The Book of Mormon, a musical from the creators of South Park, won a Grammy for best musical theater album on Sunday, shortly after topping the Broadway box office for the first time. But in the following excerpt from his new book, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, historian Matthew Bowman argues that both The Book of Mormon and the recently revived Angels in America miss something crucial about the faith and its culture.
“Hello! My name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you a most amazing book!” sings the actor Andrew Rannells to the audience of the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York City. In March 2011 the tart musical satire The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway to largely rapturous reviews and sellout crowds. It received 14 Tony nominations and 9 wins. A recent Pew survey shows that many Mormons believe a gulf stands between themselves and American culture; after spending much of the 20th century finding ways to make America’s virtues their own, they discover by the end of the century that propriety, rectitude, and dogged cheerfulness seem not to gain them the admiration they once had. But in The Book of Mormon, the fresh-scrubbed diligence of Mormon missionaries is a mark of naïveté, repression, and foolish optimism. The childish buoyancy and faith of a pair of Mormon missionaries sent to war-torn, disease-ridden Uganda blinds them to how monumental the challenges they face really are, and their solution—the religion of the “all-American prophet” Joseph Smith, as one song labels him—seems hopelessly, even hilariously, inadequate.
Many reviews credited the musical with an underlying fondness for Mormonism. Sweetness was often the word of choice. And indeed, the musical’s Mormons are genuine, entirely without guile, thoroughly and unbelievably committed to the preposterous notion that their bizarre faith can make people’s lives better. When the bumbling Elder Cunningham inadvertently produces a wildly bowdlerized version of Mormonism, the musical’s African characters embrace it wholeheartedly because it directly addresses—though can hardly hope to solve—the problems of AIDS, poverty, and war. Mormons’ ludicrous innocence, the musical’s scribes appear to be saying, is perhaps slightly mitigated by the fact that it makes them extremely, almost impossibly, nice.
In light of the history of the relationship between Mormonism and American culture, the transformations that produced the Mormons of The Book of Mormon seem rather staggering. From a looming threat to the American republic, a religion that Americans feared would inculcate the perversity of polygamy, the death of democracy, and raving heresy, Mormons have become at the dawn of the 21st century the living image of bland, middle-American tedium, so wed to awkward cultural conventionality that their strange beliefs seem a curious accessory rather than a serious challenge to American assumptions.
To some Americans who still find Mormonism’s claims about miracles and golden plates and prophecy scandalous for reasons of orthodoxy or skepticism, this stereotype is in fact frustrating. John Lahr of The New Yorker complained that the musical gave Mormon doctrine too much of a pass, lamenting that its creators “ultimately lack the courage of their non-conviction,” and failed to pillory Mormons for the “surrealistic godsend for comic writers” that constitutes their theology. To Mormons themselves, always sensitive to mockery or slight, the musical’s version of Mormonism is, at the least, an improvement. The church’s official response to the musical consisted of a single sentence, so dry and understated as to make one wonder if the Mormons, finally, might be in on the joke: “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.”
It is too easy, however, to mark off the history of Mormons in binary: now and then, polygamous visionaries and monogamous Puritans, social revolutionaries and dour Republicans, 1840s Nauvoo and present-day Provo, Utah. The Mormon embrace of American virtues was real because it emerged as much from the processes of their own beliefs as it did from outside pressure, and as such it was always directed to their own purposes first and to those of the nation second. At the heart of the faith a radical and transformative vision still lurks, and the Mormons made America their own as much as they made themselves Americans.
Tony Kushner’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Angels in America, sensing these discontinuities, consequently uses Mormonism as a symbol to explore what America might have been and what it is struggling toward. Kushner’s Mormon characters fill the borders of the stereotype that The Book of Mormon skewers, but on closer investigation, they are the musical’s bright-eyed missionaries in negative, afflicted with the same conventions but lacking any sense of naive idealism. A dull, conventionally ambitious, right-wing attorney and his detached and bored housewife, these Mormons have no sense that America might be anything other than a cold, cutthroat world of 1980s capitalism, cultural conservatism, and self-repression and certainly no inkling that their faith might offer any alternative.