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Testing Mormons' tolerance for mockery

Published February 23, 2011 3:35 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last fall, columnist Joel Campbell declared that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had "arrived."

"We are now well-known enough that we can do our own thing," Campbell, a Brigham Young University journalism professor who used to write a column for the Deseret News and now writes one for The Salt Lake Tribune, told the Tribune's Peggy Fletcher Stack.

"Our own thing," Stack noted at the time, included Brigham Young University's football program declaring itself independent from other football conferences, and the LDS Church-owned Deseret News laying off nearly half its newsroom staff and relying on material from freelancers and unpaid LDS "correspondents" — many of them from outside Utah.

Campbell went as far as to say "we are even big enough to be mocked."

Oh, yeah? That tolerance for mockery will be tested by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind TV's "South Park," with their latest project: "The Book of Mormon," a musical set to open on Broadway on March 24.

The musical — created by Parker, Stone and "Avenue Q" co-creator Robert Lopez — follows a pair of LDS missionaries newly arrived from Salt Lake City to Uganda. The story, as described last week in an article in The New York Times, "introduces the missionaries to a population beset by famine, poverty and epidemic levels of AIDS."

And, true to Parker and Stone's sensibilities, it's done with bawdy humor and plenty of swear words.

The musical also draws a line between Mormon doctrine and the humanity of its members.

Lopez studied the Bible as literature at Yale, and was fascinated with the Book of Mormon as a work of "Bible fan fiction," he told The New York Times. "It's such a load of baloney," Lopez told the Times. "But people believe in it so strongly, and their lives are demonstrably changed for the good by it."

This two-pronged view of Mormonism — ridicule of its doctrine, but respect for its members — is nothing new for Parker and Stone. In an infamous 2003 "South Park" episode, a depiction of Joseph Smith's translation of the Golden Plates featured a musical chorus of "dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb." But the episode also showed the new Mormon neighbors as friendlier than Stan, Cartman and the gang.

"We wanted to make this not just cynical and Mormon bashing, but hopeful and happy, because to me that's what musicals are about," Parker told Times.

It wouldn't be out of line for Mormons to react angrily to the "Book of Mormon" musical. Hot-tempered defense of religion from perceived slights is a common part of American political dialogue.

If a radio host makes a disparaging comment about Jews or an offhand remark about the Holocaust, that host can expect a strongly worded letter from the Anti-Defamation League in his or her e-mail. If a cartoonist draws a caricature of Islam, pickets (and sometimes threats) from incensed Muslims are sure to follow. Make a movie about a priest that's anything less reverential than "Going My Way," and Catholic groups will howl in protest.

So far, the official response to the musical "Book of Mormon" from the LDS Church has been measured.

The New York Times quotes LDS Church spokeswoman Kim Farah: "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."

Such a calm response could just be the smart play — tamping down controversy that might generate more interest in the musical. (Think back to 1999, when angry statements from the Catholic League against Kevin Smith's comedy "Dogma" considerably raised the movie's profile.)

But perhaps the LDS Church's muted reaction simply reflects the reality that Mormonism is in the American mainstream — and that mainstream status means taking a few satirical digs.

Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture.