Feb 19, 2018

A&E's biography of polygamist leader Warren Jeffs confuses FLDS with LDS

Handcuffed and flanked by Las Vegas Metro PD SWAT officers, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs appears before Judge James M. Bixler in the Clark County Regional Justice Center on Aug. 31
Scott D. Pierce • Clunky editing shows Mormon church’s Salt Lake Temple while narration talks about polygamists.

Scott D. Pierce

Salt Lake Tribune
February 18, 2018

Those of us in Utah sometimes forget that people who don’t live here aren’t all that familiar with the Mormon church.

Most Utahns probably know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not sanction polygamy. And that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is all about having multiple wives.

The LDS Church takes pains to draw the distinction. And to point out that, officially, the policy of the church has been anti-polygamy since then-church President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto to that effect in 1890.

So there will be a couple of uncomfortable moments when A&E airs the documentary “Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil” on Monday at 7 and 9 p.m.

Jeffs is the head of the FLDS Church. He was convicted of child sexual assault and is serving a life-plus-20-years sentence in a Texas prison. And the hourlong show includes information about his family life as he was growing up.

Viewers are told how Warren Jeffs’ father, Rulon, rose in the ranks of the FLDS Church and moved to Salt Lake City. That narration is accompanied by video of the LDS Church’s Salt Lake Temple — and the juxtaposition is clunky and confusing.

It’s not like there’s any ill intent. This is one of the oldest tricks in the documentary-maker’s book — you show a famous landmark to establish where you are, such as the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Colosseum for Rome or the Gateway Arch for St. Louis.

Or the Mormon temple for Salt Lake City.

Except that in this case, it’s more than just an establishing shot. The Salt Lake Temple isn’t an office building or a public monument, it’s a religious structure.

A&E is showing the iconic image associated with one church while talking about another. And not only does the second church have a similar name, it is headed by a guy convicted of sex crimes against underage girls.

This is purely anecdotal, but in my experience there are plenty of people who think that the LDS Church still practices polygamy. Throughout the run of the HBO series “Big Love,” I heard from a lot of people who thought the characters in that series were both polygamists and Mormons, despite the fact that the show’s producers/writers went out of their way to draw a clear distinction.

Oh my heck (as they say here in Utah), some of my fellow TV critics — including several from major publications — asked me questions about “Big Love” that made it clear they were similarly confused.

And when “Sister Wives” debuted, a reporter essentially called polygamists Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn Brown hypocrites because they called for acceptance of plural marriage but “many in your faith are very discriminatory against gays.”

The reporter knew that the Browns were polygamists, but had no clue that they aren’t mainstream Mormons.

(They’re also not members of the FLDS Church; they’re affiliated with Apostolic United Brethren, a different polygamous group.)

So the producers of “Warren Jeffs: Prophet of Evil” should have been more careful.

Their program doesn’t tread any new ground, but it reminds everyone what a vile human being Jeffs is. The list of people calling him out includes former members of the FLDS Church, one of Jeffs’ nephews, the author of the book “Prophet’s Prey,” and various government officials, including former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

That Jeffs forced underage girls to marry men in their 60s, forced teenage boys out of the cult to survive on their own, and molested his own nephew is infuriating. You’ll be completely creeped out when Brent Jeffs says his uncle told him the molestation was “God’s will.” And a snippet of Jeffs talking just before he consummated his marriage to an 11-year-old girl is disgusting.

“Prophet of Evil” isn’t original. It’s sort of workmanlike, with some hokey re-creations.

But it is, nonetheless, horrifying.

And it’s not hard to understand why the LDS Church wouldn’t want to be associated with Jeffs in any way — even if it’s just through careless editing.


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