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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