Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen

By Mark T. Decker; Michael Austin | Go to book overview

5
Elders on the Big Screen
Film and the Globalized Circulation of Mormon Missionary Images

JOHN-CHARLES DUFFY

since the late-twentieth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints has maintained a widely recognized standard image for the young men who constitute the bulk of its fifty-to-sixty-thousand-strong missionary force.1 As a result, Mormon missionaries—or more precisely, with attention to gender, Mormon elders—have become a widely recognized presence in social landscapes around the globe. People who know little about Mormonism may nevertheless recognize Mormon missionaries, much as they recognize black-habited Catholic nuns, orangerobed Krishna devotees, or buggy-riding Amish. One indication of how widely Mormon missionaries are recognized is their appearance as stock characters in film. Proselytizing characters in movies and television are often patterned after Mormon elders: young men in pairs, clean shaven, wearing white shirts and ties. This pattern occurs even in cases when the characters are not specifically depicted as Mormons but instead appear as generic evangelists.

The use of Mormon missionary images in film exemplifies a dynamic identified by Manuel Vásquez and Marie Friedmann Marquardt in connection with the globalization of religious goods; David Morgan describes the same dynamic in his study of religion and visual culture. As images and other religious goods circulate, they are often used in ways their distributors did not intend. To use Morgan’s term, religious images are subject to expropriation. A hotline set up by American Pentecostals so that counselors can walk callers through the process of accepting Jesus as their personal savior may instead be used by Guatemalan Catholics as a kind of phone-in confessional. Protestant artist Warner Sallman’s widely distributed painting of Christ standing behind a young white

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