Mormon Affect as Seen in Tap Dancing Missionaries and Laughing Robots

Turn it Off,” one of The Book of Mormon Musical’s most catchy and popular songs, provides a clear example of recent representations of Mormons in popular culture. The musical focuses on the story of two nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries who travel to Uganda to proselytize and who quickly discover a world that is more complex than their upbringing and their missionary training have led them to expect. In “Turn it Off,” a more experienced missionary attempts to cheer up the elders (as male Mormon missionaries are referred to) by suggesting that negative emotions should simply be destroyed. While the song’s central focus is on the story of a young man who is denying his own homosexuality, the missionary applies the basic formula of “turn it off/ like a light switch” to any negative emotion, from grief to discouragement to fear. As a representation of Mormon culture, the song aptly sums up a common conception of Mormon missionaries who act outwardly happy-go-lucky, while internally refusing to acknowledge their unhappiness.

Similar depictions resurfaced during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, as entertainers compared Romney to a robot and joked that he might be an alien. Jimmy Fallon notably developed an impersonation of Romney that involves a mirthless pronunciation of “ha ha ha” to represent an emotionless creature pretending to laugh. Caricatures of Romney as distant from organic emotions echoed BOMM’s perception of Mormons as emotionally-inhibited: in each instance, a fictional rendering of a Mormon attempts to give the impression of happiness while simultaneously ignoring or suppressing negative emotions. The characters share the same aim and only differ in terms of where they succeed. Where BOMM’s missionaries succeed in creating a convincingly happy front, their inability to “pretend hard enough,” as one character chastises, reveals the private sorrow that they have failed to eradicate. “Turn it Off” transforms the happy-go-lucky demeanor of the Mormon elder into false bravado and a heart-breaking attempt at denying the sorrows of life. Comedic depictions of Romney, on the other hand, suggest a man who has already succeeded at denying negative emotions but at the cost of positive emotions too. As an affectless robot or alien, the comedic vision of Romney repeatedly attempts and fails to create the illusion of happiness. In essence, this version of Romney is a successfully repressed Mormon but a failed happy-go-lucky Mormon.

Mormon culture and theology provide some support for the image of Mormons as outwardly happy-go-lucky but internally emotionally inhibited, though the reality is much more complex. In the United States, one widely-documented Ensign article from 1978 contributes to the culture “Turn it Off” mocks.  Based on conversations with college-aged Mormons, Don Norton created a list of feelings and thoughts likely to occur while a member felt the Spirit and contrasted it with a list of feelings and thoughts likely to occur while a member did not feel the Spirit. The first list, “when you have the Spirit” emphasizes positive affect with items such as, “You feel happy, calm, and clear-minded, you feel generous… you are eager to be with people and want to make them happy… you are glad when others succeed,” and “you feel confident and are glad to be alive.” Even items in the list that discussed thoughts did so in affective terms: “You think about the Savior often and lovingly. You want to know him better.” Norton’s list surpasses orthodoxy and raises ortho-affect as a goal, where positive feelings are evidence of a person’s righteousness and closeness to God.

Norton’s contrasting list, “When you don’t have the Spirit,” mirrors the first list but in negative terms, with items such as, “You feel unhappy, depressed, confused, and frustrated. You feel possessive, self-centered, or resentful… you are easily offended… you don’t want to [perform church duties],” and “you feel discouraged easily and wonder if life is really worth it.” Norton’s list generalizes emotions into two categories that most contemporary Mormons recognize as an inaccurate representation of human experience, and his list even stands in contrast with Book of Mormon descriptions of God’s people as those who “are willing to mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:9). Yet the article gained such popularity with American Mormons that 35 years later, it occasionally appears in youth groups and Sunday school lessons. While Norton’s lists do not accurately represent the human reality of Mormon affective experience, they represent a cultural current in Mormonism that aims for perpetual positive affect, a current that assumes unhappiness is a sign of sin.

On a theological and doctrinal level, Mormonism actually approaches affect in complicated terms. For Mormons, affect is both essential to faith and the reason why humans have bodies. The Pearl of Great Price, a book of Mormon scripture, describes two parts to God’s creation: spiritual and physical, stating: “For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5). This belief in a premortal existence hinges on the assumption that bodies are eternally necessary. While some Christian sects view the body as an obstacle between the soul and God, Mormonism defines a soul as a spirit that is joined to a body: God and Jesus both possess bodies, while Satan and his followers only possess spirits. The body is not just important to Mormon theology, but pivotal – particularly because of the connection between affect and the body. The Book of Mormon interprets The Fall as a positive and necessary step in God’s plan, stating: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Mormons take this verse to mean that Adam and Eve chose to the leave Eden in order to have children and that humans are born in order to gain bodies, which enable them to feel joy. Based on this interpretation, positive affect is seen as the purpose of mortal life, as well as the purpose of life after death, when Mormons believe that all who have died will gain an immortal body.

While Mormon theology establishes joy as the purpose of existence, it also maintains the importance of misery. In the same passage of scripture that defines joy as the purpose of life, misery is described as its necessary counterpart. The passage argues that if Adam and Eve had not fallen, “they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery” (2 Ne. 2:23). This passage still elevates joy over misery, which is only mentioned as necessary for knowing joy; yet it complicates the “Turn it Off” image of Mormonism as a faith that teaches the suppression of negative emotions. Despite the cultural current fueled by Norton’s list, Mormon theology requires members to experience negative affect in order to fulfill the purpose of their existence and know joy.


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