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.