John Sweeney Documentary on Mitt Romney and Mormonism

Last night saw the broadcast on BBC 2 of The Mormon Candidate, a documentary presented by John Sweeney. Mitt Romney provides a hook for a general discussion of the religion, focusing on various controversies: the fringe polygamists, the special underwear, the secret oaths, the baptisms of the dead, and complaints from ex-members in Utah about shunning and harassment. Sweeney raises the “cult” accusation several times – unfortunately, it is impossible to listen to Sweeney articulate the word without recalling his risible attempt to needle John Travolta by yelling “Are you a member of a sinister brainwashing cult?” at a film premiere in Leicester Square back in 2007 (discussed here).

The programme contained few surprises, although several of Sweeney’s interviews are of interest. The most noteworthy was with Jeffrey Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, although it’s not clear why Sweeney asserts that “Apostles rarely speak to the media”. The interview afterwards became the subject of a formal complaint, delivered to the BBC by representatives of a PR firm. (1)

Sweeney asked Holland about Joseph Smith’s supposed translations from Egyptian, and his arrest in 1826:

Jeffrey: …What got translated got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that I do not understand and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian. 

Sweeney: As a matter of historical fact, was Joseph Smith convicted of being a conman in 1826?

J: I have no idea.

S: There’s a court record in New York, we’ve got an email of it.

J: There’s a good deal of difficulty in the early frontier life in America. But that’s an incidental matter to the character and integrity of the man.

Sweeney adds in voice over:

Since that interview the church has written, saying that no charges against Smith ever prevailed.

Later, they discuss secret oaths, which were part of the church until 1990:

S: As a Mormon, in the Temple, I’ve been told, [Romney] would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the Temple, lest he slit his throat. Is that true?

J: That’s not true, that’s not true. We do not have penalties in the Temple.

S: You used to.

J: We used to.

S: Therefore he swore and oath saying ‘I will not tell anyone about the secrets here, lest I slit my throat’.

J: Well, the vow that was made was regarding the ordinance, the ordinance of the Temple… [The oath was] that he would not tell anyone about his personal pledge to the Lord. I’m assuming that any religious candidate, an evangelical, a Roman Catholic, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Osama, erm, I mean President Obama, I’m assuming that anybody who has a relationship to God has made a pledge of some kind to God.

Jeffrey comes across as straight-talking and personable, but the above is somewhat odd: I would expect someone in Jeffrey’s position to be fully briefed on the church’s position about what occurred in 1826. And why make such a firm denial about the use of oaths, which is then qualified away into an effective admission?

Sweeney also looks into the Strengthening Church Members Committee, which ex-members claim keeps tabs on them. According to one ex-Mormon interviewee:

I personally left the church many years ago, and then came back in. And, when they accepted me back into the church, I was given my file. And my file was that thick [holds finger and thumb up, about an inch apart]. So, these were letters from, and reports from, state presidents, and letters that I had sent to other people in the church.

Another claims that the Committee employs former FBI and CIA agents for this purpose; in a voice-over, Sweeney adds that:

We met a former CIA man, who does not want to be identified, but confirms that the agency employs a large number of Mormons, and some who go on to work for the church.

Michael Purdy, the church’s spokesman, was somewhat evasive on the subect:

S: What’s the Strengthening Church Members Committee, and does it still exist?

P: I don’t know, and I’m no…. I guess that’s a question not for me. I… I couldn’t tell you that, I don’t know… 

S: …I’ve spoken to people, ex-members of the church, who say the Strengthening Church Members Committe does exist. Does it still exist?

P: I’ve heard that, yeah, there is a Strengthening Church Members Committee, but I couldn’t you the details of how that works, but we’d be happy to provide someone that can.

Jeffrey confirmed that the Committee exists to protect the church, primarily from polygamists.

Mitt Romney’s personal Mormonism was only a minor theme in the programme, and the only anecdote which touched on how Romney’s religion may tell us something about his personal character came from Peggie Hayes; Hayes is a single mother who claims that Romney, as a Morman Bishop in the 1980s, pressured her to give up a baby for adoption. An interview with Mia Love, a Morman mayor, gave a partial insight into “normal” Mormon life; more of this kind of thing would have given the programme more balance.

British Mormon blog By Common Consent raises some criticisms, particularly as regards Sweeney’s discussion of oaths:

Mormonism is, unapologetically, a covenant religion. Its crime in BBC eyes seems to be that it has, in the past, symbolised its covenants in distinctly pre-modern ways. Ancient rituals performed by Zoroastrian priests or Orthodox patriarchs are acceptable; similar rites performed by western moderns are not. The underlying belief seems to be that educated folk like Romney should know better. This is an unfortunate kind of secular paternalism. It also bears repeating that these oaths are long dead.

…The real fact is that at the core of Mormonism is a rather plain, low church Christianity, with decaffeinated adherents who go about their lives paying their taxes, loving their families, serving in their communities, helping the poor, and making mistakes along the way. The vast majority of Mormons I know would not be able to see themselves at all in Sweeney’s documentary.

Meanwhile, Biased BBC has gleefully screen-captured some unguarded Tweets by the programme’s producer, James Jones, which express his political and religious views.

(1) The Guardian spins the story thus:

A BBC employee has been criticised by colleagues for allegedly allowing two PRs representing the Mormon church into one of the corporation’s buildings in west London to hand deliver a letter of complaint.

Sweeney, who was out of the country when the incident occurred, told MediaGuardian: “I was flabbergasted that the PR operation for the Mormon church found it necessary to invade our office. Even Scientology didn’t invade the offices of the BBC and people say they can walk through walls

…A BBC insider said many within the corporation were furious that the PRs were granted access.

The BBC issued a statement which said: “A person turned up unexpectedly and hand delivered a letter to which we later responded. There was no breach of security.”

I’m not impressed by this – the Church’s complaint is of interest, but the fact that some unnamed security guard or receptionist let the PR people in is a non-story. It looks like a lame attempt to suggest something sinister.