«Dennis L. Lythgoe Since 1950, the mass media have contributed to changing the image of Mor- monism in the public mind. Such is the argument put forth ...»
THE CHANGING IMAGE
Dennis L. Lythgoe
Since 1950, the mass media have contributed to changing the image of Mor-
monism in the public mind. Such is the argument put forth by Dennis L.
Lythgoe, who is a Teaching Associate, Department of History, University of
Utah, and Sunday School teacher in the University Ninth Ward, Salt Lake
The ultimate fate of American minorities is to become tourist attrac- tions.... But the tourist boom means the same thing in Utah that it means in Vermont, the same thing it means wherever the past has been piously "restored," roped off, and put on display — not the vitality but the decadence of a way of life.
Such is the devastating indictment of Mormonism by Christopher Lasch in the January 26, 1967, New York Review of Books; and such an assessment accurately reflects the drastic change in the image of Mormonism as seen through popular periodical articles from 1950 to the present. Though these articles are sometimes alarmingly subjective, they suggest a general public re- action to the practices of Mormonism. It may be useful from an introspective viewpoint to summarize these observations and offer some tentative conclu- sions as to their worth. Oddly enough, they illustrate an evolution from a favorable impression of a thriving church accommodated to or seriously con- fronting contemporary society to one of an introversionist sect. Although a gamut of opinions is available, there is ample evidence to indicate a definite shift.
46/DIALOGUE: A Journal of Mormon Thought In 1951, Life exemplified the respect held for Mormons by referring to them as a group whose business sense did not detract from their religious devotion or eagerness to help others.* The image of the successful and re- spected Mormon had crystallized. Impressed with Mormon accommodation to the world, Newsweek and Business Week in 1951 both commended the opening of a new warehouse for Z.C.M.I. department store and praised its modernity.
Coronet in 1952 saw Mormonism as a paradox, claiming few Mormons to be wealthy even though the Church itself is one of the richest in the world. A similar attitude was found in the New York Times Magazine, which expressed awe at the extensive business holdings and obvious wealth of Mormonism. A later article in a 1957 Business Week labeled the business involvement unique and traced it to the "Mormon passion for self-sufficiency."
This favorable impression with respect to business enterprise and material success began to wane in the late 1950's. Particularly disturbing to critics was the expense incurred in building projects, notably temples. When the New Zealand Temple and College and the London Temple were completed in 1958, criticism was intense. Time tartly reported the rankled feelings of Protestants in New Zealand who bitterly complained of the eight million- dollar college. The Mormons were considered "invaders" and accused of extravagance and false religious values. "I'd like to come here for a holiday," remarked a woman touring the London Temple prior to dedication.
Commenting more specifically with respect to values, Newsweek in 1962 estimated a one million dollar a day cash flow from Mormon enterprises. It asserted that "even true believers" sometimes question the extreme involvement in money matters. Mormon authority Henry D. Moyle, of the First Presidency, was quoted as saying, "We are not averse to making a profit, but it is not our main motive." And a 1967 Time observed tersely that the actual total earned through Mormon business was a "closely guarded secret." A Congregational minister writing in the Christian Century in 1965 referred to Mormon business with disgust, declaring that such a vast empire could be duplicated by any church in a few years' time if commercial operation were considered part of its purpose. A 1965 U.S. News and World Report traced a typical day in the life of a Mormon who sought news from a Mormon paper, entertainment from a Mormon television station, loans from a Mormon bank, learning for his children from a Mormon university, and even his employment from the Church itself. In short, the Church was said to be operating a totalitarian regime. Though the Church's financial involvement has troubled *The following popular periodicals carrying articles on Mormonism from 1950 to the present were consulted for this study: Business Week, June 25, 1951, Nov. 23, 1957; Christian Century, Oct. 30, 1963, Dec. 2, 1964, July 14, 1965, Sept. 29, 1965, May 4, 1966, Nov. 30, 1966, Feb. 8, 1967; Coronet, April 1952; Fortune, April 1964; Look, Jan. 21, 1958; Life, April 23, 1951; Nation, Dec. 6, 1952, Jan. 3, 1953, April 6, 1963; New Republic, Jan. 7, 1967; Newsweek, June 25, 1951, Aug. 20, 1951, Jan. 22, 1962, June 17, 1963, March 6, 1967; New York Review of Books, Jan. 26, 1967; New York Times Magazine, April 1952, April 15, 1962; Saturday Evening Post, Oct. 11, 1958, April 1, 1961; Theatre Arts, Dec. 1958; Time, May 26, 1958, Aug. 18, 1958, Sept. 15, 1958, April 13, 1959, June 22, 1959, Nov. 28, 1960, Aug. 11, 1961, Jan. 19, 1962, Dec. 21, 1962, Oct. 18, 1963, June 18, 1965, Aug. 26, 1966, April 14, 1967; U.S.
