April 28, 2011
Thoroughly Mainstream Mormons
— Brian Britt
The Book of Mormon is the most profane Broadway show in memory, but it treats its subject with surprising warmth and acceptance. The New York Times calls the musical “sweet,” and the Church’s official response could not be milder: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” When religious satire by the creators of South Park chooses obscenity over insults, it’s a sign that Mormonism has become solidly mainstream.
The musical follows an odd couple of missionaries, golden boy Elder Price and misfit Elder Cunningham (played brilliantly by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad), as they seek to share their faith with Ugandan villagers, provoking laughter and disbelief through high-energy song-and-dance routines. Segments recounting the story of Joseph Smith seem to mock the core teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Or do they? The Church now embraces a shift to the cultural “mainstream” in place of such “obscure” doctrines still upheld by the Church as the location of Eden in the United States. The Church also endorses religious pluralism and (citing philosopher Jürgen Habermas as an authority) “the essential give and take of societal exchange.” Today’s Latter-Day Saints accentuate the American and eliminate the sectarian.
Public debates on Mormonism have more to do with American religious identity than charges of charlatanism, polygamy, and missionary zeal. With its history of lost tribes, golden tablets, and ongoing prophecy, Mormonism presents a version of American exceptionalism more vivid than its evangelical and secular counterparts. Is Joseph Smith, as one song claims, really the “All-American Prophet”? Did Jesus really visit the United States, as another hilarious sequence suggests? The Church’s “Articles of Faith” affirm that “Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent,” a doctrine whose specificity draws clear boundaries that other Christians would prefer to keep fuzzy.
Negative attitudes toward Mormons and American Muslims are about the same (27% and 29%, respectively); both traditions are perceived as demanding a particular, alien way of life. But Mormons, predominantly white and prosperous, are perceived as more mainstream and “American” than Muslims, with visibility in higher education and business, and ranging across the political spectrum from the liberal Senator Harry Reid to the far-right pundit Glenn Beck.
But The Book of Mormon represents a more ironic wave of media attention as Mormons become increasingly mainstream, portrayed in Broadway’s Pulitzer-winning Angels in America (1991, with an HBO mini-series in 2003), Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven in 2003, a South Park episode called “All About Mormons” in the same year, the cable television series Big Love (since 2006), and late night television send-ups of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Seen as weird but mostly integrated into American society, Mormons are thus a safer target for satire than Muslims or even Jews might be. The Book of Mormon playfully suggests taking this integration all the way, by suggesting that Mormon doctrine can be domesticated as “just metaphors.” The missionaries in the play compromise the literalism of their book to become better listeners and partners with the local Ugandans. And the mystery surrounding the revelation of the Book itself is defended as what God “was pretty much going for.” By the time the company sings “Tomorrow is a Latter Day,” the play has moved to a safe place, not too pious but not too blasphemous either.
The Book of Mormon echoes the Church’s own move to the cultural and theological mainstream. The show ironically takes the Mormon idea of renewal--that new revelations come to address new challenges--to mean that the Book of Mormon itself should be adapted freely and non-literally to speak to Ugandans today. Its jokes and playful teasing point to a process of demythologization that has been going on for some time. The Book of Mormon may yet spark loud protests, but it seems more likely to provoke the kind of response given by Mormon Janet Christensen: “It’s not G-rated, but they treated us with affection. And they did their homework.”
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "Public Expresses Mixed Views of Islam, Mormonism," September 26, 2007.
Peggy Fletcher Stack, "'Book of Mormon' Musical Called Surprisingly Sweet," Salt Lake Tribune, February 25, 2011.
Brian Britt is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Tech. His most recent book is Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix, 2011).