Responding to "The Book of Mormon"

Everyone knows that "The Book of Mormon" won the Tony for best Broadway show this year. Many have noticed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has barely responded to it. Their official response was mild, and the Church appears to be following up with an ad campaign to capitalize on the current interest in Mormonism. That's probably the right strategy. At best, complaint would make us whiney victims, and perhaps it's true that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

I've not seen "The Book of Mormon" nor do I intend to. I know enough to know that I am not interested. I'm not a musical theater fan to begin with, so I'm not likely to interrupt my abstention from musical theater for this particular show. From what I do know it appears to have gained as much acclaim as it has at least partly because it fulfills a certain segment of American culture's assumptions about all religion: foolish and simple-minded, gullible . . . but nevertheless "nice."

Given what I've seen in the interviews with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, "nice" is sincerely meant. Parker and Stone appear to have genuine affection for Mormons, and many who have seen the show say it ends with a sweet message, though the message heard second- or third-hand sounds platitudinous.

In spite of the sincerity, the compliment is also a display of condescending magnanimity: Mormons, and by implication all religious people, are generally nice but not so bright. Witness Stone's question, "Do goofy stories make people nice?" and Parker's comparison of religious stories to science fiction and comic book stories.

Some argue publicly that religious people are all implicitly dangerous. Nowadays many Americans worry that Muslims are explicitly so, and with some regularity we are reminded that Christians have been. Against that Parker and Stone remind us that religious people, of whom Mormons are the Broadway exemplars, are more like children. They are to be laughed at when they say cute things that get the world all wrong, to be put up with and even admired in some respects until they achieve the maturity that we who laugh have.

Mormonism is a convenient target for such simplifications and condescension because it is thought to be exotic, weird, or arcane. It doesn't hurt that we are a minority religion. So a playwright, comic, professor, or politician can say nasty, inaccurate, crude, or sarcastic things about Mormon beliefs and culture and get away with it. Non-Mormons may think, perhaps unconsciously, "At least it isn't about me. Besides, there's something to the jokes. Mormons are weird."

Perhaps the mockery shows that we have begun to have enough national presence to draw attention. It comes with having a Senate Majority Leader as well as one and perhaps a second presidential candidate. Maybe obscurity wasn't such a bad thing.

Of course Mormons aren't the only targets. Catholic priests have come in for a good many cruel jokes recently. Evangelical Christians get their fair share of mockery. Besides, sometimes the jokes people make about us are funny. Jews have been making jokes about themselves for a long time. We could learn from them, and we should laugh when others use humor to point out our idiosyncrasies.

But "The Book of Mormon" is more like the cruel jokes about Catholic priests than it is like self-critical Jewish humor. Its point is to show how even people with idiotic beliefs can be nice. It isn't written to show the ways in which Mormons should take themselves less seriously. That could be funny. Instead, it is written to show that Mormons can perhaps be taken seriously as nice people, but no thoughtful person could take Mormon beliefs seriously.

6/15/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.