Big Free Speech

Ah, Big Love. I'm one of those bad Mormons who kind of likes HBO shows - I mean, John Adams was amazing, Rome is one of those guilty pleasures, and Flight of the Conchords is one of the best things to ever happen to TV - and Big Love....You know, a few years ago, when everyone had all their panties in a wrinkle over this show, I decided to just try it out, and I kinda liked it - I never became an avid fan or watcher - I've just sometimes caught an episode here or there. From what i've seen, I've felt like, despite the hype, it usually portrays the LDS Church in a remarkably respectful way. The drama (and disrespect, if there was any) was not on the LDS Church, but on some fictional fundamentalist compound in southern Utah - and they made the distinction between that group and the LDS Church multiple times. So I thought, kudos to them.

But, in true Hollywood fashion, they feel the need to keep pushing the bar, so now there is this. and this Oh c'mon, guys - really? Yes, that's right - the LDS temple ceremony is to feature (allegedly it will be prominent) in tonight's all new episode. It makes sense - I mean, the temple is a big question mark to most Americans - so exposing the secret...well I'm surprised it hasn't happened more often.

So I get that HBO execs have a right to free speech - couldn't this be viewed as a)slander, or b) copy right infringement? I mean the church is sure to own a copyright on the Temple Ceremony, right? I'd think it could be a little risky. From reading other blogs, its apparent just how many indignant Mormons have their blood pressure going out the roof. I get where you are coming from - experiencing a little righteous indigestion. Just remember this - its not the first time it has happened, and it surely won't be the last. The whole ceremony is available on the Internet, the God Makers movie parodied it a million years ago, And Bill Maher's Documentary, "Religilous" briefly forayed into LDS temple rites. The difference between Big Love and other anti-Mormon garbage out there (like God makers) is that Big Love, apparently, had a former temple worker as a consultant to recreate the situation. Not saying that I agree with this broadcast. I think it is wrong, insensitive, and outright upsetting. But maybe, just maybe, they'll portray it accurately and thus show just how...unexciting the Temple Ceremony really is. Then all those tasty little rumors of sacrificial cows, temple orgies, temple horns and necrophilia will fade into their appropriate obscurity. People love the unexplained mystery - they are fascinated by it -and ours has been unexplained for a long time. Now people can have a better idea of it. Before you get too upset and call for boycotts, as so many have done, remember that media misrepresentation really has no impact on your own personal experience.


The Faithful Dissident said...

Of course I'm not "happy" about this Big Love thing, but I think that there could be a positive outcome to it. As Rick pointed out, there are tons of rumours about what actually goes on in the temple (I can add slitting of wrists to that list) and even if it turns out that the show depicts an entire endowment session from beginning to end, there are going to be a lot of disappointed people. And I'm not talking about Mormons. I'm talking about all those looking for something juicy and scandulous. Most will probably say, "this is it?" Goodness knows that all the symbolism and wording is confusing enough to lifelong Mormons. The Average American Joe is going to be sorely disappointed in the lack of orgies and bloody sacrifice.

Of course this is offensive to us Mormons, but we have to try to look at it from others' perspective. Would most of us not let our curiosity get the better of us if we saw a show or read a book that detailed the Free Mason rituals, Buddhist or Muslim rituals, or anything else that is considered sacred for them but not us? Probably not. We want to know. We're curious. We probably wouldn't ask people point blank out of polite consideration, but when it's presented to us how many of us would turn off the TV or close the book?

There was a big thing about free masonry here in Norway back a while ago. The idea of secret rituals doesn't go over well with Norwegians -- who are a people who like transparency -- but some former free mason pretty much spilled all the beans on national TV one evening and then people lost interest. Why? Because those secret, "scary" rituals didn't live up to all the hype. I suspect it'll be much the same with Big Love. People will think it's weird (many Mormons think it's weird as well), but I think most viewers will find it generally disappointing.

Incidentally, we probably had this coming due to the Prop 8 controversy. It's payback time. We took something that many considered to be sacred, now they're taking it from us. We just have to get over it. It's all been done before. And I think Rick is right when he says, "media misrepresentation really has no impact on your own personal experience." Isn't that what's most important?

