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May 21, 2008
In The Village
Singin', dancin' Mormons
by Orson Scott Card

When I got home from my mission back in '73, the Donny and Marie phenomenon was in full swing. My family wasn't into the show, but it was on at the home of the girl I was dating (I'm still dating her, since we're now married), and I thought they were charming and talented. I was proud that some Mormon kids were doing so well. And then I was done.

The trouble was, the world wasn't done with throwing them at me. They were tabloid fodder in those days, so I got to see their faces on the grocery store racks. My best friend almost had a date with Marie (I can't remember if he flunked the brother-interview, or decided not to go through it). Since I lived in Orem and was involved in theatre and music, their studio was on the docket for several events, as well as many drive-bys.

I went through all the phases: Proud of them. Embarrassed by them. Sick of them. And, finally, indifferent.

Skip a few years. The "sick of them" phase had long since passed. Donny popped up in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and got great reviews. Then he happened to be in the Hill Cumorah Pageant one year when I visited and we briefly met. He seemed to have matured into a really talented, interesting guy.

I bought his most recent album and thought it was terrific. No more little-boy voice: He's a crooner now, with quite a remarkable voice and a deft way with a song.

Marie, meanwhile, popped up on Dancing with the Stars and, when she wasn't fainting, performed so gamely that everybody was delighted with her.

And I was proud of them both again.

None of this had anything to do with them. They were just living their lives and doing their jobs. But no Mormon can do anything in the public eye that doesn't immediately make most other Mormons form some kind of judgment of them.

I ran into this when I heard from a school librarian in Utah that a Mormon woman was trying to get one of my books banned. I was only surprised when I found out that it was one of my most innocuous books. What was her problem?

"I pointed out to her," said my librarian friend, "that we have hundreds of books that have far more disturbing or potentially offensive material than this particular Card novel."

The woman's answer: "But he's a Mormon. He's supposed to live up to a higher standard. I think he's a bad example for young Mormon readers."

Apart from being offended (I'd like to think that my books chart a moral path that, if it were widely followed, would vastly improve our society), I was also amused, because I knew exactly what she was talking about.

To put it kindly, I thought she was an idiot, but I am exactly the same kind of idiot. I hold Mormons to a different standard, too!

When Benji Schwimmer's sister, Lacey, showed up on So You Think You Can Dance, my family and I were quite excited for her.

This was the first year I was watching regularly, but I had heard (constantly) about Benji, and even watched the finale when he won.

I had also watched my kids wrestle with trying to pursue careers in fields where their father's name is known, and people already have opinions, for good or ill. So I felt some sympathy for Lacey -- everyone was going to compare her to Benji.

But as she progressed in the competition, I began to respond to her costumes exactly as that Utah woman had responded to my novels.

I was quite aware that in the world of ballroom dance, the average costume seems to be somewhere between a Riviera swimsuit and naked. But Lacey seemed always to have the very skimpiest costumes.

Now, I don't think those ballroom dance costumes enhance anything -- they distract from the dance and they cheapen the art. But with other dancers, I quickly learn to ignore the costumes. I couldn't do that with Lacey. I expected "better."

I leapt to conclusions about her motivation -- I assumed she was bending over backward to assert her non-goody-goody status.

Yet even as I got those tsk-tsk feelings, I also knew that I was being completely unfair in my judgments. I didn't know this young woman; she was very talented and was working hard; and she had charted her own path through the thicket of competitive dance. Who was I to second-guess her decisions?

After all, when it comes to my own books, I know how I make my decisions about what to show and what to put offstage, what language to let my characters and which words to forbid. I don't make the same choices as everyone else -- but I have drawn very clear lines for excellent reasons (in my opinion) and I stick to them.

Our Mormon community -- the large worldwide Church and the small villages we call wards and branches -- is very important to us. What one Mormon does in the public eye reflects on us all. It is perfectly natural to watch with sharp judgment everything that Mormons do.

When Mitt Romney was running for president, even Democrats like me were quite concerned at the way he was treated. Huckabee's smarmy anti-Mormon whispering campaign infuriated me. I leapt to Romney's defense on several occasions.

At the same time, I was just as infuriated when Romney took a strong anti-illegal-immigrant position that to me felt like pandering to the Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party -- the right-wing equivalent of MoveOn.Org. As a Mormon, I found his position particularly galling.

I had to force myself to judge him only as I would judge any other candidate, and not respond with particular virulence just because I thought that, as a Mormon, he should "know better."

What we have to remember, in judging the behavior of Mormon celebrities, is that the Church teaches correct principles, but by and large we govern ourselves.