News & World Report, Sept. 26, 1966.
LYTHGOEs Changing Image of Mormonism/47 these writers, the matter is of little concern to many Mormons, who rarely question such involvement and generally feel it to be a peripheral issue.
Of interest to some writers is the annual Book of Mormon Pageant produced in Palmyra, New York, each summer. For instance, Newsweek and Time observed in 1951 and 1958 that the pageant was highly professional and indicated Mormon respectability. In a 1952 article entitled "Those Amazing Mormons," Coronet spoke in glowing terms of the general success and integrity of Mormons, calling them "vigorous and independent." It further assessed the faith as a "way of life" characterized by complete participation.
While outlining the flourishing Mormon system, Look in 1958 commented significantly on Mormon adjustment to the social scene. Mormons have been called a "strange" people, it claimed, but they are not strange — only different;
and "the right to be different is the essence of the American dream." Complimenting them specifically on their ability to adjust to the world, it declared that "whenever assimilation could be squared with the fundamental tenets of their faith," Mormons have willingly done so. Such social adjustment is perhaps overshadowed by the New York Times Magazine's 1962 observation that "no religious group in America 'lives' its religion with such emphasis."
However, in 1967 the New York Review of Books complained of too much assimilation, noting that when Mormons were different from their neighbors, "their neighbors hounded them mercilessly." It was only when they gave up the "distinguishing features" of their faith that they fit into society as just "another tolerated minority," thus losing their religious impact.
An interesting admiration for the men of importance in Mormondom is evident in the fifties. In an editorial published in Nation in 1952, Ezra Taft Benson, a member of the Twelve Apostles, was characterized as "... the best in the social tradition of the Mormon Church, which is of course, high commendation." Further, he was called "intelligent, honest, forthright" and even "almost too good to be true." The New York Times Magazine noted that "Mormons are respected citizens" and even in some cases hold high offices outside of Mormonism, such as those of Elder Benson, Arthur Watkins, and Wallace Bennett; while Look observed in 1958 that the list of prominent men is impressive. As late as 1964, Fortune called the Church a "rich organization whether measured in tangible assets or men." By 1965, however, Elder Benson's public image had developed completely new dimensions. He was criticized severely in the Christian Century lor his claim that the civil rights movement in America is Communist inspired, and was labeled as the leader of the Church's "right wing."
Specific comment on individual leaders of Mormonism has been sparse.
Catching Joseph Fielding Smith as he was traveling in Brazil "... where missionaries have baptized 30,000 converts," Time noted in 1960 that Mormonism has progressed from a "persecuted rebel sect to one of the most dynamic congregations in Christendom." Calling President Smith a "fiery doctrinarian" who has written numerous books on "Mormon dogma," it said that he knew that one day he would "be prophet and would communicate directly with the Lord." President Smith's image was in the process of flux, 48/DIALOGUE: A Journal of Mormon Thought as can be seen by Time's 1963 reference to him as "a stern, old-fangled moralist." The same magazine called the present prophet David O. McKay "a kindly ascetic" who has stimulated astonishing growth in the Church; yet his real strength was attributed to his great toleration for others.
A keen awareness of the Mormon welfare program is evident in the fifties.