Stephanie said...

I really like the church's official statement, particularly these lines:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series . . .

As someone recently said, “This isn’t 1830, and there aren’t just six of us anymore.” In other words, with a global membership of thirteen and a half million there is no need to feel defensive when the Church is moving forward so rapidly. The Church’s strength is in its faithful members in 170-plus countries, and there is no evidence that extreme misrepresentations in the media that appeal only to a narrow audience have any long-term negative effect on the Church . . .

If the Church allowed critics and opponents to choose the ground on which its battles are fought, it would risk being distracted from the focus and mission it has pursued successfully for nearly 180 years. Instead, the Church itself will determine its own course as it continues to preach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

I was shocked when I found the entire temple ceremony on the internet 10 years ago because I thought it was supposed to be a secret. Obviously it's not a secret anymore. Like Rick said, it's been out there for those who really want to know for a long time.

But, it is still sacred, and those of us who believe that can treat it that way. Ultimately, I think that the way we treat the temple really makes the most difference to us and our own families. I really liked that the church statement pointed out that this is pretty much a small distraction and won't stop the work from rolling forward.

The Wizzle said...

Thanks for linking that statement, Stephanie. I'm happy to hear it, and I wish more actual Mormons could keep their cool as well as their Church seems to be able to!

It's interesting - I was talking to a woman online, who in a Native American and had made a plea on a message board I frequent for mothers there to consider not allowing or encouraging their children to "dress up" as "Indians" for Halloween. She basically said that the ceremonial clothing often imitated in these costumes was sacred to her people, and that it made a mockery (although well-intentioned) of these rites and garments to wear them in such a secular setting.

My first instinct was to think that she was overreacting, being too sensitive, that she should see through to the intentions of the people dressing up and just let it go. But then, somehow, I had the thought that it would be like the difference between seeing a kid somewhere dressed up as a missionary (no problem, if done in the right spirit) and seeing someone dressed up for Halloween in temple garments. No matter how well-intentioned, that would be jarring and offensive to me. I have had a much different mindset about this kind of thing since that conversation.

Anyway, long story short, I wish the temple ceremony could be left alone, out of respect for other's religious beliefs if nothing else. Since it evidently can't (and I certainly understand people's curiosity), I too am a tiny bit hopeful that it will be portrayed as respectfully as possible. You know, as respectfully as possible considering they are directly flouting our wishes and customs by displaying it in the first place.

I know a lot of people who do not necessarily have a favorable perception of Mormons or the Church (mostly due to the Prop 8 fallout) but who love Big Love and have nothing bad to say about the Church as it is presented on the show. So I hope it's not all bad.

In any event, it's just a TV show. I've been trying all day to think of a subject that is consistently treated fairly and realistically on a fictional television show...and I couldn't. So I don't expect this to be any different.

The Faithful Dissident said...

So can anyone fill me in? Was it an accurate and/or respectful portrayal?

Steve M. said...

So I get that HBO execs have a right to free speech - couldn't this be viewed as a)slander, or b) copy right infringement?

I don't know how the episode could be construed as "slandering" the Church (for the purposes of the law). I think the law requires much more than portraying a sacred rite, albeit with some inaccuracies.

As for copyright--I'm not clear on the copyright status of the text of the endowment ceremony, but I'll give my $0.02.

Although the script for the endowment ceremony has undergone several changes over the years, it has remained largely the same--especially with respect to "core" elements such as those portrayed on Big Love.

Whether it is even copyrightable would have to do with whether the ceremony was ever "published" prior to 1978 (the effective date of the current Copyright Act). If it was, then it either would have entered federal copyright (and the clock would have started ticking), or if certain technicalities weren't followed, entered the public domain immediately. Either way, it would probably be in the public domain by now.

The pre-1978 "publication" question is somewhat technical, but I'm guessing that the endowment script was not "published" (as that term has been interpreted in the courts) prior to 1978. That means that when the current copyright statute took effect, federal copyright in the script automatically vested and the clock started ticking. As I recall, the maximum period of protection would be 95 years.

