Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the satirical animated series “South Park,” have long been fascinated by Latter-day Saints, and on more than one occasion have skewered our history and goody-two-shoes personas on their show. About ten years ago, Parker and Stone decided to write a Broadway musical about us. Their efforts came to fruition in February 2011 with the debut of a ground-breaking, critically acclaimed, award-winning and wildly popular musical called “The Book of Mormon,” named after one of our books of scripture. The show just finished its stop in my hometown, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, and judging from the buzz on Facebook and among my husband’s colleagues, it was a crowd-pleaser.
The play’s plot centers on two young, male, white, American Latter-day Saint missionaries (no, not all LDS missionaries are young, male, white or American) working in Africa, where they cluelessly try to share their faith with people more worried about war and AIDS than prophets and scriptures. I enjoy a good laugh, even when the joke is Latter-day Saints’ simplicity, and I would go see the musical myself if profanity, sexual innuendo and mockery of religious faith were not the authors’ favorite comic devices. From reading the reviews, it’s clear the musical goes far beyond poking fun to something like bigotry. The production’s hilarious theme is Mormons are lovable fools.
Can you imagine what the public’s response would be if this musical were titled “The Talmud?” Theater critics would be aghast at the anti-Semitism. Or what if they made a musical called “The Koran?” Theater critics would be aghast and we’d have a national security crisis. Why is it that our generation’s passion for tolerance and respect does not apply to my faith?
Compared to most religions, ours is young, and Latter-day Saints have a keen sense of history. We remember well that our founder was assassinated by a mob of “upstanding” Midwesterners who were never brought to justice. We haven’t forgotten that Latter-day Saint women were raped; Latter-day Saint men, women and children martyred; and their farms burned. We haven’t forgotten that in 1838 the governor of Missouri ordered all Mormons in the state be driven out or “exterminated.” Most of them fled to Illinois, where they heroically erected a new city and temple, only to watch the temple burn as once again they were driven from their homes, this time across the frozen Mississipi into the wilderness. After they traversed the continent and built new cities in a bleak desert far from the boundaries of the United States, the U.S. government sent armies after them to stop the practice of polygamy. Some church leaders were thrown in jail; other families fled to Mexico. Fathers were forced to abandon their children.
I share this history because if you’re not LDS, you probably don’t know it. Every American and his uncle seems to know that black Latter-day Saint men were not given the priesthood until 1978, but almost no one recalls that until just two years before that, it was still legal to exterminate Mormons in Missouri. You’d think that we Americans would be more familiar with this shameful past and would have learned something from it, as we have been ashamed and enlightened by such things as slavery, the Trail of Tears, and Japanese internment camps. You’d think Americans would want to distance themselves from perpetuating prejudices.
So what was our church’s response to “The Book of Mormon” musical? Our leadership published a single-sentence statement: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” A while later, a church PR official published a piece in The Washington Post called “Why I won’t be seeing the Book of Mormon musical,” in which he cautions people from confusing parody with reality. He listed the many humanitarian projects our church has completed in Africa in recent years. In Seattle, as it has in other locations, our church purchased ads in the production’s playbill. As for average Latter-day Saints, they’re barely bothering to talk about it. It’s only the sort of thing that makes us shake our heads and ask, “So they’re portraying us as small-minded?”