Mormons are especially respected, according to the New York Times Magazine in 1952 for determination to "take care of their own." A 1958 Look called them a "self-reliant society," distributing ready aid to any member in need, while the Saturday Evening Post hailed the Mormons for having no need to call on other means of relief, a practice rooted in the notion that idleness and waste are sinful.
From a cultural point of view, Mormons attract only the best of reviews, with an entertaining smattering of misconceptions. Mormon "liberalism" shocks other denominations, according to a 1952 New York Times Magazine, because of their indulgence in singing, dancing, music, and the theater. Tying culture with morality, Look observed that at the Church-sponsored institution Brigham Young University, no girl appears at a dance in an immodest gown, there are no bottles or cigarettes, no necking or rowdyism, and the dance is opened and closed with a prayer and a hymn.
Certain that Mormons are "... the dancingest denomination in the country," a 1959 Time spoke of their belief in dancing as productive of health both of body and spirit. Though other faiths may frown on them, "Mormons encourage dancing, lest the Devil find other work for them." In an obvious exaggeration, it remarked that each of the "1400 chapels holds a dance every Saturday night." Adding complimentary remarks, Theatre Arts in 1958 estimated that no religious group in the country is as dedicated to the theater as the Mormons.
A later year, 1962, witnessed further questionable observations on morals and dancing. The New York Times Magazine commented that Mormons are known for their "high moral quality," then made reference to a supposed Mormon tenet that the temple garment must continuously touch the body.
Even when taking a bath, the Times asserted, Mormons must be careful not to "release the old garment" until the new one is partially covering the body.
Further, an erroneous method for recognizing "a good Mormon girl" was explained as overheard from a Mormon to a gentile. One should simply look for "a roll just under the top of her off-the-shoulder dress" which is no doubt "the garment pushed down an inch or so." The author apparently believed that all Mormon girls wear the garment, regardless of age or marital status.
A similarly erroneous report on another issue was featured in Time, which reported that President McKay had relaxed the smoking rule in the Church.
Converts no longer must give up smoking, "... although they are often assigned to jobs as Boy Scout leaders or Sunday School teachers, where the need to give good example constrains them to abandon the habit voluntarily."
Comments on Mormon missionary work Jbecame the first obvious example of the return of criticism. In 1961, a peak year in Mormon proselyting, Time observed that in Britain the Mormons had doubled their membership during LYTHGOE: Changing Image of Mormonism/49 the previous year to 40,000, with 1200 baptisms the previous month. Converts did not undergo "vigorous instruction"; rather, they needed only to declare themselves in harmony with the basic doctrines. Mormon missionaries were said to avoid doctrine in conversation and return often to such logic as "We know we can't convince you, but we'd like to ask you to make the effort to ask God about the truth of what we are saying." A year later, in an article entitled "Salesman Saints," Time indicated a distaste for Mormon "hard sell" proselyting techniques.
Church and state relations comprised another prominent area of criticism through the sixties. The accusation was prevalent that although church and state are not officially united, the Mormons nevertheless control Utah politics. The Saturday Evening Post observed in 1961 that "Utah and Mormons are still primitive in many ways," asserting that politics is controlled largely with Church influence. Making a particular reference to President McKay's endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1960, the Post estimated that 95 percent of all state and local officials are Mormon, with such membership being a distinct asset. A more flexible attitude was expressed by the New York Times Magazine, which took for granted Church control of politics in a state known to be 70 percent Mormon. It claimed that this power "is not grossly abused," as demonstrated by the election of J. Bracken Lee, a nonMormon, as governor. A Salt Lake politician was quoted as saying, "You don't have to be a Mormon to win an election in Utah, but it helps." The Times qualified its stand with the assertion that non-Mormons who have been elected have "courted the Mormon vote," and listened to Mormon suggestions.
Fortune and the Christian Century also noted the wide political control exercised by the Church in Utah. According to a 1966 article in U.S. News and World Report the Church as a whole is comprised of conservative politicians.
The author cited the First Presidency's letter to the eleven Mormons in Congress protesting possible repeal of the Right-To-Work law in 1966. Ironically "the supposedly rigid conservatism is not solid" since seven of the eleven members voted for repeal of the law.