However, in order to sue on a copyright, the subject of the copyright must be registered with, and therefore disclosed to, the Copyright Office. As yet, the Church may not have registered the endowment script, preferring instead to keep it secret.

In any case, even if the script were copyrighted and the copyright were registered, Big Love could probably raise a valid "fair use" defense.

In brief, I don't think the Church would have a valid cause of action against HBO. Even if it did, it would probably elect not to pursue litigation, since it would require extensive in-court examination of the most sensitive elements of the endowment. The sacred text would be preserved forever in the public record. So, in a sense, litigation over the endowment would be self-defeating.

I'm sure that's more than you wanted to know.

Steve M. said...

By the way, with respect to the episode--

There was a certain "shock value" feel to the episode. For instance, Barb's mother makes a comment about the pre-1990 penalty oaths, which felt forced and superfluous. But the portrayal of the temple itself was extremely accurate. And in my opinion, it was done relatively respectfully and tactfully--although it did reveal the most sacred elements of the ceremony, which would undoubtedly offend most temple-attending Mormons.

I thought the disciplinary court scene was a bit more sensationalized--but not to the point of being completely off-the-wall. In fact, the scene itself was painful for its plausibility. If there was a scene in this episode that was damning for Mormons, it was this one.

Steve M. said...

Oh, and you can watch the episode online here:

(Sorry to clutter up your comments)

Scott said...

The Church has no standing in a copyright case. The LDS Church does not own any copyrights on religious rituals--though the same could not be said for a particular movie used in said rituals.

Keep in mind, many fundamentalist mormons (of various factions) use a variation on our ceremony--and in some cases use the exact text. we can't stop other religious people from performing their own rituals that they find important. Similarly, in a legal context, if the folks behind Big Love talked to some polygs about doing a marriage ceremony on the show and the polygs say, "that'd be cool," and then Big Love producers can say they had permission.

As to slander, that is basically an impossible claim in this case. Proving slander requires multiple prongs, one of which is that the information must be patently false. Thus, any "accuracy" in the representation would steamroll a slander complaint in no time flat.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Steve, since an endowment session is about 1.5 hrs and Big Love is, I'm assuming, an hour show, was most of the episode dedicated to the ceremony or did it move through it very quickly?

Steve M. said...


Only a few minutes of the episode were devoted to the temple. It only showed brief excerpts from a couple of the later parts of the ceremony.

Anonymous said...

interesting - thanks, Steve for clearing up the legal side of that - it was very interesting.

The Wizzle said...

For what it's worth, I've been reading all the Big Love threads on my boards and there hasn't been a single mention of the temple ceremony bit of it. It's evidently a non-issue for the average viewer, from what I can figure.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Wizzle's right, there isn't much mention of it. In the largest Big Love Facebook fan groups, there is some mention about it and some curiosity. And it's interesting to see some people comment that they were intrigued by it and now want to find out more about Mormonism.

Matt said...

Thanks for the post Rick, It's nice to have a topic we can all pretty much agree on.

Stephanie said...

That's an interesting point about Indian ceremonial clothing, Rachel. I hadn't thought about it before, but now I think I would probably have a hard time dressing my children up as Indians out of respect for their culture.

Screwed Up Texan said...

Interesting post.

I have been a Big Love fan from the time my fellow LDS sisters "got their panties in a wad" when the show first came on the air. Honestly, if they hadnt had made such a big deal about the show, I would have never watched it. Now, I have a been a juge fan for over a year.

Thank you for writing this post. You said a lot of things I thought. I even had a friend of mine let me know through FB that he was interested in finding out more on the Mormon religion.

Honestly, during a time that I have been very inactive, this episode has made me want to go back to church.

Brent.H said...

You know I have to agree with you Rick, when I first heard about the Big Love episode I was a little floored but when I finally calmed down I thought to hell with them they are not mocking me they are mocking God. Who is man going to fear more, myself or God? Obviously, if I was just another sociopath on the rampage they may certainly want to fear me because while God watches us, laughing no doubt, he lets us make our own decisions. Let them do as they please, I just take solace knowing that what Joseph Smith said in his Wentworth letter, ". . . No unhallowed hand shall stop the work from progressing. . ." Lets face it HBO is just another unhallowed hand.