Each of us reaches our own conclusions about what's right and wrong for a Mormon to do on matters like the Sabbath (TV? a trip to the Park?), the fringes of the Word of Wisdom (cola? chocolate? herbal tea?), personal modesty, politics, and many others.

Someone can be a temple-worthy Latter-day Saint and reach different conclusions from mine.

Furthermore, celebrity Mormons can sometimes be flat wrong in what they choose to do and they are still entitled to the same degree of tolerance and forgiveness and patience that we extend to people who are not LDS.

It's just a bit harder to explain to our kids why it's not all right for them to do what that famous Mormon did.

Lacey ended up not being my choice for the winner of So You Think You Can Dance -- but not because I disapproved of her as a Mormon. I simply came to admire Sabra Johnson, as a dancer, more than I did Lacey.

But I felt downright guilty voting for Sabra the week that Lacey was bumped from the show.

Here's the other problem, you see. Even when we disapprove of each other, we also feel great loyalty!

It's like what my son explained to me about his Young Men group when I was his YM president. "Even when we don't like each other, we're still friends," he said, and I saw that he was right. Some were close and some were, well, the opposite, constantly getting on each other's nerves. But they stuck together all the same, helped each other, were loyal to each other. That's how it's supposed to be. They were a good group.

As a Mormon, I did not vote against Lacey because I disapproved of her costumes; but as a Mormon I also had no obligation to vote for her unless I thought she was the best.

Which brings me to this year's American Idol. I have been deeply impressed with both of the known-to-be-Mormon contestants. I appreciated that their Mormonness has not been touted on the show. But I was especially proud that both Brooke White and David Archuleta have done an outstanding job -- as singers and as exemplary Latter-day Saints.

(In fact, this is something of a Mormon year, when you add in the fact that the tabloids now have Lacey Schwimmer, from last year's So You Think You Can Dance, dating David Cook, the contestant who faced David Archuleta in the finale. Talk about consorting with the enemy!)

I was especially moved by Brooke White's battle with intense stage fright. In all my years of directing and acting, I have never seen anyone suffer so badly from stage fright and yet go on and give fine performances.

Still, I was grateful that this year they let the contestants record, in the studio, full-length versions of some of their songs, which could then be downloaded from iTunes. It gave us a chance to hear what Brooke White can really do, when she's not on stage.

I also watched with interest her costume choices. Most of the women in the competition dressed by the if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it principle. But Brooke White dressed with perfect modesty.

She must have been driving the costumers and the producers crazy. "Loosen up, girl!" I can hear them saying. "It makes you look cold and austere. It creates a distance from the audience. You're in a competition, girl, and everything counts!" And I can hear White answering, "But it's not me. I wouldn't be comfortable in that."

Then came the day she gave in -- just a little. She wore a semi-diaphanous sleeveless yellow frock that didn't quite reach her knees, and she gave her worst-ever performance while wearing it. Her hands were visibly trembling, her movements were stiff -- she was terrified!

It was obvious to me (though of course I don't know what I'm talking about!) that White felt practically naked in that costume -- even though it was the most modest girl-outfit on the show that night.

It simply didn't work for her. She had her own line, and when she came too near to crossing it, she couldn't do her best work.

I love Brooke White's voice and her type of music. I want to buy her albums. I want to write songs for her to sing. But American Idol is a competition, and Neil Diamond defeated her -- he just doesn't write songs for Brooke White.

As I'm writing this, the American Idol finals have not yet happened. And here's the odd thing: I don't care who wins.

I have admired young David Archuleta throughout the competition. His humility and eagerness and talent and generosity as a performer are all real.

I have also ignored the nonsense in the rumor mill about his "stage father." Their relationship is between them. If his father was oppressing him, David Archuleta could not be the healthy, well-adjusted young man that he is. So I trust them to have a father-son relationship that is intense and protective, and which does not include me.

As a Mormon, I was proud of him for starting John Lennon's "Imagine" without the verse that attacks religion. I have been proud of his loyalty to his father and of the perfect grace with which he has handled everything that has been thrown at him.

But I don't care who wins. Because at this point, it is obvious that both David Cook and David Archuleta are going to have exceptional careers as recording and performing stars, regardless of who wins. The contest has become irrelevant in the face of towering talent.

Still -- if the Mormon kid wins, I'll feel a burst of pride, even though I had absolutely nothing to do with his success. Because, like it or not, we're all on the same team. We're disappointed at each other's mistakes (or perceived mistakes), we agonize when one of us doesn't reach his goal (yes, I even felt awful when Mitt Romney was defeated, even though I wouldn't have voted for him!), and we are thrilled at each other's successes.

That's how it goes when we all live in the same village -- or at least the next village over.

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