Mormons in the Spotlight

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Temple Square, the epicenter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in downtown Salt Lake City, has been a busy place this spring.

Inside the walls, officials and members alike have been thinking about and reacting to a lot of news about their church, its image and its traumatic history. There is also interest nationwide, given that a Mormon is running for president of the United States.

Along with Mitt Romney, it's suddenly easy to compile a short list of all things Latter-day Saints, or LDS: "Big Love," an HBO Mormon polygamy drama; PBS's four-hour documentary "The Mormons," the second part of which aired last night; and "September Dawn," a movie about the notorious Utah massacre to be released in June.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • "September Dawn," an upcoming feature film starring Jon Voight, will probe the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857 and investigate Brigham Young's role. Will this critical look at one of the darkest chapters in Mormon history shed new light on Mormonism?

"The biggest issue we have with news media is that they so often fall back on stereotypes to describe us, or their coverage is superficial," said Bruce Olsen, managing director of church public affairs, in a statement to ABC News.

But he turned the corner when commenting on the PBS broadcast.

"Whatever one says about these programs, four hours of television is not superficial," he said.

There was nothing "superficial" about the first part, which aired Monday night. Using carefully selected, articulate talking heads, the documentary explored the intriguing evolution of the church.

It began in the 1820s in Palmyra, N.Y., when young Joseph Smith said he was visited by an angel named Moroni. Smith claimed to receive several revelations and discovered inscribed golden tablets, which would form the basis for the Book of Mormon.

The documentary makes an important point when it tells viewers that the resulting church is uniquely American and so young that its founding events are not shrouded in the fog of centuries of history.

Its origins in revelation has made the religion an easy target. It's been criticized by intellectuals and skeptics. But the broadcast avoids going into depth on that level. "All religion depends on revelation," said prominent literary and cultural critic Harold Bloom in one act. "All revelation is supernatural."

Part one also probed the definition of faith and what Mormonism has in common with other religions. The similarities to Judaism and continuing persecution are striking.

Obviously, not everyone will agree with Mormon theology, but PBS did a thorough job in presenting a thoughtful analysis, warts and all.

Although church officials would not comment until they had seen both episodes of "The Mormons," the word on the street around Temple Square is that they are optimistic about being treated favorably. On background, one official said the church cooperated with the documentary's producer and came away feeling they would get a fair shake.

But it is the upcoming film, "September Dawn," that may cause the biggest stir.

The movie, which was filmed in Canada, not in Utah, where the story is set, takes a critical look at one of the darkest chapters in Mormon history and portrays followers and leaders as anything but saints.

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