At the Door With God's Army

The New York Sun/April 27, 2007
By Brendan Bernhard

On the wintry street of a modern American city, two young men are stalking prey. Spotting a gray-haired woman alone at a bus stop, bundled up against the cold in a beret, fur coat, and impenetrable dark glasses, they put on their brightest Colgate smiles, approach her, and say, "Hi!"

"Oh, no!" she groans, turning away in horror, as if she's just remembered leaving the oven on..

The men — boys, really — shrug it off easily. They're 19-year-old Mormons, part of "God's Army," and no one said seeking converts would be simple.

"How're you doing today, sir?" they inquire of a middle-aged man scuttling down the sidewalk.

"Kind of busy," he replies, continuing to scuttle.

"Oh, aren't we all," one of the two proselytizers exclaims cheerily, bounding after him. "Where are you headed? We're missionaries."

Hearing this last word, the man comes to a dead halt, and says: "Don't shadow me, don't walk next to me. I said I'm busy." Then he stalks off.

And so it goes — by my reckoning, the lone amusing scene in PBS's two-part four-hour documentary, "The Mormons," which will be shown Monday and Tuesday next week. Produced, directed, and co-written by Helen Whitney, whose previous credits include "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" and "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope," it's an exhaustive and occasionally exhausting examination of America's strangest religion (unless you count Scientology), a marathon feast of talking heads, stagy dramatic re-enactments, vivid photography, and history lessons delivered in PBS's trademark voiceover drone.

If that sounds like a thinly veiled suggestion to keep watching "American Idol" and "CSI: Miami" re-runs, look at it this way: By the end of the program, you'll know quite a lot about Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Since one Mormon (Mitt Romney) is running for president, and another (Harry Reid) is the Majority Leader of the Senate, this might not be a bad time for a bit of homework.

Mormonism has now entered the mainstream, revoking some of its more controversial teachings and discarding the bearded look for the joys of the five-blade battery-operated razor. But the disdain of its 19th-century founder, Joseph Smith, for church-state separation, along with his insistence on polygamy (he took 84 "wives") and his Mohammad-like status as both a spiritual and political leader, remind us that this most American of religions has some unexpected similarities to Islam.

In one riveting interview, Tal Bachman, a blond, tousle-headed rock musician who has left the church, recalls undergoing the two years of missionary work expected of Mormons when they reach 19. His mission took him to South America, where he was convinced he was on "the Lord's errand" despite laboring in conditions most Americans would regard as traumatizing: Undrinkable water, killer heat, poisonous toads, and crocodiles "running all over the place," not to mention the constant surveillance of his own personal mission supervisor. (For the two years they spend as members of "God's Army," Mormons are under round-the-clock observation.)

"I was completely into it," Mr. Bachman says. "If my mission president had asked me to blow myself up like a suicide bomber, I would have said sure. Where should I go?" He still seems wound up just thinking about it.

Yet against this we have to balance the touching testimony of James Madison, a victim of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, who recalls that the Mormons "hit the ground running" following the disaster. While federal assistance was still in the mail, the Mormons were already there, not merely handing out food and water but cleaning up and working. If a Mormon missionary had knocked on his door before the storm, Mr. Madison says, his only object would have been to get rid of him as quickly as possible. "It's a little bit different now. They got into my heart and they'll never stand on my doorstep again without being invited into my house."

Terryl Givens, a Mormon author who is interviewed extensively, tells us that in the last 20 years, Mormons have been on the scene of more than 150 humanitarian crises around the world, from Kosovo to Zimbabwe. (You can't mistake them since they wear yellow T-shirts labeled "MORMON.") "The Mormon welfare apparatus … operates with all the efficiency of the German Wehrmacht," he says, seemingly unaware of what that description might suggest. "In Katrina of 2005, the Mormon relief trucks were on the way before the hurricane had even made landfall."

With about 12 million adherents worldwide, Mormonism is still a relatively small religion despite the extraordinary breadth of its missionary work. (Evangelists are instructed in as many as 30 languages.) Much of the documentary's early going focuses on Smith — how he was guided by an angel to a set of golden tablets in Palmyra, New York, in 1827, from which he was then mysteriously able to translate hieroglyphic texts that would become the Book of Mormon. We also learn about the religious communities he created in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois until, following his murder in 1844, his successor, Brigham Young, led the Mormons to Salt Lake City, which was technically Mexican territory at the time.

It's a lot to get through, but Ms. Whitney does what she can to avoid an informational traffic-jam by interspersing interviews with re-enactments, some with drawings, photographs, and paintings. The portraits of Smith are particularly arresting. Seen head-on, his is a classically handsome American face. In profile, however, he is revealed as a man whose sloping forehead, aquiline nose, and otherworldly eyes belong in one of the visionary paintings of William Blake.

The controversial (and now banned) Mormon practice of polygamy is given appropriate, though not excessive attention. The Mormons' well-known dedication to genealogy gets surprisingly little, though the literary scholar Harold Bloom (an unexpected enthusiast for the religion, from whom one would have liked to hear much more, particularly on how the Book of Mormon measures up to other religious texts), informs us that the Mormons' immense genealogical archives are housed in an underground structure designed to survive a nuclear bomb. Only an asteroid could destroy it.

Like most religions, Mormonism works wonderfully for those who are suited to it. For gays, women with feminist leanings, and the overly intellectual (as they are regarded) who want to remain within the faith while being permitted to study it skeptically, it can be a very different story. Dissent is stifled and files are kept on questionable church members.

Margaret Toscano, a Mormon author who was excommunicated, gives a horrifying account of her "trial" — alone, unrepresented, facing 16 male judges. After declaring her an apostate, the judges smiled, shook her hand, and told her she was an impressive woman. Having excommunicated her, they were now trying to be nice.

"There is something vicious about niceness," Ms. Toscano says. It is perhaps the most striking remark in this long, complex, thought-provoking film about a religion that — to this observer, anyway — is chiefly notable for its neartotal absence of allure.

It is also, as a British observer reminds us, America's very own, "homegrown religion." Have a nice day.

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