It’s so easy to make fun of Mormons that The Book of Mormon: The Musical didn’t even mention polygamy. The golden plates — where are they now? The Garden of Eden — where is it? No coffee?
The preceding three questions may violate the spirit of Episcopal Bishop of Utah, the Rev. Scott Hayashi’s plea for an end to anti-Mormon humor. I still feel rather guilty over making a suggestion in the midst of a blog discussion (can’t remember if it was Juvenile Instructor or By Common Consent) about Latter-day Saint institutions of higher education that a “Kirtland School of Economics” might be an amusing idea.
As a society, we are actually rather awash in Mormon-related humor. South Park. Broadway. The comments about underwear during the election. Nor is Mormon-themed humor a new thing. It was Mark Twain who termed the Book of Mormon chloroform in print (see my thoughts on the scripture here) and that if “Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate.” Utah’s few non-Mormon newspapers mercilessly skewered Brigham Young while he lived (according to the Corinne Reporter, he was the “hoary libertine,” “the butcher of Zion,” and the “high priest of Hell”), and national periodicals satirized him in death. Whether the issue is politics or religion, nineteenth-century American newspapers are far more entertaining than those of today partly because they took and kept the gloves off.
Bishop Hayashi suggests that religionists should at least mostly confine themselves to making fun of their own faith. I do like observing that Presbyterians have gone from believing that God has ordained everything to not knowing what to think about practically anything. [As an aside, I love the fact that in the canonical version of Joseph Smith’s history, the only thing he tells his mother about his First Vision is that he had “learned for himself that Presbyterianism is not true.”] “Frozen chosen” jokes only take one so far.
‘What bothers me is that anti-Mormonism seems to be condoned for some reason, like it’s OK in people’s minds,’ Bishop Hayashi said. ‘They say things about Mormons that they would never say about Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists. Maybe because the LDS Church is so predominant in Utah it feels like it’s more acceptable here somehow. And unless someone says it’s not OK it will continue to be OK.’
Actually, I don’t think Mormons are the only acceptable target of American humor. Scientologists, definitely. Catholics, often. Evangelicals, no doubt. The hypocritical evangelical / Pentecostal minister is a staple of American humor. And there is no shortage of other good material here. Why do evangelicals like to sing the same thing over and over again? For you academics out there, who hasn’t referred to the “jerks” of the “Second Great Awakening”?
I teach courses on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I do not make jokes about Jews or Muslims. I will poke fun at evangelicals. I also spend a lot of time teaching and writing about Latter-day Saints, and I certainly love bringing up humorous anecdotes about 19th-century Mormon history. I may well have made a few comments about Mormon historians out-producing me (and often working another job at the same time) despite their lack of caffeine.
Religion is incredibly funny, both to insiders and outsiders. All of us who are believers believe in some preposterous things, and all groups have their quirks that attract, repel, and amuse outsiders. It’s easy to say that warm-spirited ribbing is fine and mean-spirited jokes are not, but such things cannot be strictly demarcated. Yet to eschew humor drains much of the humanity out of religion, because the foibles of human beings are endlessly humorous. Where is the right line?