What The Book of Mormon and Angels in America Get Wrong About Mormonism

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Feb. 14 2012 9:28 AM

From the Book of Mormon to The Book of Mormon

What the South Park guys, Tony Kushner, and so many others get wrong about Mormons.

(Continued from Page 1)

For Kushner, Mormonism’s radical mythology is distinct from the dreary way of life slowly smothering his heroes, and it proves an astoundingly revitalizing force. Angels, the descendents of Moroni, crash through roofs into bedrooms, Mormons converse with suddenly conscious animatronics of their pioneer ancestors who remind them of the devastating sacrifices of the Mormon trail, and gradually, gradually, Kushner’s characters become aware that there is a life of pain and intensity and passion beyond the world they know, though few may ever reach it.

But both the riotous musical and Kushner’s brooding black comedy present faith defanged—Mormonism shorn of its revolutionary qualities. The Mormons of The Book of Mormon offer no challenge to modern American life. Their beliefs are patently ridiculous, amplified, and exaggerated in the song “I Believe” to emphasize Mormons’ apparent utter detachment from reason and rationality. These Mormons are a national entertainment, an amusing foil to a satisfied modern and secular society; they seem hardly capable of keeping their own church running, let alone staking any ambitions upon the nation. Kushner’s contemporary Mormons are the grim storm troopers of American capitalism, unthinking servants of all that is wrong with the status quo, barely conscious of their own once marginal heritage. To some evangelicals, they are dangerous heretics; to many Republicans, they are merely reliable voters.

All capture a part of what it may mean to be Mormon in America today, but none quite grasp the multifaceted ways in which Mormons currently define themselves and the strength with which their religion still creates for them a profoundly radical world. Mormons still cling to a determined supernaturalism. Though thoroughly integrated into the mores and functions of contemporary American life, they remain committed to at least the proposition that their prophet, inevitably these days a benevolent elderly man neatly dressed in a conservative suit, may indeed receive divine revelation that could uproot their lives in an instant. They believe that one day they may yet be asked to give up American capitalism and return to Joseph Smith’s vision of economic consecration. Some fear that they may one day be asked again to practice polygamy. Nearly all believe that Joseph Smith truly was visited by an angel in upstate New York nearly two hundred years ago and that the priesthood of God held by the great figures of the Bible stands available to them, thoroughly average dentists and attorneys and businessmen today. Mormon fathers go home from these stolidly conservative occupations, consonant with Mormon men’s general commitment first to be good economic providers, and lay their hands on the heads of their children and invoke the power of God to seal blessings upon their heads.

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Their faith in the existence of the metaphysical world that empowers their blessings and seals their eternal relationships with their wives and husbands, parents, and grandparents drives the Mormons to devote hours a week to making that world real in the congregations of their church, to pay to spend eighteen or twenty-four months of their lives determinedly carrying copies of the Book of Mormon to any of hundreds of places across the globe, to devote weekends each month to attend the temple and perform proxy ordinances for their 17th-century ancestors. Their devotion to families, though it may be functionally deeply conservative in contemporary American politics and culture, in fact gestures toward the profound and radical vision of community that draws them toward salvation. While the story of Mormonism in America is in many ways the story of the Americanization of a radical religious movement, that radicalism survives, however muted, in the vision of Zion pronounced by Joseph Smith and preserved by modern-day Mormons.

Excerpted from The Mormon People by Matthew Bowman Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Bowman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Matthew Bowman teaches religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.

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