Manipulation and the Spirit

Last night we watched a Mexican film called La Misma Luna, which tells the story of a young boy’s attempt to cross into the United States to find his mother, who is working as a maid in Los Angeles. The film is shamelessly manipulative, from its angel-faced protagonist (who apparently can weep on command) to the downtrodden mother to the evil and parasitic smugglers, drug addicts, and rich housewives they both encounter. But, despite all of that, the film worked. You have to hand it to the filmmakers that their shameless emotional manipulation works that well, even on a cynic like me.

The experience reminded me of our missionary efforts, which were designed to get people to “feel” something, and then we would helpfully point out that what they were feeling was the spirit, or the Holy Ghost. We would encourage people to read the Book of Mormon and then ask them how they felt when they read. If they said anything remotely like “good” or “peaceful,” we would move in for the kill. “That feeling is the Holy Ghost testifying to you that the book is true.”

Not surprisingly, many of the LDS church’s publications and media presentations are designed to elicit emotions, which can then be tied to the Holy Ghost. Interestingly enough, the church’s broadcasting arm, Bonneville International, which produces most of the church’s media presentations, has actually developed a sales technique called “HeartSell”®, which is described as “strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.” That could just as easily describe the LDS church’s missionary program.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the church produced a number of films that seem designed to prey on emotional response. Think, for example, of the weeper “Legacy” that attempted to cast Mormons as pure and righteous victims of evil and cruel murderers. But perhaps the zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) came in the film “Together Forever.” The film looks like a documentary, and centers on interviews with ordinary folks with ordinary problems and how the LDS church helped them overcome their problems. The most poignant segment concerns a couple whose daughter has been killed in an accident. The interviewees bear fervent testimony of the restored gospel and explain how the church has blessed their lives. The couple who lost the child tearfully express their gratitude that they will be with their daughter, “together forever.”

And then you find out that these people are actors.

I first saw this film at a missionary fireside in Utah many years ago. A non-LDS family sat next to us, and the wife had cried all the way through it. At the end, the allegedly dead child is shown playing with her family happily. In hindsight, it was probably intended to drive home the idea of together families. But it clearly demonstrates to the audience that this was all make-believe, a manipulative setup.

At that moment, the woman sitting next to me had suddenly stopped crying, and her face had clenched in anger. She and her husband left quickly without staying for the refreshments, and some church members expressed bewilderment at her behavior. But I understood. For the first time in my life, I had felt shame at being so overtly manipulated. I wasn’t so much angry at the film-makers for manipulating me as I was for having swallowed it whole.

And like it or not, we humans have an infinite ability to base our most fundamental decisions on emotion. “What is your gut feeling?” we hear all the time. But that gut feeling is subject to extreme manipulation. Con men cheat people all the time by using their trust and compassion; and some religions gain and keep adherents with the same tactics.


12 Responses to Manipulation and the Spirit

  1. smcconkey says:

    So very true. Every year at my Christian church, a three day play was put on called “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames.” It may be a different kind of emotion, but it sure provoked response from people, especially the teens. And let’s not forget the gentle guitar strumming during prayer, which is almost set up to convince someone the spirit is talking when it’s only emotion. This is done earnestly sometime to create a sensitive atmosphere, but only too often it’s a form of passive manipulation. If I experience God, I want it to be real, not some emotional ploy. Too bad I’m not sure how that would really work otherwise….

  2. SillyNut says:

    Yeah, I noticed this the other day when a friend forwarded some tripe on Facebook designed to make us all realize there was a god. They did a decent job with the music and the set up, but the example in and of itself was stupid.

  3. edgeReiver says:

    It is funny that you mention this example about “Together Forever.” One of my first memories of saying to myself, “hmmm…maybe this (the church, holy ghost, etc.) is not what I have always thought it to be,” was as ward mission leader at a convert baptism. The man just baptised was getting dressed and the missionaries showed the segment about the couple losing their daughter to the congregation. Afterwards, the missionary teared up and exclaimed how strongly he had felt the spirit testifying to him the truth of the gospel.

    That was in 1998. Ten years later, I am no longer a member. I am constantly trying to balance teaching my TBM children how to not be manipulated and think for themselves without being derogatory toward my TBM wife’s modus operandi. Overcoming what I call the “mormon momentum” took me years. The pendulum did swing perhaps too far in the direction of ignoring my feelings because they had so powerfully duped me into accepting mormon momentum as reliable and valid.

    Now I honor the balance between logic and feelings in the same way that light has both particle and wave properties. As I heard in a Speaking of Faith podcast called “Quarks and Creation,” the answer you get depends on which question you ask. Both are valid perspectives in different contexts.

  4. runtu says:

    That is a pretty vile film, isn’t it? I understand what you mean about the pendulum. I have learned to distrust my own feelings so much that I am sometimes paralyzed when I cannot reach a totally rational decision.

  5. MikeP says:

    Excellent thoughts Runtú. I remember watching that filmstrip Families Are Forever (or was it I’ll Build You A Rainbow?), I didn’t even make it to the end when I was bawling in the middle of early morning seminary; then when my aunts came from Mexico they saw the Legacy film at the JS Memorial Building and they told me about crying throughout the entire movie. None of this hit me until I read somewhere that GBHinkley had told whoever made Legacy that he wanted people crying at the movie that I had one of those WTF moments….manipulating emotions has to be one of the dirties tricks in the book and some get to be quite good at it!

  6. John,

    “I have learned to distrust my own feelings so much that I am sometimes paralyzed when I cannot reach a totally rational decision.”

    I can totally relate.

  7. Runtu,

    I always found it fascinating that that’s how the LDS church portrayed the Holy Spirit, as an emotion of peace and that confirmation comes through reading the BoM (which incidentally I didn’t get, so I must not have the Holy Spirit:-p, despite my acceptance of Christ)

  8. Lamanite says:

    Do you mind if I use your beautiful prose on my blog. So much I want to say about this topic. Just hit me up

  9. runtu says:

    Sure, Lamanite-dude, have at it.

  10. runtu says:


    For what it’s worth, I got that feeling of peace and confirmation when I read it.

  11. timbob says:

    Greetings. We live in an age of incredible manipulation from every venue. It happens in churches, the media, politics, sales, and what have you. Images, words, and background music carefully assembled as to manufacture a desired response. The lines between truth and error become obscured as the handlers go about creating a pseudo reality; one that doesn’t offer up an accurate picture.

    There’s so much that can be said on this issue. I don’t know what your thoughts are insofar as prophetic events are concerned, but I’m convinced that the world is being “prepared” to worship an image and receive a mark as told about in Revelation chap 13. You have taken on a very important topic with this post. We know that “the whole world” is going to wonder after a beast and that which appears will be held in higher regard than the word of God. It’s heartbreaking because very few seem to realize how perilous (and late) these times are.

    Sorry for rambling. I’ll stop in again when time permits.


  12. Honorentheos says:


    If you get a chance, I recommend the book, The Happiness Hypothosis. Not for all of the content, but for the parts that talk about the role of the lymbic brain and our cerebral brains. It’s interesting.

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