“The Book of Mormon” has hit Broadway. Not the Book of Mormon published by Joseph Smith in 1830, launching an American-grown religious movement, but a musical comedy about two Mormon naifs in Africa, written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brilliant satirists who created “South Park.” So far, the new musical is a hit among theater critics: “old fashioned” and “pleasure giving,” per the New York Times, and an “extraordinarily well-crafted musical assault on all things holy,” according to The Washington Post.
Some wonder if this musical assault is a political one, as well. According to columnist George Will, the GOP has only five “plausible” candidates for president, and two of them happen to be Mormons. Will Parker and Stone’s comedy create drama for Mitt Romney’s and Jon Huntsman’s presidential aspirations?
In the reviews, there is a signal of contrary possibilities. To Elysa Gardner of USA Today, “the most surprising thing about ‘Mormon’ . . . may be its inherent sweetness.” The Times exhorts the public to “hie thee hence . . . and feast upon its sweetness.” It’s been a long time since anything about Mormonism has been deemed sweet by the press. That may indicate something positive for voters, not just theatergoers, since we the people and we the Latter-day Saints are again being invited by presidential politics to dither about Mormonism. Is it Christian? Is it American? Is it safe?
In 2007, when Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, made a presidential run, many people seemed to answer “no” to those questions. Polls showed that a majority of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Romney’s church; hence, his speech on religious liberty in December 2007. According to a Gallup survey that year, the only people less likely than Mormons to be put into the Oval Office were homosexuals and atheists. Also unwelcome, by only five fewer percentage points than Mormons, were thrice-married candidates. I suppose that equation fits Gallup’s other 2007 finding: The word most often associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “polygamy,” a practice it abandoned more than a century ago.
Voters have consistently balked at having a Mormon in the White House. While there is no poll that has measured all of what Americans don’t like about Latter-day Saint doctrine, there are some safe guesses. Not least, I imagine, is their belief that God still speaks to them through prophets. For many contemporary Americans, claims to revelation are a definitive marker of irrationality. While Americans may be more religious than people in other wealthy nations, religion in America is nevertheless fundamentally modern, even among most fundamentalists. It is also about as rational as religion can get and still be religion.
Today, if you are a person of faith, God may inspire you generally or even, with Oprah-like generosity, prompt you to improve. God may find your next job or help you pass an exam. But God is emphatically not going to inspire you to write another scripture that improves upon the Bible or catalyzes a new religious movement. By now, God has said all there is to say about God, and the rest is, well, all about you. It may be that what Latter-day Saints believe is so fantastical to the modern mind that someone who does believe it is per se unbelievable.
There’s no denying it: Mormonism is a pre-modern religion. It is full of miracles and grand providential acts of God, such as church members’ pioneering exodus to the West in 1846. It preaches and promises epiphany, such as the appearance to founder Joseph Smith of two divine beings, God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ. It builds temples and demands sacrifice of time and tithes. It has a dietary code that abjures most of what makes the social world go round, and its believers do not buy their underwear at Victoria’s Secret. It insists on proselytizing a postmodern world convinced of a plurality, if not relativity, of truth. Hence, the conundrums posed to and by the Mormon missionaries portrayed in Parker and Stone’s sendup.
Nevertheless, church membership now stands at 14 million people in 160 countries and includes such diverse voices as singer Gladys Knight and broadcaster Glenn Beck. More significantly, only half of the church speaks English, church leadership positions are held by non-Americans, and the Book of Mormon has been translated into more than 100 languages. This is not your grandparents’ or even Brigham Young’s Mormonism. Yet popular understanding of it has changed remarkably little.
Certain histories bow slowly to present evidence, especially histories of conflict. Mormonism holds the religious record for length of contest — even war — with the United States. From their first years in 1830s New York, the Latter-day Saints were pushed westward through the Midwest to the far side of the Rockies by religiously inspired and state-sponsored violence. Adding to their bad reputation was 50 years of civil disobedience to the nation’s anti-polygamy laws. What the Saints called “plural marriage” the nation called illegal, and the government sent an occupying army and carpetbagging officials to control them in the closely monitored Utah Territory.
The army failed to reform the Mormons, however, so Congress began to criminalize them: denying civil rights, jailing unrepentant polygamists, confiscating property and stripping the church of legal status. Not until 1890, when the church pledged to cease performing plural marriages, did things begin to simmer down between church and state.
Mormonism’s political emergence from its Rocky Mountain ghetto was marked by the 1902 election of its apostle Reed Smoot as Utah’s junior senator. He served for 30 years and had extraordinary influence, though today he is chiefly known for the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Act, which is often credited with worsening the Depression. His career began, however, with a four-year Senate hearing whose fame was on a level with Watergate’s. Smoot kept his seat largely because the Senate decided that law-abiding citizens should not be politically accountable for church creeds. Moreover, as one journalist wrote: “Viewed at close range . . . the Senator is reassuring in appearance.”
For more than 100 years, the public has had many opportunities to view the Latter-day Saints and their politicians up close. They have become staples in local and national elective offices. Today, they make up 5 percent of the Senate and 2 percent of the House. But have voters seen enough to be assured? Can a Mormon be elected president?
For modern religious and secular Americans, Mormonism might still be too religious, and especially too old-time religious. Not surprising, then, that the other “plausible” Mormon GOP candidate, Huntsman, told an interviewer: “I can’t say I am overly religious.”
So what’s a Mormon presidential candidate to do? I say embrace “The Book of Mormon” — Stone and Parker’s version, not just Joseph Smith’s. Oddly enough, the characters in “South Park” have been making a compelling case for religious tolerance for almost 15 years. In 2003, its take on Mormonism was voiced by Stan’s spurned friend Gary. After a half-hour of hilarity about what Mormons believe, and after Gary realizes that his religion is just too much for Stan, the otherwise mild-mannered boy yells: “Maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people.”
This appears to be the point of the Broadway musical, as well. But the point most relevant to politics comes in Gary’s last words to Stan: “And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty, you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” Expletive deleted, of course.
While their stories may seem crazy, the Latter-day Saints have proved themselves to be good neighbors and good citizens, and even trustworthy politicians. It’s time to admit them to that well-populated club of people whose religion is not our own and even seems fantastical (virgin birth, predestination or infant damnation anyone?), but who are deemed perfectly acceptable presidential candidates. Or, as Parker and Stone are saying — and not just to the benefit of Romney and Huntsman, but all of us — it’s time to grow up.
Kathleen Flake is a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University and the author of “The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.”