Latter-day Saints are often taught to avoid the “very appearance of evil. ” This makes sense for any group that believes deity has called it to be “a peculiar people.” The individual examples of LDS members speak far louder than tens of thousands of missionaries in white shirts and ties (and dresses or skirts, of course). While this wise counsel can be taken to extremes, most seem to understand the principle behind it.
A recent news story from Utah, however, has me thinking about appearances vs. reality — something Jesus addressed when he talked about “whited sepulchres.” Several years ago, Daniel D. Thompson and Isaac R. Lifferth operated a franchise video store under the banner of Clean Flicks, Inc. The idea was simple enough. Thompson and Lifferth purchased videos of PG-13 or R rated films, and edited them to remove what many LDS felt was “inappropriate” content (read: sex and at least some violence). What better business model in a state where 72% of the population has been repeatedly cautioned to avoid naughty movies? Well, maybe a legal one would be a bit better. In mid-2006, the company was brought to a halt after a federal court ruled that the business’ activities constituted copyright infringement. Many were disappointed with the “end” of the Clean Flicks story. Thompson and Lifferth reopened their store under the name “Flix Club.”
Well, it turns out that wasn’t the end. Last week, Thompson and Lifferth found themselves under arrest. These men, who by all apperances sincerely fought Hollywood to provide wholesome entertainment for LDS families, were allegedly doing something quite different behind the counter.
A wise LDS mother brought this situation to light, when she noticed her 14 year old daughter had unaccountable $20 bills. This exemplary mother questioned her daughter, lest there be some misbehavior involved, and found more than she expected. The daughter, along with another 14 year old, had been receiving $20 payments for repeated visits to the closed Flix Club store, where they performed certain sexual acts for the gratification of Thompson and Lifferth.
The two girls informed police that Thompson and Lifferth had been using Clean Flicks and Flicks Club all along, as a front for a pornography studio. The 14 year old girls were asked to become the latest “stars” in the Thompson/Lifferth venture, but fortunately declined. A subsequent police search resulted in discovery of many pornographic videos, liquor, illegally-possessed prescription medication, and video cameras connected to a viewing screen. Confessions by Thompson and Lifferth reveal that additional minors were similarly victimized.
When I trained with the Utah Police Academy years ago, I was privy to some pretty scary stories involving similar conduct (and worse) by local LDS leaders. I don’t think these stories make much difference in terms of faith in a particular religion, but they certainly impact our ability to trust others, even fellow-believers. That wise carpenter-turned-rabbi once told his followers to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and events like these show us he was right. At the same time, we all have a strong human need to be part of a community. How do we trust others enough to have that sense of community, when appearances can so often be deceiving?