood drive, race, parade, and fireworks. The early morning sky blossomed for two days with more than twenty hot air balloons, huffing and puffing their hot breath over town.

The large parade began with a group of town criers encouraging the crowd of 300,000 to rise and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance. As each group neared the end of the pledge, the next group stood to begin, making it the world's longest, rolling Pledge of Allegiance. People in chairs and on blankets along the tree-lined route watched the bands sweltering in winter uniforms, the helium-filled cartoon characters, and the town floats with pretty beauty queens in satin and tiaras, waving their white-gloved hands. Local Mormon stakes contributed floats and the most applauded entry in the parade was a crowd of white-shirted Mormon missionaries from the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

Small glimpses of distinctive Mormon culture surface in the parade. Family performing groups on big trucks might be expected, but the Cleanflicks float pledging to promote family entertainment by editing sex and violence from Hollywood films stands out. Company owner Ray Lines said "Some people think we shouldn't edit the movies we edit, but we live in the United States and we have the freedom to choose to edit or not." These R-rated movies, cleaned up to PG or PG-13, have developed a national market. Brigham Young University had quietly edited second run films at its Varsity Theater, but permission for the practice was denied, and the theater closed. Some say that altering videos violates federal copyright law; others note that films are cut for airline use.

Mormons tucked away in small Utah towns are very much aware of the greater world outside and feel pressure from other groups. Anticipating the 2002 Olympic Games in Utah, the city council of tiny La Verkin, near Zion National Park, met in July 2001 to pass an anti-United Nations ordinance, prohibiting the city from supporting the UN or putting the insignia on city property.

Residents oppose the UN as contrary to God, family, and country, everything La Verkin stands for. Two-thirds of arid Utah is owned by the federal government, and some residents fear that UN policies could influence land use. Councilman Al Snow, who proposed the ordinance, said, "Oh, I imagine that every time you stand up for freedom, you're a radical, aren't you? But . . . when you stand up for freedom, God is there with you." Many Utahns favor pulling out of the UN. When Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff told the La Verkin City Council members that their anti-UN law failed to uphold the rights of citizens who favored feeding starving children and promoted nuclear disarmament, La Verkin moderated its ordinance. Flying the UN flag on the City Hall flagpole and taxation of La Verkin for stationing UN troops were still forbidden. Not every resident agreed with the ordinance; Eliot Hill noted, "All this does is make us look like a bunch of kooks."

These examples reveal the dividing line between LDS and U.S. culture. Although Mormons seem very American, they also attempt to draw a moral boundary that they choose not to cross. On the other side of the line, non- Mormons are just as likely to rebuff Mormons. One outside observer quipped that a man who didn't drink, didn't smoke, and didn't swear could not be trusted. Other outsiders draw the line along the Christian/non- Christian boundary. A survey of 500 Utah and California clergy surveyed by FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, determined that only 6 percent considered Mormons Christian.

Mormons are accustomed to meeting various kinds of exclusion and disparaging comments. Meredeth Brooks, a Mormon student, planned to attend the Summer Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational evangelical group at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She was told that her religious beliefs prevented her from participation. Unfortunately, she accidentally received an e-mail from the Summer Christian Fellowship advising leaders how to respond to her, quoting the book of Galatians, "if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed." Brooks responded that she was a Christian and that "It's rather bigoted of the SCF to be exclusionary based on their fundamentally wrong and naive categorization of my religion." At issue here are the contradictory desires of the Summer Christian Fellowship to be doctrinally pure while welcoming all people. The dispute embarrassed Dartmouth College, which prides itself on tolerance. In the same vein, Linda Ellison, a student at the Harvard Divinity School, found little tolerance there. She was shocked by the "derogatory comments about Mormons that other students felt completely free to share with her, not only before but also after they learned about her religious background."

Small incidents such as this are characteristic of the skirmishes along the boundary with the wider world. A church as foreign as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its checkered history, continues to irritate others. As the Church tries to manage its public face and to build bridges with other groups, tensions flare. Leaders encourage service and support. Skilled professionals smooth over potential conflicts. But in many places, the Church is felt as an oppressive presence. Making peace with the larger community continues to be a serious issue.