Even the attempt to portray Mohammed last year was meant not to insult Islam so much as to send up our cultural sensitivity when it comes to Islamic imagery and to assert the show's First Amendment rights. In the episode, Hollywood celebrities kidnap Mohammed to extract the "goo" that makes him immune to ridicule.
Mormonism gets a disproportionately large share of ridicule in the Parker/Stone canon. But compared to their treatment of other religions, their handling of Mormonism has been tame—affectionate, even. The protagonist of Orgazmo (1997) is a wide-eyed, tender-hearted Mormon missionary named Joe Young who gets lured into the world of porn. In the end, he doesn't reject adult films or his faith—he finds a way to make them compatible. On South Park, Mormons are portrayed as kind and earnest, if a bit naïve. In an episode from Season 4, we learn that, of all the world's religions, Mormonism is the correct one and only Mormons are allowed into heaven.
Parker and Stone's master work on Mormonism—and possibly the best-known pop culture portrayal of the church (Big Love, which depicts a polygamist offshoot of the religion, doesn't count)—is the episode "All About the Mormons?," in which a Mormon family moves to South Park, and their son, Gary Harrison, tries to befriend Stan. At first, Stan and his friends make fun of Gary and his family. But the Harrisons win them over with their warmth, generosity, and Rice Krispie treats. Before long, Stan's family has converted to Mormonism. But as Stan learns more about Joseph Smith, he becomes increasingly skeptical. Finally, he snaps: "All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!" The Harrisons say Stan has the right to believe whatever he wants, which only irritates Stan further: "That's another thing! Why do you have to be so freakin' nice all the time?! It isn't normal! You just weasel people into your way of thinking by acting like the happiest family in the world and being so nice to everyone that you just blindside dumb people like my dad." The episode ultimately sides with the Mormons against people who judge them. "Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense," says Gary,
and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. … All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion. … You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.
As if to prove Stan's point about how "freakin' nice" Mormons are, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has responded to the upcoming musical with a calm statement that refuses to take the bait: "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."
Clip from "All About the Mormons?"
What Parker and Stone do isn't religion-bashing. It's religion-teasing. And it's born more from fascination than disdain. "I'm an atheist that admires and likes religion," Stone told me in an interview. He describes the new musical as "an atheist's love letter to religion." If you had to classify Parker and Stone's world view, you might call it Hobbesian absurdism. In the universe they've created, random, terrible things happen with no explanation. It's no coincidence that South Park's most famous line is "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!"/ "You bastards!"—in response to the frequent death of Kenny McCormick—with no explanation of who "they" are. Parker and Stone's Book of Mormon has a similarly bleak perspective. When the two missionaries arrive in Uganda, they find the natives singing what sounds like an uplifting "Hakuna Matata"-like spiritual. It turns out what they're chanting—assa dega ebo aye—actually means "Fuck you, God." The rest of the musical chronicles the missionaries' attempt to reconcile their faith with this place that God appears to have forgotten.
Religion is good dramatic fodder for a Broadway show. Young believers are strong-willed, forward-moving, confident of their place in the universe—just the kind of hubris that makes for a good slapped-in-the-face-by-reality story. Adding to Parker and Stone's fascination is the fact that Mormonism is itself a young religion. "It's like Darwin's finches of religion—we can watch it evolve," says Stone.
And it does evolve. For decades, the church didn't allow black people to participate in temple ceremonies. In 1978, as dissent within the church grew and protesters started picketing Brigham Young University football games, the president of the church announced that God had told him it was now OK to make African-Americans equal. "Mormons believe that," says Stone. "They believe that in 1978, God changed his mind." As ridiculous as that notion may seem, at least the church is flexible enough to change with the times. "I suspect they'll have the same thing with gay people," says Stone.
The psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James argued that religions with dubious origins can still be useful. If faith helps people be good to each other and lead happy lives, more power to them. Parker and Stone take a similarly pragmatic view. "At the end of the day, if the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?" Stone says. Some atheists believe that truth is the highest good, and that crackpot religious stories need to be debunked. "I'm not quite sure," says Stone. "I'm not sure the veracity of the stories is that important." Perhaps it's the stories' absurdity that makes the belief of millions all the more inspiring. As Robert Lopez, the show's composer, put it: "It renews your faith to see the miracle that all these people believe in this shit."