In the mid-80s, reruns for WKRP in Cincinnati were on television. That was the first time I ever saw Gordon Jump, and my parents kindly informed me he was Mormon. Then after the show’s syndication, I saw Mr. Jump everywhere as the bored-as-heck Maytag repairman, sitting around, not fixing the same-brand household appliances because they were so well made.
I hadn’t gotten interested enough in Little House on the Prairie or 60s and 70s football to recognize Merlin Olsen as another who belonged to my religious culture.
Then I heard that Johnny Whitaker guy who starred with Jodie Foster in the 70s version of Tom Sawyer was Mormon. I saw the movie several times as a child. I looked at him and his red hair and freckles and could tell. I knew it.
“Soldier of Love” by Donny Osmond came out in the late 80s. Just thinking of that makes me chuckle.
Then mad rumors spread in the 90s about the Cameron family – Kirk and Candace – being Mormon. And Steve Martin. People. PLEASE. And Bono: I wanted to perpetuate that one.
Then I heard Danny Ainge was LDS, then I read his lips a few times during televised basketball games, when he was really mad. This clued me in to him not being all that perfect.
The media got quiet for a little while, or maybe I didn’t watch as much television or news.
Then people started watching more reality shows. A huge hubbub emerged about some girl named Julie Stoffer starring in The Real World while a student at BYU. The university expelled her for failing to abide by the University Honor Code.
Then all sorts of Mormons popped up in the media. One of the first I’d heard was Eliza Dushku, Faith, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then Aaron Eckhart from Erin Brockovich. Then Gladys Knight, who was a recent convert.
Mormons in Survivor.
Mormons in The Amazing Race.
Ken Jennings from Jeopardy!
Heidi, Benji, and Lacey in So You Think You Can Dance
Carmen Rasmussen, David Archuleta and Brooke White in American Idol
Kelsey Nixon in The Next Food Network Star
Countless others in politics, athletics, academics, entertainment, publishing, broadcasting, blah blah blah blah.
You can look at these famous Mormons and the decisions they’ve made, and you can’t help but judge them. Look how cute and naive and young; and he goes to church? How awesome. Look how modestly she dresses, I wonder what ward she attends. Hey, look at the way she’s toasting a glass of water to the others’ champagne; that’s pretty cool. Wow, they’re really representing the Church quite well. … What? He makes R-rated movies? He can’t be an active member and he’s going to HELL. … Ooh, look at the gown she’s wearing – she must have left the church and is on the fast track to HELL. What? Ken Jennings didn’t keep winning? He must have sinned to make him lose, and he, too, is going to HELL. Jon Heder did a hip thrust in his Napoleon Dynamite dance – that looks too much like The Sex, and he’s headed straight to HELL. Donny Osmond had a mullet? HELL. HELL HELL HELL HELL. They’re all going to HELL.
The thing about the Church is it’s made up of complex individuals who make personal choices. Some of those choices are very private, and some are made public. Some intentions are clear while others are quite blurred. The thing about the individuals in the church is each of them is at a different spiritual level, a different degree of commitment, which disqualifies them for any sort of comparison to anyone else. People have to live their lives. Some do it according to a standard they may or may not understand; some couldn’t care less about the standard; some have a completely different perception of the standard. If someone doesn’t quite live up to the standard, does that mean he’s a bad person? Does it mean he’s a bad Mormon?
A story made the headlines a few days ago, where a man was excommunicated for creating a “sexy missionary” calendar. I would not be able to make judgments about his character or intentions or determine whom he has influenced or how much against church doctrine his actions were. I could assume he had entered into covenants, and he didn’t keep them; I could assume his heart wasn’t nearly as invested in the Church as it once was. I don’t know him, and even if I did, those would not be my judgments and assumptions to make.
Then I think about my life, and my standards, and my devotion to the Church. I think about what sets me apart from the world and how I can be my best self. Then I think about all the times I have screwed up and how grateful I am my life isn’t compared to anyone else’s. Yes, it’s disappointing every time to see good people stray from the Church, but that’s as far as my feelings can go; I’m not without fault.
However, I have to admit I was tempted to say Merlin Olsen was going to HELL for being shirtless during an episode of Little House, even though Michael Landon was shirtless ALL THE TIME, but he went on to do Highway to Heaven, so that makes up for it. But do you see me casting stones? I’m putting the stones down, putting my hands up, and backing away.