The Broadway musical The Book of Mormon swept the 2011 Tonys, earning nine awards, including best musical, book, score and direction. But the show is only the latest instance of Mormonism in the headlines. This CultureMap traces prominent people and works associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the largest Mormon church) and its offshoots that have commanded our attention, from a seemingly bland presidential candidate to a television family of secret polygamists.
The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are two of the creative forces behind The Book of Mormon. The pair has extensive experience with both Mormons and musicals. They grew up in heavily Mormon Colorado, where Parker dated a member of the church. Their first collaboration was the film Cannibal!: The Musical (1993), based on the true story of gold miner Alferd Packer (played by Parker), the first convicted cannibal in American history. In 1873 Packer led an ill-fated group of prospectors from Provo, Utah, through the Rockies and the following spring emerged suspiciously as the only survivor. This cult-favorite musical is delivered in Parker and Stone’s trademark campy, upbeat style.
The duo returned to the musical genre with South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), a feature film based on their hit animated TV show, South Park. In 2003 Parker and Stone saw the puppet musical Avenue Q on Broadway and struck up a friendship with one of its writers, Robert Lopez. They discovered they all longed to write a musical based on Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith, and the trio spent the next seven years developing a show that became The Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon follows a pair of Mormon missionaries assigned to a Ugandan village ravaged by hunger, disease and a pitiless dictatorship. When handsome Elder Price fails to gain converts, slovenly but imaginative Elder Cunningham takes over, using anecdotes from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings to augment his meager knowledge of the Book of Mormon, the foundational text of the religion, written by Joseph Smith in 1830. Cunningham gains followers and brings hope to the village but earns a strict rebuke from church leadership.
One Mormon audience member told The Salt Lake Tribune, “I was expecting to be offended” by The Book of Mormon but “was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was.” Her mother added, “They treated us with affection. And they did their homework.” Part of the positive reception by Latter-Day Saints members is likely due to the musical’s solid understanding of the religion’s scriptures. Though the musical pokes fun, it is properly viewed as a meditation on the value of faith and as an admonition against literal adherence to any doctrine. Trey Parker has called his musical “an atheist’s love letter to religion.”
Season seven of South Park featured the episode “All About Mormons,” in which a Mormon family moves to the town of South Park. Written and directed by Trey Parker—who once declared, “I like every Mormon I’ve ever met”—the 2003 episode can be seen as a dry run for his musical The Book of Mormon. When a new kid, Gary Harrison, shows up at school, lead characters Kyle, Stan and Cartman are appalled at how gifted and happy the young Mormon seems. At recess Stan is assigned to “kick his ass” but is confounded by Gary’s nonviolent reaction to his taunts, and Stan walks away having accepted an invitation to dinner with the Harrisons. At Family Home Evening, an actual Mormon tradition of familial bonding that includes fun and games as well as religious instruction, Stan learns about Gary’s faith from his loving and exuberant father. The story of Joseph Smith’s founding of Mormonism is told in a musical subplot that casts doubt on claims made in the Book of Mormon. Yet when Stan’s father meets Gary’s father, he is so impressed that he decides to convert his own family to Mormonism, with comical results.
Mormonism adheres to a doctrine of continuous revelation, which holds that its canonical texts, including the Book of Mormon, are not the final word of God and that the church president is a prophet. Mormons also believe in personal revelation, in which God communicates directly with individual church members about their destiny.
These ideas are key in Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), which explores fundamentalist Mormon groups that separated from the larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Anchoring several interwoven storylines is the account of the gruesome murder of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter by two of her husband’s brothers. Embracing a fundamentalist interpretation of Mormonism, the Lafferty men rejected the church’s 1890 outlawing of polygamy. When Brenda objected, her brother-in-law Ron claimed to receive a divine revelation calling for her “removal.”
Krakauer’s book also gives a detailed rendering of the early days of Joseph Smith—whom Krakauer describes as a convicted fraudster—his founding of the Mormon Church, its nationwide persecution and Smith’s murder. Rounding out the narratives is a grisly examination of today’s fundamentalist Mormon community in Colorado City, Arizona, replete with polygamy, incest, forced marriage, violence and cultish behavior.
Stories of fundamentalist Mormon sects in Colorado City, Arizona, along the border with Utah, chronicled by Jon Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven, inspired several situations in Big Love, the HBO series about a polygamist Mormon family. One of the show’s creators, Mark Olson, remarked that he “actually had the nerve to drive, very quickly, through Colorado City,” to do research for the program, but “chickened out and drove right out again.”
In Big Love, Bill Paxton stars as Bill Henrickson, the patriarch of a polygamous family, with Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin playing his wives. The Henrickson clan attempts to blend into the monogamous community of Sandy, Utah, hiding its secret by purchasing three homes that share a backyard. One of Bill’s fathers-in-law heads the nearby fundamentalist cult Juniper Creek—which operates much like the violent communities Krakauer describes—and frequently clashes with the comparatively normal Henricksons. The early Mormons called polygamy “plural marriage” and referred to it as “the Principle”; it had been practiced to varying degrees since the religion’s inception, including by Joseph Smith. The church of Latter-Day Saints discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890, but some breakaway Mormon groups still sanction it.
In season four of the HBO series Big Love, fundamentalist Mormon Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) runs for the Utah State Senate. Mormon politicians enjoy a distinct advantage in Utah, but suspicions about the religion persist when they reach the national stage. When Latter-Day Saints member Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, ran for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he met with intense skepticism from evangelical Protestants, a significant portion of the Republican primary electorate. One of Romney’s rivals, Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, stoked prejudices by asking, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?” Huckabee later apologized for this query, typically used to malign Mormonism.
Days before Huckabee’s soundbite, Romney gave a speech entitled “Faith in America” intended to quell concerns about how his Mormonism would affect his choices as president. The speech was widely compared to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address declaring that the discharge of his duties as president would be independent from the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Prejudice against Mormons can run deeper than anti-Catholicism. Many evangelicals do not believe Mormons are Christians, even though Mormons consider themselves as such and the Old and New Testaments are part of the church’s canon.
Like Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, the musical missionary protagonists of The Book of Mormon, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took part in a mission as a young man. Elder Romney served in France, and though Romney’s squeaky-clean image today resembles that of the overachieving Elder Price, his reputation during his missionary years was more like the comparatively libertine Elder Cunningham’s: Romney broke the prohibition on watching movies and had no compunction against dining on wine-based dishes such as coq au vin despite the Mormon ban on alcohol. Yet he was also an extremely energetic, determined missionary. One of his peers recalled, “He would have 20 ideas in 35 minutes, and it’d take me a week to have that many.”
Asked for his reaction when he first heard about the new musical based on his religion, Romney replied, “I laughed—South Park is funny.” He said he would probably see it “at some point,” explaining, “You know your faith has finally made it big-time when people are poking fun at you on Broadway.”