The godless, potty-mouthed creators of South Park publicly thanked Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith Jr. Sunday night, as they took home nine Tony Awards—including Best Musical.
“You did it, Joseph,” Trey Parker gleefully declared, “You got the Tony!”
And they should thank Joseph Smith. And all of the other famous and regular Mormon people who together have created the most rich and compelling new religion in the modern world.
There would be no Book of Mormon musical if there weren’t millions upon millions of Mormons who had the vision to fashion a stunningly detailed, richly complex new take on God and the courage to give their lives to it.
The Book of Mormon musical explores the most sensational details of Mormonism in the anthem “I Believe,” which surveys aspects of Mormon belief—many folkish, dated, or idiosyncratic—like the idea that the righteous will someday “get their own planets.” The leading newspaper in the Mormon world, the Deseret News, described “I Believe” (and the musical in general) as capitalizing on “out-of-context fragments of doctrine” that when taken in isolation offer an “inaccurate” depiction of Mormonism.
That assessment is largely correct. As someone who watches media depictions of Mormonism quite closely, I’ve noticed that it’s these idiosyncratic fragments that media figures from evangelical Christian publisher Warren Smith to television personality Bill Maher consistently seize on, often with intent to punish, embarrass or expose.
Many Mormons resent being the object of this kind of public ridicule, connecting it to the historical persecutions of Mormons in the 19th century and the assassination of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in an Illinois* jail.
But why should we be ashamed?
Yes, I was raised to believe that I could become a God, and that in the last days, I might have to walk from my home in Southern California to Missouri to help build Zion. In fact, my sister and I still talk about making that long trip all the time.
Yes, I belong to what may be the most original and compelling modern religion in the world. And I don’t want to live in a world without the distinctive beauties and magic of Mormonism, just like I don’t want to live in a world without religion.
So, though many Mormons are too sensitive about The Book of Mormon musical to answer the “thank you” from its creators, I’ll say it: Trey and Matt—you’re welcome.
*This post originally mistakenly stated that Smith died in a Missouri jail.