Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mormons in the Media

Due to its historical ties with polygamy, the Mormon religion is often a subject of controversy in pop culture. Most, including myself, know little about Mormonism except that it has a huge following in Utah and there are some Mormons who still practice plural marriage. But lately it seems references to Mormonism are popping up everywhere.

In case you’re confused about Mormons and polygamists and the Latter Day Saints church, here’s a quick history of the religion. The Mormon movement was founded by Joseph Smith the 1830s and when he was killed, Brigham Young became the new prophet and leader. At this point Mormons practiced plural marriage but in 1890 the current church leader outlawed polygamy due to intense pressure from Congress and this is the LDS church we hear about today. Some sects broke away and remained Mormon fundamentalists who continue to practice plural marriage.

Big Love, an HBO TV show that began in 2006 about a polygamist family living in Utah provided a window in the Mormon community in Utah and the complexities of this world. Big Love focuses on Bill, his three wives and their children. Bill ran away from a corrupt polygamist compound when he was 14 but ended up returning to the principle after his first wife was diagnosed with cancer. The early seasons of the show focused on the family’s relationship with the compound, the relationships between the wives and their need to keep their plural marriage secret. In the most recent season however, the Mormon faith and the characters’ relationships with their faith is explored, as one of the wives begins to challenge her subordinate role as a woman. The influence of the Latter Day Saints church in the politics of Utah is also an important story line.

Audiences loved getting a peak inside this foreign world and the popularity of Big Love prompted TLC to create a reality show about a real live polygamist family living in Lehi, Utah called Sister Wives. The series chronicles the lives of Kody Brown, his four wives (there were three in the first season), and their sixteen children. Much like Big Love, the show mostly focuses on the relationships of the wives, as these unique “sister wife” relationships are the most compelling. If you’re wondering why neither family in Big Love or Sister Wives has been arrested for polygamy, it’s because the husbands are only legally married to the first wife and the marriages to the other wives are spiritual unions.

Brigham Young University, which is owned and operated by the LDS church, has also made headlines recently. It’s the alma mater of Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, who is a Mormon. Many have argued that there are strong religious undertones in the Twilight series, like the fact that the main character is abstinent until marriage. BYU’s basketball team is huge topic of discussion this season. BYU’s top scorer Jimmer Fredette is a member of the LDS church and was named the NCAA 2011 men’s basketball player of the year. Brandon Davies, one of the team’s best players was suspended in early March for violating the team’s honor code by having premarital sex, which made headlines for the severity of the punishment at time when BYU’s team looked like it would have one of its most promising years.