Lessons in being liberal from Mormons

Joking about religion too often leads to demands for censorship and threats of violence. The youngest of the world religions shows how to behave when you are the subject of a joke.

Stewart Lee is one of my favourite comedians yet I’ve never seen his stage show Jerry Springer: the opera. Having heard an interview in which Lee tried to defend lyrics about the Virgin Mary being “raped by an angel”; I concluded it wasn’t for me. I found the notion offensive and daft, and as a Christian I wasn’t prepared to tacitly endorse it.

What to this day I find strange is that there a small number of Christians who decided that because they didn’t like the idea, nobody else was allowed to. The woefully misnamed pressure group Christian Voice picketed theatres where the play was being performed and even went as far as threatening to picket the centres of a cancer charity if it accepted a donation from the show’s cast and crew.

We’ve of course seen worse than that in the name of prevent offence to religions. When the Birmingham Rep put on a play by a Sikh author about sexual abuse within her community, some of her co-religionists decided what was offensive was not the notion that sexual abuse was happening but that (sacrilegiously) it might be depicted happening in a temple. And that’s not to mention the global howls of often violent rage that have met the Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons of Muhammed and the Innocence of Muslims video.

Now it should go without saying that these acts of violence and bullying are the work of a minority of believers and have met abundant resistance from their fellow believers (including yours truly). However, they remain deeply depressing.

That’s what makes the way the Church of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) has reacted to smash hit musical the Book of Mormon all the more heartening.

“Book of Mormon” is by no means an attack on Mormonism. The way Mormons are portrayed is generally affectionate. It avoids the lazy jokes about polygamy that tend to define humour about the Church even though it has condemned the practice for 70% of its history and that in the present day is almost certainly more prevalent among Christians and Muslims than Mormons. And the play ultimately (sort of) winds up concluding that religion is valuable.

However, if they were to choose to be offended by it, there would be plenty in “Book of Mormon” for actual Mormons to object to. There are big helpings of the kind of outrageous humour you’d expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. And if it is affectionate towards Mormonism that can manifest itself in the form of gently going for the faith’s jugular. There is a running joke about the implausibility of the idea that having discovered a holy book on ancient golden plates, Joseph Smith would neglect to ever show them to anyone. And there are swipes at the Church’s exclusion of black people from active membership till the late 1970s.

Nonetheless the Church seems to have made a concerted effort to get the joke:

The response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the musical has been described as “measured”.[67] The church released an official response to inquiries regarding the musical, stating, “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.”[68]Michael Otterson, the head of Public Affairs for the church, followed in April 2011 with measured criticism. “Of course, parody isn’t reality, and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously—if they leave a theater believing that Mormons really do live in some kind of a surreal world of self-deception and illusion”, Otterson wrote, outlining various humanitarian efforts achieved by Mormon missionaries in Africa in recent years.[69][70]

Stone and Parker were unsurprised by this response:

“The official church response was something along the lines of ‘The Book of Mormon the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon,’—the book as scripture—’will change your life through Jesus.’ Which we actually completely agree with. The Mormon church’s response to this musical is almost like our Q.E.D. at the end of it. That’s a cool, American response to a ribbing—a big musical that’s done in their name. Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, ‘Are you afraid of what the church would say?’ And Trey and I were like, ‘They’re going to be cool.’ And they were like, ‘No, they’re not. There are going to be protests.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, they’re going to be cool.’ We weren’t that surprised by the church’s response. We had faith in them.”[10]

The LDS Church has advertised in the playbills at many of the musical’s venues (including Louisville, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Durham, Hartford, Houston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Atlanta, and Washington, DC) to encourage attendees to learn more about the Book of Mormon, with phrases like “the book is always better.” and “you’ve seen the play, now read the book.”[71]

Mormons themselves have had varying responses to the musical. Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon studies, said of the musical, “Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.”[72] Bushman said that the musical was not meant to explain Mormon belief, and that many of the ideas in Elder Price’s “I Believe” (like God living on a planet called Kolob), though having some roots in Mormon belief, are not doctrinally accurate.[72][73]

The Church highlighted one conversion story by the musical in its semi-official Deseret News.[74]

A single conversion might not burst heaven open but it is probably more than the number of souls that were won for God by the hissy fit over Jerry Springer the Opera. And the violence over the Muhammad cartoons and the Innocence of Muslims almost certainly reinforced rather than challenged  prejudices about Muslims.

What is more, there is something disingenuous about religious believers who first insist on having a say in public debate but become angry when others have something to say about the,. Make no mistake we are combatants in the battle of ideas, we do not have and do not deserve immunity, and we should expect to be hit with a variety of weapons including satire.

I am aware that the paragraph above sounds rather combative but I do actually think that satire has a lot to offer religions. An abrasive approach can force you to face things you would otherwise massage over. And comedy is given to surreality, which is helpful when dealing with the somewhat mind-bending aspects of religion. For a musical with abundant jokes about having sex with frogs, the Book of Mormon has plenty to say about how literally one needs to believe a religion for it to be meaningful and about the pitfalls of preaching to those less fortunate than oneself.

So while the Mormons don’t exactly have an unblemished record of supporting personal freedom, on this matter I take my hat off to them.