How Southpark changed Mormonism

A couple of weeks ago Joanna Brooks (via Skype)  and I gave a public lecture at the University of Canterbury entitled ‘What if Popular Culture Changed Religion?’ in the ‘What if Wednesday’ series.   While the title of this post is  slightly tongue in cheek,  we traced the relationship between Mormonism, the public, and the media and come to a rather fun conclusion!  Below is a video of the lecture.  Enjoy!

(apologies – it seems to have been truncated by the AV techs so that the conclusion is a bit lost so I have included my notes below).


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But more importantly the BOM musical so beautifully captured the extraordinary capacity for  faith that the young possess.  With warm and affectionate ridicule, rather than diminish the religion, the makers of Southpark weaved Mormonism into the fabric of American life in an unprecedented, and dare I say it a miraculous way.  While other mainline religions struggle for attention and relevance, this odd little religion, which is so idiosyncratic, and impudent,  but so very, very American, has become the darling of American religious culture and given a reason for the country to finally claim it.

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There are a number of conclusions that can now make.

That Mormon culture and doctrine has changed as a result of the influence of the media is irrefutable.


Mormonism is unique in that respect because it grew up with the media as its constant critical companion and as much as church’s try to put some distance between them and those ‘worldly’ institutions, in the case of the Mormons it hasn’t been all bad.  The media has checked the excesses of  religion and religion has inflected the public sphere with important ideas that find resonance throughout the globe.

Faith traditions, religions, church’s will endure but to do so they will have to find ways of working with the cultural industry so that they stay relevant and vibrant without compromising their core  values.   What we have found in the Mormon case is…

The LDS church is behaving with more generosity and less fear in the public shpere.  They seem more cognizant of the current popular mood, are less reactive, and consequently more relaxed with its image in the public domain.

As a result the public is more relaxed with mormonism.

Where Mormons used to rely on pulpit announcements and official declarations  at their general conferences, the LDS newsroom has taken the role as arbiters over what constitutes our belief system. Church leaders remind us of the Christian fundamentals, the newsroom steers those church leaders to tidy up their pronouncements so that believing members don’t go off into the ditch, and critics can’t throw mud.   There is a fascinating but important synergy between marketing and public relations  and institutional religion in the LDS church that all religious organisations might learn from.  It seems to pay to put your PR people out in front of the media before your church leaders – seems to be the lesson.

The church’s latest ‘I am a Mormon’ campaign advertises its ordinary people  rather than its practices as the definition of Mormonism.  These highlight the church’s political, spiritual, domestic, international and cultural diversity.   There have been difficult lessons to learn but Mormonism has found how their relevance is heightened for ordinary people if there is a church culture of inclusivity and tolerance.  The LDS church is trying to find a balance between having a meaningful and coherent theology and a rich and caring community.  More importantly it is trying to find ways were people can have many different identities and also be mormon.

Yet the distrust of the Mormon PR machine does linger.  During the presidential campaign the media were hungry for stories about Mormonism that weren’t primarily crafted as evangelizing tools, morality tales, or image managers.  Coming to the fore were people like Joanna who, as a life long Mormon didn’t fit the aesthetic.   A feminist, a gay ally, a scholar, an author, and married to a Jew she is also openly Mormon and publically sent her diploma back to BYU as a protest against their treatment of women has been consulted extensively over the last year as the unwitting and unofficial spokesperson on American Mormonism.

The question however does remain, how will Mormonism continue as it severs and distances itself from its past theological creativity.  For in some ways, its idiosyncrasies have made it what it is.   Yes, affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has historically attracted ridicule, conflict and persecution, but the beauty of religious persecution is that it brings people together, it gives them a common sense of purpose and a high degree of loyalty.  As they win the struggle to be accepted Mormons will have their next big challenge.  How to stay relevant in a changing world?  And how to stay distinctive while severing those parts of  the Mormon identity that made it distinctive in the first place?

