On a Monday afternoon in late January, Trey Parker and Matt Stone crammed a few dozen people into a rehearsal space on 42nd Street in New York to watch a 25-minute preview of their upcoming Broadway show, The Book of Mormon. The audience consisted of friends, production staff, students, bloggers, and journalists—but, notably, no representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was pretty clear why. "You'll know it's done when you hear the word cunt and everyone bows," said Stone.
What followed is unlikely to please the Mormon church. The musical, written by Parker and Stone with Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, tells the story of two young missionaries dispatched to Uganda to spread the gospel of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. Part coming-of-age story, part buddy comedy, the show mocks Mormons' clean-cut earnestness as well as the specific tenets of their faith—that Native Americans were actually Israelites who left Jerusalem for America in 600 B.C., that Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection, and that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates he found in the ground with the help of an angel named Moroni.
Nervousness among Mormons is understandable. After nearly two decades of doling out equal-opportunity religious mockery, Parker and Stone have become synonymous with sacrilege. In their first South Park short, "The Spirit of Christmas," Jesus Christ battles Santa Claus for holiday-mascot supremacy, only to have figure skater Brian Boitano intervene and reveal the true meaning of Christmas. An episode in Season 6 depicts child abuse as official Catholic Church doctrine and the leader of the church as a giant spider queen. In Season 5, a team of religious figures known as the "Super Best Friends"—Jesus, Buddha, Joseph Smith, Krishna, Lao-Tzu, Moses, Mohammad, and a superhero called "Sea Man"—join forces to defeat the all-powerful magician David Blaine. (Comedy Central yanked the episode from its Web site, but it's available here.) Parker and Stone tried to portray Mohammed again in the show's 200th episode in 2010, but Comedy Central censored the image. (Mohammed did appear, but first in a bear suit and then covered by a black "censored" box.) Throughout the series, God is portrayed as a hippopotamous-cat-monkey—who is actually Buddhist.
For all the ridicule it heaps on organized religion, however, South Park, like the town in which it's set, espouses pretty traditional values. Family and friends matter most. Political correctness chills honest speech. Celebrities are empty inside. Mass hysteria—liberal or conservative—is rarely warranted. And people should be able to believe whatever they want to believe, as long as they're not hurting anybody else. South Park never attacks faith itself—it attacks hypocrisy, gullibility, and the ways organized religions use fear, power, and money to manipulate people.
Take the skewering of Mel Gibson in the Season 8 episode "The Passion of the Jew." (You can watch every South Park episode here.) Gibson is portrayed not as an anti-Semite (the episode aired in March 2004, long before "sugar tits" and the voicemails for his ex) but as an unhinged man who uses violence to promote religion. "If you want to be Christian, that's cool," says Stan, the show's protagonist and moral conscience. "But you should follow what Jesus taught instead of how he got killed. Focusing on how he got killed is what people did in the Dark Ages and it ends up with really bad results."
The Catholic Church learns a similar lesson in the episode "Red Hot Catholic Love." When Father Maxi of South Park discovers that priests are having sex with boys, he complains to the Vatican, only to learn that Vatican Law allows sexual abuse. Maxi ends up destroying the holy document of Vatican Law, and St. Peter's Basilica crumbles. When the Italian clergy accuse him of killing the church, he shoots back: "All that's dead are your stupid laws and rules! You've forgotten what being a Catholic is all about. … Love your neighbor. Be a good person. That's it!" He doesn't attack faith, or even organized religion. He attacks the church's unwillingness to adapt to modern times and punish abuse. In the end, even the South Park residents who gave up God after learning about priestly abuse come back to their faith. "We don't have to believe every word of the Bible," says Randy, Stan's dad. "They're just stories to help us to live by. We shouldn't toss away the lessons of the Bible just because some assholes in Italy screwed it up."
Clip from "Red Hot Catholic Love":
Cults particularly irk Parker and Stone, but even here, their ire is turned against religious figures who would exploit their flocks, not against belief itself. When David Blaine convinces his "Blainetologists"—thinly veiled stand-ins for Scientologists—to drown themselves in the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C., so that his organization can gain tax-exempt status, the Super Best Friends rally to stop him. "You don't need David Blaine to tell you how to live," Stan says. "Cults are dangerous because they promise you hope, happiness, and maybe even an afterlife. But in return, they demand you pay money." In another episode about Scientology, "Trapped in the Closet," Stan faults the religion not for giving people something to believe, but for being, in Stan's words, a "big fat global scam."
Clip from "Trapped in the Closet":