Mormon ‘Niceness’

Before there was The Book of Mormon musical, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were the wicked masters of South Park, and in a 2003 episode titled “All About the Mormons,” Mormons were their prey. A new Mormon family moved into the South Park neighborhood, and the episode revolved around the encounter between this disturbingly happy clan of Mormons and the usual cast of precociously postmodern grade-schoolers. In some ways, it was a premonition of what was to come later with The Book of Mormon; it gave the same schizoid representation of Mormons—cheerful, wholesome, and congenial on the one hand, but deluded, superficial, and slightly unhinged on the other. In its profane, singsong way, the show aggressively ridiculed the sacred narrative of the Mormon faith. And yet in the end, after Mormonism itself lay in shambles, the sheer “niceness” of Mormons won the day.

Indeed, the trope of “Mormon niceness” has seen considerable play in recent years. Parker and Stone have invested heavily in the concept, but others—often comics—have cashed in as well. Several months ago, before Mitt Romney had locked up the Republican presidential nomination, Saturday Night Live needled him in a skit with his doppelganger competing lamely for attention with a far more ingratiating Chris Christie. Facing petulance from the crowd, a flustered Romney gave the dire warning that “I’m about to get angry. And not regular angry…we’re talkin’ Mormon angry.” It was a threat that drew laughs because everyone knows that Mormon lack the capacity for rage. Even if they did, it would be very much like the fussy explosion of “shucks,” and “darn” and other euphemisms that the skit projected. And in his “Mortal Kombat” mock-up of debate back-and-forth between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Jon Stewart summed up Romney’s getting tough by pronouncing, menacingly: “No more Mr. Nice Mormon!”

It’s hard to say how much truth there is in the niceness stereotype. It’s not uncommon for people to praise Mormons as exceptionally friendly. Social research indicates shown that by some measures, religious people tend to be more congenial and “nicer” generally, and Mormons fall on the upper end of the religiosity spectrum. And according to Pew Forum research, Mormons are among those most friendly to other faiths. Yet, like any group, we also assuredly have our grouches.

Some of the perception of Mormons niceness may be buttressed by the messaging of the institutional Church, which has worked to emphasize civility. When the Church responded to The Book of Mormon musical with an unusually wry but measured one-sentence dismissal, Parker and Stone were delighted, saying it was precisely the kind of polite rebuke they expected.

Nice also has other meanings and connotations in a cynical modern age. As South Park depicted so well, “niceness” can stand in as a euphemism for naiveté and delusion. As a result, praising Mormons for niceness can be a backhanded compliment. South Park fixed its Mormon characters with broad, unyielding smiles and unnerving, incessant laughter. At the center of the plot was the sense that Mormons were too nice; the niceness was actually unsettling. The way that Parker and Stone depicted it, niceness was not a virtue but a suspicious symptom. Yet the revelation of the show was that, whatever its source, niceness was actually refreshing—even, or perhaps especially, in a time when it is difficult to comprehend niceness for its own sake.

Finally—if common speech is any indication—describing Mormons as nice also serves as a way to handle uncertainty. To anyone whose ever defaulted to the word in casual conversation, calling something nice is also a polite way of signaling that you’re not sure what else to say. “He’s…well, nice.” Perhaps the niceness trope, wanting to be generous and yet remaining wary, is appealing for Americans because it’s a way of deferring judgment about something they don’t know. After all, if there’s anything that’s clear from the contemporary discussions of Mormonism, it’s that Mormons, nice or not, remain little known and scarcely understood.

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  • Michael H.

    “Nice” as a backhanded compliment was precisely the sense I got from the Book of Mormon musical. Thanks for the discussion of it!

  • Chas Holman

    Today Ann Romney told the American people….

    “WE’VE Given all YOU PEOPLE need to know’.

    ‘You people’……

    Get it yet?

    • John

      I”m thinking the “YOU PEOPLE” was referring to ravenous journalists. If I were Ann Romney, I would be somewhat tired of the media constantly spotlighting any flaw in my husband, and asking for more and more just so they can bark about things they don’t like. There was obviously some frustration in her comment. She wasn’t speaking to the American people, she was speaking to her husband’s attackers who for the most part already know Mitt is rich and follows tax law.

      I’m guessing that because of the stock market fall, the Romney’s didn’t make any capital gains or pay any taxes in 2009, which of course the media would have a field day about, even though the Romney’s followed all applicable law and most investors had major losses in 2009. It’s Romney’s choice when to time the release of that news, which will be a media bombshell and presumably anger lower class voters. Romney wants to retain control of the narrative, and also doesn’t want it to overshadow a possible VP announcement this week.

      Basically, I don’t think Ann Romney thinks condescendingly of Americans as alleged, she’s just tired of all the pundits who want to complain about her family’s personal finances. I would be too.

    • Jay

      The Obama media?

      • Brian

        If you think the media is unbiased, I recommend reading anything by former CBS newsman Bernard Goldburg. Yes, the media has bias, and it ain’t for Romney. The fact is if Obama had done even 10% of the charitable work that Romney has done, we’d hear about it till no end. But when was the last time you heard this story?

      • George

        Bain owns Clear Channels radio network which is home to rush Libaugh, Sean Hannity & Glenn Beck talk shows. It it clearly Romney that literally owns the media. You may perceive that other channels are sympathetic to Obama, but clearly Obama does not own those channels, he does not own media outlets. Owning media outlets as vast as Clear Channels should be of more concern than Romney’s off-shore accounts and reluctuance to show his tax returns and even Bain outsourcing American jobs. Since the Federalist Papers and the inception of this nation, the press has been an important feature of freedom, clearly Bain’s ownership of Clear Channels threatens the very liberties this country stands for.

  • David Naas

    (sigh) — “Mormon Nice”… and meanwhile, Porter Rockwell is smiling down on the great-great-grandchildren of the pioneers. — and making sure his strop is well-oiled.

  • John

    Very intelligent writing, nice job. I don’t think Mormons are automatically more nice than regular people, but I have heard the stereotype.