It is one of the defining motifs of our age: the righteous fury of the religiously affronted. It is not peculiar to any faith: in the last few decades in Britain alone, Christians have demonstrated against a musical (Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera), Sikhs have agitated against a play (Gurpreet Bhatti’s Behzti), and Muslims have endorsed or excused an extra-judicial death sentence handed down for the crime of writing a novel (Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses). The protesters in each case may not have been representative of the majority of their co-religionists, but they have wielded sufficient numbers, and sufficient menace, to encroach upon the fundamental freedoms of speech, thought and expression.
It might have been expected that similar divinely inspired outrage would be prompted by The Book Of Mormon, a satirical Broadway musical co-written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The show, which won nine trophies in last week’s Tony awards, is by all accounts everything that might be expected of a Parker/Stone production: brutally irreverent, cheerfully scabrous and triumphantly offensive. It notably lacks, however, one traditional feature of Parker and Stone’s lampoonery: an indignant response from its victims. The Mormons have instead opted to be rather sporting about it – and even to perceive it as an opportunity.
The church’s head of public affairs, Michael Otterson, wrote a winningly wry op-ed for the Washington Post in April, noting that in the seven years Parker and Stone had toiled over their musical making fun of Mormons, the church’s labours in Africa alone had (among other things) provided clean water to four million people, wheelchairs to 34,000 and restored sight to 126,000. An upbeat advertising blitz – the “I’m A Mormon” campaign – was launched upon New York City in June. Parker and Stone might become the two most effective missionaries the Mormons have ever had.
“The church has always taken a high road about things like this,” says Chris Hicks, columnist with the church-owned Salt Lake City newspaper Deseret News. “The church was established in 1830, and people have been going after it ever since. I think they’ve learnt that if you react overly, it can backfire.” The church may, of course, be thinking politically. It would not do to look like pious fanatics when two Mormons – Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman –are plausible presidential nominees. But it may also be that this American-founded faith has more respect than most for that American-pioneered balance between freedom of speech and freedom of worship – you do not, after all, get the latter without the former.
Whatever else might be thought of Mormon beliefs, it’d be pleasant if this one, at least, caught on.