In New York City, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on West 49th Street, Broadway audiences are spending $1.6 million per week to attend The Book of Mormon, a no-star extravaganza advertised solely by the words “the new musical from the creators of South Park.” It is the most ecstatically praised and blissfully attended production since Mel Brooks’s The Producers. It won nine Tony Awards. It did not receive a single negative review.
In light of the world-shaking controversy surrounding The Innocence of Muslims, the 14-minute YouTube movie/video/trailer, and the undeniable insult it delivers to the Prophet of Islam, I thought it might be worth summarizing the plot of The Book of Mormon in detail for those who haven’t seen it, because there are some similarities between the two.
The Book of Mormon tells the story of two 18-year-olds raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They have both completed their training as missionaries, and do not know where they will be sent to seek converts to their faith. One, Elder Price, is clean-cut, well-tailored, and devout. His dream is to be sent to Orlando, his vision of paradise on earth. The other, Elder Cunningham, is a fat, sloppy, science fiction-obsessed compulsive liar, and an embarrassment to his parents. “You’re making things up again, Arnold,” is the refrain Cunningham always hears.
To Price’s disappointment, he is sent to Uganda; to his horror, Cunningham is assigned as his partner. When they arrive at their mission in a remote village, they meet other missionaries who tell them to apply what they take to be the church’s philosophy to difficult situations and difficult thoughts: “Turn it off. Like a light switch.” A sister dies of cancer? Turn it off. Gay thoughts in fifth grade? Turn them off.
A local gang lord harasses the people of the village, who are riven with AIDS. They do a big production number in which they teach the missionaries the song they sing to ward off their bad thoughts: “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” It means, “F— you, God.”
Price preaches the Word; no one listens, but he refuses to buckle under. “I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes,” he says. “I believe that ancient Jews built boats and came to America. . . . I believe God has a plan that involves me getting my own planet.” He confronts the warlord and, in response, the warlord literally takes the Book of Mormon and shoves it up Price’s posterior (we see an X-ray picture of his stomach). This causes Price to lose his faith.
Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham learns there is an idea abroad in the village that if a man has sex with a baby, it will cure his AIDS. In desperation, he begins to spin a tale of Joseph Smith, the founder of his church—that he, too, had had AIDS and was going to have sex with a baby until God came down to him and said he should have sex with a frog instead. Upon learning of the practice of female circumcision, Cunningham goes on to say that Brigham Young, who took leadership of the Mormon church after Joseph Smith’s murder, had circumcised his daughter—and that God had punished him by turning his nose into a clitoris.
The entire village converts. Leaders of the church arrive excitedly to see this great missionary accomplishment and are greeted by a pageant staged by the villagers acting out Cunningham’s story. The leaders are, of course, outraged, and demand that Price and Cunningham return to America in disgrace. But Price sees the good Cunningham has done in the village, and that all religions are just stories anyway, and they turn his tall tale into a new faith—The Book of Arnold. The compulsive liar has become the new prophet. Even the warlord who violated Price converts. The curtain falls. The applause is deafening.
Cartoonish, cheerfully sophomoric, and often hilarious it might be, but The Book of Mormon is far more insulting to the LDS church than The Innocence of Muslims is to Islam. Its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (working with Robert Lopez), have said that they were moved to write the show because they were amused by the discrepancy between how nice Mormons are and how ridiculous their religion is.
Stone and Parker are equal opportunity offenders—despisers of religion. They first came to public
attention with a short film in which Jesus kills Santa Claus (“there can be only one”). They made a show insulting Scientology that ran afoul of their cable channel’s parent company and its relationship with leading Scientologist Tom Cruise. And they made an episode of South Park ripping the
censorship of the Danish newspaper cartoons parodying Muhammad—only to have the episode itself censored by their cable channel after a jihadist threatened their lives.
But in this case, they chose their target wisely. How have Mormons greeted The Book of Mormon? In a word, nicely. The church’s official statement was this: “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.” Asked about it in December 2011, Mitt Romney said, “I do want to see it, sure. It’s a Tony Award-winner, big phenomenon—yeah, I want to see it someday. But I don’t have a lot of time for Broadway shows.”
In his equanimity, Romney expressed not a thousandth of the horror at the blasphemy tossed at his faith that has characterized the Obama administration’s reception of The Innocence of Muslims. The repetition of the words “reprehensible” and “disgusting” in relation to the YouTube video by the president and secretary of state and others suggests that there was, and is, something uniquely awful about The Innocence of Muslims that demanded their outraged intercession.
The Book of Mormon demonstrates that there was, and is, nothing uniquely awful about it. It’s just a sustained assault on people whom the creators feel no need to appease—in this case, a small number of Americans toward whom Barack Obama and those like him in the American cultural elite—aggressive in their demands that minorities be respected and honored—feel no commonality and no common civic responsibility whatsoever.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.