Over the past few weeks, Church Public Affairs has received numerous calls from newspaper, magazine and TV entertainment writers about a new television series called Big Love. In the series, set in a modern suburb of Salt Lake City, the main character keeps up a deceptive life in a fringe world of polygamy with his three wives and households. Journalists want to know what the Church thinks of the program, the subject matter and HBO’s decision to promote it.
In responding, Church spokesmen have made three major points:
Concern for abuse victims
The Church has long been concerned about the illegal practice of polygamy in some communities, and in particular about persistent reports of emotional and physical child and wife abuse emanating from them. It will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of that problem and adds to the suffering of abuse victims.
Confusion over the continued practice of polygamy
The central characters of Big Love are not “Mormons,” or, more properly termed, Latter-day Saints. HBO has said the script makes it clear that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t practice polygamy. Still, placing the series in Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program’s subject matter and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes.
Polygamy was officially discontinued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890. Any Church member adopting the practice today is excommunicated. Groups that continue the practice in Utah and elsewhere have no association whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of their practitioners have never been among its members.
Unfortunately, this distinction is often lost on members of the public and even on some senior journalists. When ABC network’s Prime Time recently aired a program focused on the secretive polygamous community of Colorado City, the reporter repeatedly referred to members of the community as “Mormon polygamists.” In response, the Church points to the Associated Press style guide for journalists which states: "The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other ... churches that resulted from the split after \[Joseph] Smith's death." In other words, polygamous communities should never be referred to as "Mormon" polygamists or “Mormon” fundamentalists.
Concern over the moral standards of television entertainment
Despite its popularity with some, much of today’s television entertainment shows an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, coarse humor and foul language. Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds. Parents who are casual about their viewing habits ought not to be surprised if teaching moral choices and civic values to their children becomes harder as a result.
For that reason and others, Church leaders have consistently cautioned against such entertainment, joining with other religious, education and government leaders in inviting individuals and families to follow a higher road of decency, self-discipline and integrity.