“The Book of Mormon Musical” and American Secularism
Disclaimer: some thoughts on The Book of Mormon Musical, a topic I know that is woefully dated. So sue me. Also, further disclaimer: I haven’t seen the show, only read about it (a lot).
“The Book of Mormon” musical took the Broadway scene by storm a couple of years back, and is often credited with inaugurating the “Mormon moment” that lasted at least through Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. Reactions to the musical have also become a barometer of contemporary views of Mormons, sparking a range of reactions: some find it demeaning of the church, while others feel it goes easy on one of America’s least trusted religions.
But these critiques cannot explain why such a bawdy farce has become so wildly popular, as the musical has found success in reprisals across the country. The reason for its popularity has very little to do with Mormonism per se, I suspect, and everything to do with American’s current anxieties about religious pluralism and toleration, anxieties that stem back to the attacks of 9/11 that occurred in the very city the musical was launched in. Since 9/11, Americans have found in radical sects of Islam a threat to the religious pluralism espoused in the First Amendment, and its response to those attacks, from the Iraq War to the “Ground Zero mosque” debate, have wrestled with whether it believes such anti-Western sentiments can ever be placated and whether the ideals of religious toleration are worth maintaining in the face of violent religion.
So where does The Book of Mormon musical fit into all of this? What the musical highlights is that Mormonism is not solely a success of American religion, but, ironically, a success of American secularization. Mormonism of the nineteenth century was a persecuted sect whose utopian dreams, non-traditional marriages, and bloc voting sat ill with the American community. Driven from state to state, they finally retreated and entrenched themselves in the Wasatch mountains, outside the boundaries of the American states and culture. Mormons during this time were deemed as radical and heretical as Muslims; they were often compared to “Mohammedans” and called the “Islam of America” (see J.S. Mill’s direct comparison in On Liberty, for example). Yet the Mormon story takes an about face after the turn of the century, as the religion not only moves back towards American culture but plants itself at the heart of American patriotism. No longer the target of the American army, Mormons today are seen as amongst the most reliable members of American intelligence and military organizations. Furthermore, while its claims to modern-day revelation and additional scripture are as radical as ever, their more disturbing practices of theodemocracy and polygamy have been replaced with unwavering devotion to the civic process and the nuclear family, two central tenets of American society.
Mormons, however strange their beliefs appear to outsiders, have been largely assimilated into American culture and secularized under the nation-state, and this success story offers a source of inspiration for Western liberals (using the term in the classical sense) that hope twenty-first century Islam will follow a similar path. Like their South Park episode on Mormonism, the resounding theme of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s musical is that it doesn’t matter how crazy someone’s beliefs are as long as they are generally nice people and don’t cause problems. By mocking Mormon beliefs and culture throughout before leaving on an amicable note of humanitarianism, The Book of Mormon Musical is not primarily an attack, or a defense, of Mormonism; at its core, it’s a celebration of Western liberalism and the belief that being nice and doing good trumps whatever kooky creeds religions might believe in. Mormons become a triumph of American secularization, which makes space for new beliefs even as it demands accommodation to Western norms and values. That Elder Cunningham interweaves pop culture references, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, into his missionary teachings only reinforces an image of Mormonism that has successfully returned from exile and interwoven itself into the tapestry of American life.
This story of assimilation is the arc many Americans hope that modern Islam will follow: that the extreme, violent expressions of its radical sects will become placated as it absorbs Western notions of tolerance and private religious life. American concerns over religion are not grounded in denominational or theological disputation; we just want to make sure that everyone gets along. In a sense, the missionaries of The Book of Mormon Musical serve as antitypes of the jihadist suicide bomber: whereas the latter expresses his fervent religiosity with indiscriminate violence, Americans can sleep soundly knowing that the former have nothing more dangerous under their white shirts than strange underwear. By telling the story of a religion whose bizarre beliefs are subsumed by its general neighborliness, The Book of Mormon Musical allows Americans to tell themselves a story of religious sects that abandon anti-Western behavior and values and follow the Mormon trail of assimilation towards tolerant civic religion. It’s a story that Americans have been anxious to tell themselves for a long time.