  • Perhaps Mormonism’s greatest challenge is yet to come.
  •  Perhaps it will come from within the church as the liberal/conservative divide splits apart the American church?
  •  Will it come from continuing challenges to literal truth claims in the no-hold-barred, information-wants-to-be-free context of the digital era?
  • Or perhaps it will come from the international Mormon community who might make demands that America is seen less overtly in its doctrine, theology, and practices?
  • Or it could be from young people, who having figured out how to behave themselves can’t see the purpose of a religious institution that continues to remind them of their deficits?
  •  It might be from women some of whom are mobilizing to be equally powerful in the church at the leadership level?
  • Or perhaps it will be from the gay community whose claims on sexual rights raise a challenge to the heterosexual core of the church?
  • Perhaps it will be a challenge to the corporate nature of the organization and the demand for more fiscal transparency?
  •  Or perhaps right now, its greatest challenge is in deciding how on earth it’s going to manage the ignominy of being hailed a first class church?

I will leave you with a quote from the Nelson Examiner and Cook Strait Times 1854:

“That Mormonism will have its day” is certain, as it is also equally certain that it will have its reforms and changes like all other human institutions, and that it will have its sects of divers opinions and that these will be splitting of creeds, and antagonisms of feeling. It will also have its use as well as its end, and no doubt Mormonism of the present day will be very different from Mormonism a century hence…There can be no doubt that Mormonism has made a hit and possesses attractions and prepossessions as calculated to invite the more sagacious and worldly, as to ensure the dullard and enthusiast”.

  • Derrick Clements

    Really nicely done, Gina! Enjoyed the whole presentation.

    • Gina Colvin

      Aw – thanks Derrick!!

  • Darren

    “[Joana Brooks]publically sent her diploma back to BYU as a protest against their treatment of women has been consulted extensively over the last year as the unwitting and unofficial spokesperson on American Mormonism.”

    Regarding Mormonism while I agree with probably over 90% of what she says, her actions at times confound me. Why in the world would she do that. And what sense does it make for a woman who received a degree in higher education from an LDS owned school send back her degree in higher education because the LDS hold back women? Huh?

    And how, this is an interesting post. The dynamics of the LDS culture are definitely changing.

  • Darren

    “In one of her boldest acts of defiance, Brooks says she returned her diploma to Brigham Young University during her commencement because the university had begun cracking down on and even letting go several left-leaning professors.”

    OK, now I understand. I don’t agree with her, but at least I understand.

  • anony

    Gina, your site is fabulous and I really appreciate your thoughtful candor that you share with us all. After reading you for quite some time now, I have to ask:

    Do you consider Joseph Smith to be an honest person?

    I hope this question doesn’t come across as disrespectful or flippant in any way. On the contrary, it comes from a place of respect for you. You see, I have been “struggling” or, rather, considering my own faith/values/spiritual beliefs and am actually curious as to your own answer. Thanks.

    • Gina Colvin

      Thanks for reading!!

      This is a good question! And no, I don’t think its flippant or disrespectful at all – although I don’t really know how to answer it. I’ll have to be honest though, my spiritual life doesn’t depend on Joseph Smith’s integrity or honesty. My spiritual life is independent of my feelings about Joseph Smith and are largely centred upon Christ. My religious life calls me to some kind of relationship with Joseph Smith and asks me constantly to have an opinion about him. So this is how I handle it – Joseph Smith was probably most things said about him by most people. He was a charismatic religious leader, and charismatic leaders all have similar characteristics -they are grandiose, narcissistic, visionary geniuses, compassionate and volatile all at the same time. His legacy of course is the church to which I adhere, and for that I am grateful (most of the time). I don’t need the church or Joseph Smith to be ‘true’ (in the traditional sense of the word) for it to be efficacious and to earn my loyalty. I choose to believe – despite his failings – that he facilitated the restoration of aspects of the gospel of Jesus Christ which calls me into a relationship with my Saviour in a way that feels good and right. But in direct response to your question – perhaps it is helpful to parse these things out – your faith is your choice – amidst doubt- to belief in the possibilities of a spiritually animated life, your values will come through multiple agents of socialization (including the church) and aren’t always as dependent upon their spiritual efficacy as they are upon cultural norms, and your spiritual beliefs are those spiritual practices and stories that give your life meaning and coherence. Some or all of those might be ‘churched’ or they might not. I suppose what I’m saying is that Joseph Smith’s integrity is only one small piece of the entire picture of my spiritual life. Hope that helps?? Best – Gina

  • Kiwi Christian

    Didn’t south park show that joe “translated” the bom using a hat and seerstone?

    This is actually what happened.