2022 has become the year of the Mormon miniseries. For this, we can thank audience interest in cults and true crime, as well as a growing and increasingly vocal and visible number of former Mormons, like Under the Banner of Heaven’s showrunner Dustin Lance Black, who’ve left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are willing not only to speak out about their experiences but also to produce and direct mainstream narratives that present the religion’s dark side. Black’s adaptation of journalist Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven, which premiered on FX on Hulu in April, ties Joseph Smith’s 1830 founding of the religion to its violent colonization of the Western United States and to a horrific real-life 1984 murder of a young mother and her baby in Utah—a murder committed by recently radicalized family patriarchs. Its seven-episode run launched countless think pieces: Is it accurate? Is it any good? Is it anti-Mormon propaganda? In the most prominent example of that last argument, the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins argued that shows like Under the Banner promote prejudice against Mormons by suggesting Mormonism is a sinister “threat to the American project.” The show also provoked a heated conversation among Mormons about who has the right to tell Mormon stories and whether it’s fair to conflate mainstream Mormonism and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Krakauer’s book does.
Then there was last month’s Netflix documentary series Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, which turns its lens fully on the fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, a breakaway sect that emerged after the mainstream church, in a bid for legitimacy, formally disavowed polygamy in the early 20th century. The FLDS Church became a national story in the 1990s and early 2000s, as they radicalized into an authoritarian cult under convicted child rapist Warren Jeffs, hiding from the scrutiny of law enforcement in the deserts of Southern Utah and later on a compound near Eldorado, Texas. (This sect, as well as other polygamous breakaway groups, was also featured in the reality show Escaping Polygamy, which premiered in 2014.) The title of the series comes from the key message Jeffs relayed to the girls and young women who viewed him as their prophet, teaching them that a smile and a submissive disposition were key to their entry to heaven, even as they were forced into child marriages with men far older than them. To its credit, Keep Sweet relies on the cooperation of former FLDS members, including direct victims of Jeffs, to explain how a small cooperative community became a tyrannical “human trafficking organization,” as one investigator refers to it, promoting child marriage and the expulsion and abandonment of boys and young men.
Mormon No More, a docuseries produced by ABC News Studios that premiered on Hulu last week, is both the least dramatic and the best of these recent series. Without reference to the religion’s history of polygamy, or any of the murders or other violent crimes that have dotted its track record since its founding, Mormon No More is about what it’s really like to be Mormon today. Filmed mostly in the suburbs of Southern California and in the dining rooms of close-knit families in Utah, it follows the journey of two Mormon moms, the extremely likable Lena Schwen and Sally Osborne, who meet at a church event and fall in love. Realizing they are gay well into their 30s, with seven young children between them, they leave their Mormon temple marriages to build a life together and ultimately tie the knot in the final episode of the series.
Schwen and Osborne’s story plays out over four episodes, interspersed with profiles of other Mormons and ex-Mormons, each contending with some piece of Mormon ideology and culture. Polly Choque-Mendoza, a lifelong Mormon whose dad is an Indigenous Bolivian, was taught she was the descendant of “Lamanites,” a tribe in the Book of Mormon that God turns brown for its wickedness, and was instructed by her Mormon bishop to place her baby, conceived with a non-Mormon, up for adoption. We hear the stories of Harry Fisher, a BYU student who had recently come out as gay to his family and died by suicide in 2016, and Brad Talbot and Matt Easton, recent out BYU graduates. And the final subject is Brock Aiken, a gay Mormon who underwent years of traumatic conversion therapy from a Utah-based therapist who claimed to have cured his own “same-sex attraction,” only to discover later that the counselor had left his wife, come out as gay, and disavowed his conversion therapy practice. In an emotional scene, Brock meets up to chat with his former therapist, who hopes to make amends for how he harmed him. Mormon No More gleans its drama not from crimes, but from conversations.
Unlike its predecessors, the docuseries also gives a convincing explanation as to why Mormonism attracts followers in the first place—not some charismatic leader, or an urge to dominate young women, but a desire for family, for security, for community. Sally’s dad, Rod Osborne, converted to Mormonism as a teenager, in the hope of creating some stability for his future family. “One of the reasons I joined the church is because I saw beautiful families,” he says in an interview. For Lena, it was a desperate desire to know she’d see her loved ones again in the afterlife, after the traumatic loss of her best friend to a car crash in high school. She looked everywhere for answers about where her friend went when she died. The Mormons at her school had them.
