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Sam Penrod Reporting A national network will broadcast a four-hour documentary next week on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many people familiar with the project are curious, and even worried, about how the Church will be portrayed.
It's called "The Mormons," and it airs on PBS next week. It may be the most in-depth look at the church that's ever been on national TV. The documentary comes at a time when there is more interest in the LDS Church, particularly with a Mormon running for president and a church member who is the majority leader in the U.S. Senate.
The producer calls the documentary respectful but adds it is not uncritical of the church, either. In the four-hour documentary, PBS starts with the church's history and focuses on founder Joseph Smith. It also discusses early church persecution, polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Part two examines the church today, including the missionary force, temples and what the producer refers to as "unusual beliefs."
We spoke to the producer of the series, Helen Whitney, by satellite from Boston. She says she found the LDS Church to be cooperative with the project. "It's been a fascinating saga for me, and I've spent almost three years. I have traveled, I have spoken perhaps to 800 people," she said. "I'm appreciative of that, there were not other, that's the extent of the church's involvement in it, simply saying, ‘Talk to whomever you like to.'"
In fact, Whitney interviewed several members of the church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles. However, they appear much less often than former members of the church, many of whom are considered dissidents.
Whitney explained why she used some of the critics of the church in the program. "Well, I thought they were raising an important point, and they consider themselves, these critics, the loyal opposition. Most of these critics love the church a great deal and wish it were more open. And I felt the people that I chose spoke out of love and not anger with the church."
Whitney believes being profiled before a national audience will help dispel misperceptions about Mormons.
"I think it will make it much easier for people to understand what this church is about. I think so many stereotypes will be shattered after viewing this film," Whitney said.
As for how Whitney believes LDS Church members will react after seeing the program, she said, "I hope that they will like it and be interested in it and discover themselves in it, and perhaps even be surprised by parts of their history they didn't know about or be surprised by the extraordinary range of people who are in the film."
An official statement from church headquarters on the program points out it is an independent production, adding, "The big question that members of the Church are asking is whether these programs will come close to capturing the essence of how Latter-day Saints define and see themselves."
Whitney feels the documentary does hit the mark. "I myself have come away with a greater sort of respect and interest in this church, and I'm happy the people who are not Mormon will come away seeing and understanding what's other, and to use your own phrase, 'peculiar' about this church and what is so familiar and American about it."
The documentary begins Monday night on PBS, and part two airs on Tuesday.