Thanks to Michael and Nomi, Jen and I got to see the PBS four-hour special on the Mormons. It was a fascinating documentary, but I found one omission curious: there was almost nothing about the church’s theology.
Compared with most other sects that call themselves Christian, the Mormons have (at least) two striking differences in their conception of the divine. One is that they see God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost as three separate individuals, rather than three persons sharing a single divine essence. Another is that the belief ח״ו that God was once a person and that a good Mormon may get his (or her?) own world to rule as a god in the afterlife: former LDS president Lorenzo Snow summarized this principle by saying “As man is God once was, and as God is man may become”. (Cf. D&C 132:20.) In other words, Mormons are polytheists.
The documentary only refers to this belief elliptically and in passing, but I think it sheds an important light on the Mormon persecutions of the early nineteenth century (which precede Mormon polygamy by at least a decade). A number of other American Christian sects (e.g., the churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Seventh-Day Adventists) were also inspired by the “Second Great Awakening” of 1800–1830, but they did not get such a violent reaction from the mainstream. Even the Oneida Community, whose doctrine of “complex marriage” made Mormon polygamy look downright prudish, did not face the same degree of persecution.
I was reminded of Devil’s Playground, a documentary on the Amish that I saw a while back, because in that film, too, the doctrinal differences between the Amish and other Christian sects were glossed over. One of the Amish boys interviewed mentioned in passing that attending a Baptist church service was one of the “bad” things that Amish teenagers might indulge in during their rumspringa. One of the girls eventually decided not to join the Amish church and decided to go to college instead—to a sectarian Christian college. But these subjects’ thoughts on the difference between the Amish faith and other forms of Christianity were not explored any further.
Back when I was doing my bachelor’s thesis, one of my advisors—Lisa Rofel, an anthropology professor—warned me that I had to make sure to describe my subjects from “the native’s point of view”. In that respect, I fear that both of these documentaries fell a little short. To truly understand an exotic religious group (or interactions between several exotic religious groups), it helps to understand the aspects of their beliefs and practices that are most important to them, and not simply the ones that are most important to the stereotypical liberal documentary-watcher.