The series is honest about the stringent and uncompromising teachings of the LDS church on the price of eternal togetherness, showing that it’s not just love and clean living keeping LDS families so intact. Unlike Under the Banner, which cuts confusing and sometimes inaccurate dramatizations of early Mormon history into its 1980s story, Mormon No More’s presentation of key information about the church is far more accessible. It provides not only short, narrated illustrations to explain Mormon history and doctrines, and TikToks from contemporary former Mormons to explain things like temple garments and marriage rituals, but also firsthand text from the current Mormon handbook and clips of church leaders today, to explain to the lay viewer what Mormonism is really all about. We see recent clips from the biannual LDS General Conference, with Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor of the church, and next in line to be its president and prophet, saying from the pulpit: “Exaltation can only be attained through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman.” Oaks then warns that any deviation from this path has evil origins: “Satan’s most strenuous opposition is toward exaltation by distorting marriage, discouraging child bearing, or confusing gender.”
In a tense conversation around the dinner table in Episode 3, Sally’s father, Rod, says, as a defense of his decision to raise his kids Mormon: “We do preach families are important, right? And your mom, she is always concerned about how we can stay together as a family. There is no organization in the world that can bring a family together and keep them together that I’ve ever seen like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
“That works well until it doesn’t,” answers Sally, as she grasps Lena’s hand and looks around the table at her siblings, the majority of whom have also left Mormonism in adulthood.
Rather than digging in to defend the faith, Ron acquiesces. “Well, the formula works if everyone is homogeneous. If everyone is heterosexual.”
“I wouldn’t have been closeted, and had this life, if I wasn’t Mormon,” answers Sally, adding that it’s painful to know her parents tithe to an organization that preaches about the inferiority of her family with Lena.
In the next episode, we see how Nan and Rod Osborne have taken their children’s pleas to heart. As they leave their house and drive to their LDS church building for Sunday services, each adorns their “Sunday best” with a rainbow pride pin. Rod asks Nan if she’s nervous about what people might say or think about her pin. No, she says, she’s done with all that. Together they walk into the church with their pride pins on, hoping to represent a different kind of Mormonism, an LGBTQ-accepting Mormonism where openly gay kids are part of the eternal family. But Mormon No More shows this is a church led not by the views of its membership, but by a few of the Lord’s elect, a formal hierarchy of patriarchs digging their heels in and siding openly with the American right on all things “family values.” In a time when legal and social questions around gender and sexuality are live wires, the audience gets the meaning of this allegiance, without needing to be told.
In the final episode, shot only months later, we learn that Nan, too, is on her way out of the church, as she puts on a sleeveless dress for Sally’s wedding, the first time she’ll be in public without her temple garments since she was first married to Rod.
Elsewhere, the series is more hopeful about the prospects of reform. Openly gay and faithful Mormon Brad Talbot leads a covert Pride demonstration on the iconic “Y” mountain above the Brigham Young University campus, following BYU’s January 2022 ban on “unapproved” demonstrations and threats to charge anyone involved in one with a misdemeanor offense. Nonetheless, some 40 volunteers, including Brad’s devout mom, Charalece, hike to the “Y” (a literal 380-feet-long concrete block letter Y on the Wasatch mountain range) and hold LED lights in rainbow and trans Pride colors to show any gay and trans Mormons in the valley below that they have supporters in their community—a protest that would elsewhere in the world seem small, and purely symbolic. Almost immediately, a BYU-hired security guard orders them to leave. “I’m doing my job,” the guard tells the demonstrators. Charalece answers back, “I’m doing my job as a mom. It’s what these kids need. Unless BYU can think of something better, it’s what they need.”
Despite Mormonism’s claims to have the one true path for family togetherness and exaltation, it is the love and devotion to family and community of the former Mormons and reformers that makes the documentary so powerful, in ways the splashier portraits of Mormonism’s dark side in shows like Under the Banner and Keep Sweet have not managed.
At least since the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, there’s been something of a working compromise between religious traditionalists insistent there is one proper way to do gender, sex, and family, and the progressives and secularists who disagree—a compromise that went something like, You teach whatever you like to your kids and over your pulpits, as long as we have the legal right to do the same in our families.
But as conservatives have cracked down on even the most anodyne of Pride demonstrations in public schools, dismantled access to gender-affirming health care, and threatened to take children from parents who support their social and physical gender transitions, and, in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, put Obergefell itself in their crosshairs, that compromise is collapsing.
Mormon No More portrays Mormonism not as a “threat to the American project,” but as a live battleground over just what the American project is, and who that project includes. While that battle plays out in increasingly alarming ways in our dysfunctional political institutions and on our TVs and Twitter feeds, it is also happening in our living rooms and around our kitchen tables, while we fold our laundry, put ketchup and chicken nuggets on a plate for our kids, and FaceTime our parents.
This isn’t a juicy crime thriller, an exposé of the power-hungry leaders who put us here, or a portrait of tireless detectives we’re counting on to deliver justice. The conflicts this series shows us are about nothing more and nothing less than our ability to openly live the unglamorous but loving lives we’ve chosen and built for ourselves. And the stakes could not be higher.