Matthew Bowman has a message for the U.S. media: Don't judge Mormonism by "The Book of Mormon" musical or the LDS characters in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America."
Both plays offer simplistic, one-sided views of the Utah-based faith but from opposite poles, argues Bowman, author of the newly released one volume history, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, in Slate magazine.
“Both the riotous musical and Kushner’s brooding black comedy present faith defanged,” argues Bowman, who teaches American religious history at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and is associate editor of Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought.
The musical's Mormons “offer no challenge to modern American life,” he writes. “Their beliefs are patently ridiculous, amplified and exaggerated in the song “I Believe” to emphasize Mormons’ apparent utter detachment from reason and rationality.”
Likewise, Kushner’s “contemporary Mormons are the grim storm troopers of American capitalism,” Bowman writes, “unthinking servants of all that is wrong with the status quo, barely conscious of their own once marginal heritage.”
Both plays “capture a part of what it may mean to be Mormon in America today,” Bowman believes, “but none quite grasp the multifaceted ways in which Mormons currently define themselves and the strength with which their religion still creates for them a profoundly radical world.”
Bowman is equally critical of the media's shallow view of Mitt Romney's LDS faith.
Reporters jumped on Romney's statement, “I'm not concerned about the very poor,” condemning the Mormon candidate as callous and unfeeling.
For Bowman, who explores Mormon economics in a separate essay in The New Republic, the issue is not “whether Mitt Romney thinks about the poor, it’s how he thinks about their plight.”
The historian then offers a tutorial on Mormon economic history from LDS Church founder Joseph Smith to the faith's current welfare and humanitarian efforts. To this day, he writes, Mormons embrace “a combination of intense communalism, suspicion of government, and a certainty that aid must not merely alleviate poverty but encourage virtue.”
Bowman, whose Mormon book came out late last month, is all over the Internet explaining the religion in all its various dimensions – an important role during this so-called Mormon moment. And his pace of writing his Mormon volume is impressive – it was completed in just 10 weeks.
Then came the media frenzy.
“I’m learning that you need to have a solid paragraph about polygamy before you get to explain anything else, because they always ask – even when you’re told that the interview will be about Mitt Romney and politics,” Bowman told Mormon blogger Jana Riess at Flunking Sainthood. “They will ask you first about polygamy.”
In all these interviews, Bowman said, he has been "distressed by what I see as this persistent urge to exoticize Mormonism, to see it as something odd and alien. Or as something kind of cute, like the Osmonds.”
The stereotypes are never-ending, even for well-trained journalists, he said. “It appears that Mormons are either the Osmonds or the Laffertys, the murderous polygamists portrayed by Jon Krakauer.”
Or maybe carbon copies of Mitt Romney.
Peggy Fletcher Stack