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My Mormon problem, and yoursBY: Dan Rottenberg 11.22.2011
Why is The Book of Mormon sold out for the next two years? For the same reason, I suspect, that Americans have spent two centuries wondering whether Mormons are harmless children or a threat to democratic principles.
The Book of Mormon. Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone; directed by Parker and Casey Nicholaw. At Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49 St. (between Broadway and Eighth Ave.), New York. www.bookofmormonbroadway.com.
The Book of Mormon, the current hit Broadway musical, is said to be sold out for the next two years at prices that run as high as $477 a seat. Some people, I’m told, have returned to see it a second or even a third time.
The Book of Mormon is indeed very funny and highly entertaining; like The Producers before it, it seems to have struck a responsive chord by cheerfully pushing the boundaries of outrageous bad taste to new limits.
Still, the show derives its humor primarily from ridiculing a small religious sect of (as the show calls them) “brainwashed zombies” who number only 6 million American followers and just 14 million worldwide. It invites theatergoers to laugh at the earnest efforts of naive Mormon missionaries as they spout their bland platitudes to prospective converts in a TFC (State Department bureaucratic shorthand for “Totally Fucked-up Country”), in this case Uganda.
By that measure, lampooning Mormons is like poking fun at retarded children. And who would pay $477 to see that?
So why pick on Mormons, just because they’re airheads? Why not ridicule religious fanatics who murder cartoonists, or respectable religions that believe Jesus walked on water or Moses spent 40 days and nights atop Mount Sinai?
The answer has something to do with Lenny Bruce’s explanation as to why people tell fag jokes but not dyke jokes— “because dykes’ll beat the shit out of you.” Anger doesn’t exist in the Mormon lexicon; when the urge to throttle someone rises, a song in the show instructs, simply “Turn It Off.”
But the answer also has to do with the Mormons’ contradictions: They may have washed their brains and suppressed their emotions, but they’ve also produced the only two candidates in the current Republican presidential stable (Romney and Huntsman) who could reasonably be described as grownups.
Finally, it has something to do with the genuine contradictions inherent in a relatively new supernatural religion that has barely worked out its inconsistencies (like the alleged superiority of the white race) the way Judaism and Christianity did over thousands of years. (In one of the show’s funnier visions, a missionary who violates a minor Mormon rule finds himself burning in Mormon hell alongside Hitler and Genghis Khan.)
On its face this was a bogus fantasy— historians noted various anachronisms in Smith’s story, such as horses, steel and wheat— but no more so than any other religion’s fantasy: The ultimate test of any faith lies in one’s willingness to believe the unbelievable.
By the time Smith published his Book of Mormon in 1830, the original golden plates had conveniently disappeared (Smith later said he had returned them to the angel Moroni). The book was predictably (and properly) dismissed as a fraud by conventional Christians, whose own founding fables were equally unverifiable but at least enjoyed the benefit of longevity.
Nevertheless, Smith’s utopian theology of miracles, superheroes and evangelical socialism resonated among the same legions of American farmers, workers, frontiersmen and small tradesmen who had swept Andrew Jackson into the White House in 1828. For Jacksonians already engaged in active revolt against America’s privileged Eastern commercial classes, it was a simple and logical step to rebel against the establishment’s Protestant faith as well. Smith found these yeomen receptive when he told them that prophecy and divine revelation didn’t just happen once, a long time ago, but that the flow of messages from God is still in progress.
From its very beginning, Smith’s church seemed to draw much of its appeal from notions that alienated most Americans. Smith exalted the pursuit of material wealth. He forbade the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, coffee and red meat. He embraced the concept of polygamy in 1833 and eventually took at least 28 wives of his own. He and his followers denounced other Christians as “gentiles” who had deviated from the original teachings of Jesus.
Most terrifying of all to outsiders, Smith advocated a ritualized form of murder called “blood atonement,” in which the murderer assured the victim’s ascension to heaven by slitting his throat.
It wasn’t long before the Mormons were fleeing from the wrath of angry neighbors— first to Ohio (where Smith fled in the middle of the night upon hearing of criminal bank fraud charges filed against him); then to pro-slavery Missouri (where Smith’s declaration that “slaves shall raise up against their masters” triggered mob warfare between Mormons and non-Mormons); then back across the Mississippi to the town of Nauvoo in western Illinois; and finally, after Smith was murdered there by a mob in 1844, to the Great Salt Lake.
The city Brigham Young built there in 1847 became the most successful socialistic experiment in American history. Local law, Young decreed, would be determined not by popular vote but by the Mormon church; private ownership of property would be forbidden, because all property was the Lord’s.
But if Young functioned as a dictator, he was also an excellent city planner. Not since William Penn’s Philadelphia had the world seen such an example of advance urban planning. Young’s two-square-mile city was divided into lots of one and a quarter acres, eight lots to a block, to assure that each home had a small yard. Streets radiating from the temple in the city’s center were laid out at a width of 132 feet— wide enough for a wagon pulled by an ox team to make a full U-turn. By digging canals to divert the fresh mountain runoff to their fields, the Mormons created the most sophisticated irrigation system in the West.
By exploiting his followers’ religious devotion as well as their hostility to the outside world, Young in effect transformed each resident of Salt Lake City into a selfless and efficient servant of the greater community (the beehive became their symbol). This Mormon industriousness brought prosperity to a previously worthless land that lacked fresh water— a genuine miracle that even despised “gentiles” readily acknowledged.
Ultimately, the commercial appeal of this industrious permanent community outweighed the forbidding rhetoric of its leaders. Beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1849, Salt Lake City became a popular resting point for westbound wagon trains. Here the exhausted traveler found everything the surrounding territories lacked: order, calm, safety, shade, fresh food and a sense of economic equilibrium.
Orlando as heaven
The Book of Mormon invites us to laugh when the proselytized Ugandans sing of Salt Lake City as a “place of hope and joy.” To us Eastern sophisticates, Salt Lake City may be the ultimate synonym for blandness (in this show, even the Mormons’ own vision of heaven is not Salt Lake City but Orlando). Yet if you lived in a land of perpetual chaos like Uganda— or if you were crossing the so-called Great American Desert during the California Gold Rush— you might very well see Salt Lake City the way Dorothy saw the Emerald City of Oz. And you might have less trouble understanding why millions of people in underdeveloped countries are susceptible to the Mormons’ seemingly nonsensical nostrums.
In effect Salt Lake City in the 1850s posed the great conundrum of its age. This largest— indeed, only— town in the 2,000-mile stretch between the Missouri River and the Pacific; this oasis of peace, order, honesty, industry, commerce, family life and neighborliness; this home to all the cherished trappings of civilization was, beneath its surface, the product of a faith based on fraud, deception, paranoia and violence— an authoritarian religion that openly rejected the tolerant principles of a democratic society.
The Mormons of the 1850s, as I noted in my book, Death of a Gunfighter, could be vilified, ridiculed, appeased or attacked; but they could not be ignored. Some things, apparently, don’t change.♦
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