Distinguished scholars and researchers presented their findings on Mormon-related topics ranging from anti-Mormon literature in the 1800s to online support forums for members with questions, at a Mormons in the Media symposium at BYU-Hawaii on Nov. 3-4.
“The main goal is to publish the research we find so it is accessible to all,” said Alexander Baugh, a church history professor at BYU.
This was the first time this conference was held on campus, said BYUH ICS Professor Chiung Hwang Chen, who helped organize the event along with her colleague, Professor Daniel Stout. They were also moderators and speakers at the conference where more than 40 people presented their findings.
Vice President of Student Development and Services Debbie Hippolite Wright also spoke giving the context and the history of the Haka, and BYU in Provo Religion Professor Spencer Fluhman tied her thoughts into his presentation about the transparency of the church to the public.
Hippolite Wright said the cultural context in which the Haka is performed is what makes it so significant. She told the history of where the Haka started and showed a recorded performance by the Maori people. “I got chicken skin when I watched this for the first time,” she said. She encouraged her audience to look at the faces of not only the men performing, but also the women and children. She noted there is an evident balance between the men and women in the true Haka.
Next she showed several other versions of the Haka on YouTube. Each one fell further away from the true meaning. She ended with a clip of a computer-animated gingerbread men chanting indiscernible gibberish that mimicked the voice inflection of the true Haka. It was clear that to Hippolite Wright this was desecrating the sacredness of her culture’s ritual.
Fluhman said he admired what Hippolite Wright did for her audience in explaining the context and significance of her culture’s ritual. He has a desire for Mormons and non-Mormons to understand LDS doctrincal context and significance just as Hippolite Wright’s audience understood her explanation of the Haka. He said there is a trend in society that is pushing for complete transparency. However, he said, “It is critical for our religious community to keep sacred secret things secret.” Fluhman fears making outsiders feel comfortable about temple worship should not be the ultimate priority. “What might we lose if we normalize the temple experience for others or ourselves?” He said,“ As a bishop, I would tell those preparing to enter for their first time that the temple is not meant to be a ordinary experience.”
Since the church has been in the public eye more regularly, there are specific things the media wants to know about. The media picks out visible quirks the general public doesn’t understand and they want the boiled down answers without the hours of backstory that go into understanding the full picture. For example, Fluhman’s article tells of a story of Elder James Talmage in 1919 when he showed up at a National Reform Association world conference. He was allowed to speak for five minutes amid a hail of hisses, but the speaker following him suggested he be stripped to reveal his temple undergarments bearing the marks of his “treasonous” oaths.
Lane Williams, from BYU-Idaho, said journalists tend to be less religious than the public at large. He said, “News coverage about Mormonism fails to be taken seriously. It faces benign neglect at best and a mocking tone at worst.” The Freedom Forum’s Robert Giles said there are five concerns the public has about the ethics of media. Two of those are bias and lack of expertise. Williams noticed these two issues are evident in the media when it comes to covering Mormon-related news. Publications that are recorded in searchable databases, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, rarely reference the Book of Mormon outside of talking about the “Book of Mormon” musical.
The line is being blurred between the secular and religious, according to Stout. He gave the example of thousands of Elvis fans gathering to cross over his grave with candles and TV shows like “The Andy Griffiths Show” that included moral messages into its episodes.
Two professors from Utah Valley University, David W. Scott, a professor of communication, and Boyd Petersen, the program coordinator for Mormon Studies, talked about the creation of the proclamation of the family and how policy makers in Hawaii are partly responsible for it.
“It was spurred because of same sex marriage here in Hawaii. It came out at the height of the gay rights in Hawaii,” said Petersen. Their research showed some people see the family proclamation as scripture and others see it as policy. Scott said, “It really seemed to be used in a political realm initially, but later on, Ensign articles turned it into a spiritual icon.”
Gerrit Dirkmaat, an assistant church history professor from BYU in Provo, spoke on the beginnings of anti-Mormon literature. He talked about the context of anti-Mormon articles and their authors to give a clearer view of what influenced their writings. He said Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, an infamous anti-Mormon author, threatened to wash his hands in the blood of Joseph Smith. A non-Mormon judge put him on probation because Hurlbut’s actions were causing problems in Mormon and non-Mormon communities.
Joseph Straubhaar, from the University of Texas at Austin, said there are online forums where people have conversation about things they don’t feel like they can talk about in their home wards. He said there is value in an open, honest and non-hostile environment for people to have a dialogue. “We even had a temple marriage result from two people connecting on one of these forums,” he said. Straubhaar referenced timesandseasons.org or feministmormonhousewives.org as a starting place for those with questions or concerns beyond what lds.org provides.
Julie K. Allen, from BYU in Provo, talked about her book, “Danish but not Lutheran.” It tells about how the Danish public responded to the influx of Mormons. The majority of the media depicted “women succumbing to the lure of Mormonism,” she said. Danish media showed a theme of leaving Denmark for America for an unrealistic idealized life.