Once-radical Mormons move to mainstream
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
The endlessly cheerful, excruciatingly nice, all-American image of
Mormons in pop culture is not necessarily good news for a church that
was once known for its radical nature. In fact, it may indicate that
anti-Mormonism has won.
That is what Dennis Potter, professor of religious studies at Utah
Valley State College, argued in his presentation, "The Americanization
of Mormonism Reflected in Pop Culture," on Thursday at the Annual
Potter built his thesis on three points: early Mormonism was
radically opposed to all 19th century power structures; contemporary
Mormonism has been so assimilated into American culture as to be often
held up as the prototype for good citizens, and its radical theology
(such as communitarian economics, importance of Mother in Heaven and
the idea of becoming gods) is slowly eroding away.
Potter uses an episode of the irreverent animated series, "South
Park" called "All About the Mormons" as Exhibit A.
The 22-minute script tells the story of Gary and his Mormon family
who arrive in South Park. Gary is introduced to his classmates as
"state champion in wrestling and tennis," with a 4.0 grade point, and
featured on two national commercials for toothpaste. He's blond, of
Gary soon invites one of the South Park regulars, Stan, over for
dinner. It happens to be Family Home Evening so they play games, sing
and munch on chocolate-covered rice crispy treats. When Stan asks
about their faith, the show uses flashbacks to describe Mormon
origins. Stan is enthralled by the tale of gold plates and angels and
visions and wants to convert.
As more details emerge, Stan denounces Mormonism for its lack of
evidence and logic. But Gary is unflappably kind and tolerant.
"Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make
absolutely no sense, 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," Gary says. "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. . ."
To Potter, though, that misses the point: the power of Mormonism
is its theology. If the LDS Church abandons its most unconventional
notions and moves into the American and Christian mainstream, he said,
the critics will have won.
For better or worse, the South Park characters do reflect how most
Americans seen Mormons, said Mark Pinsky, religion writer at The
Orlando Sentinel who commented on Potter's paper.
Mormons are seen as a "model religious minority," said Pinsky,
author of The Gospel According to the Simpsons, admired for their
family values and even their missionary evangelism. In places other
than Utah, Mormons are largely tolerant of others and don't push their
religion on their neighbors.
LDS leaders were not dragged to the mainstream, Pinsky said, "they
were willing participants, anxious to shed their exotic history and