What’s Ahead in the World of Mormonism for 2011

As The Book of Mormon: The Musical by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker prepares to open March 24 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, many Mormons are bracing for what promises to be an irreverent send-up of our distinctive history, culture, and religious practices. I’ve heard others muse aloud that this may be our own twisted version of a Fiddler on the Roof moment—a moment when Mormon culture crosses over into the American pop cultural mainstream. Despite the show’s beguiling subtitle (“God loves Mormons and He Wants Some More”), I’m wincing a bit in anticipation of some serious mockery. But it will be fascinating to see how the LDS Church and its members react. When Jon Krakauer’s ill-conceived Under the Banner of Heaven appeared, the Church answered with a long, defensive, citation-heavy press release. These days, I’m betting that the Church’s extremely savvy digital media folks will find a way to make most of the traffic the show will generate. Just imagine a television spot for the new Mormon.org ad campaign: “I’m John. I’m a sixth-generation Mormon, a father, a husband, and a South Park fan. I think my religion is awesome, but I also know how to relax and laugh a little. And I’m a Mormon.” Bingo!

Mormons who take pleasure in their persecution complexes are gearing up for a big year with the possibility of not one but two LDS presidential candidates entering the Republican primaries, as sources report this week that former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (currently the Obama-appointed amabassador to China) may be exploring a 2012 run. While some—like Mormon sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card—are already rattling sabers over the prospect of another round of anti-Romney, Huckabee-led Mormon baiting, I’m betting that Mormonism wouldn’t be nearly as much of a political liability for Huntsman (who Obama feared enough to dispatch to China) as it has been for the mild-mannered, sometimes wooden, and often mishandled Romney. His Mormonism may, in fact, be the most interesting thing about Mitt Romney. However the Republican primaries turn out, the prospect of a Huntsman run may remind the world that Mormonism is as capable of producing urbane, globally-minded moderates as it is of producing Cleon-Skousenite-Tea-Party ideologues. (Not to mention a few liberals.) And that would be a welcome reminder indeed.

Years ago, a high-ranking LDS Church official was reported to have compared working with Elder Boyd K. Packer to trying to “stage manage a grizzly bear.” In October 2010, after Elder Packer delivered a highly controversial and bruising talk on LGBT issues at the Church’s global General Conference, grizzly bears indeed may have been stage managed. Packer’s talk was revised for publication and (in response to pressure from members and LGBT human rights groups) the Church subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-gay bullying and reasserting the value of LGBT people in the eyes of God. While some have argued that the Church’s handling of the Packer controversy does not represent bona fide doctrinal progress on LGBT issues, for those of us accustomed to the pace of change within Mormon culture and institutional life, October presented an astonishing series of events which seemed to suggest differences if not divides—generational divides, perhaps—among Church leadership on how to handle isues of gender and sexuality. Grizzly bears were stage managed. And I predict there will be more stage managing of grizzly bears to come as Mormonism attempts to redefine itself away from the sometimes ferocious conservatism of its multigenerational, intermountain West ethnic traditional core and towards its future as a twenty-first century global religion. State Senator Russell Pearce (R-AZ), author of the infamous anti-immigrant SB 1070, is a Mormon grizzly bear, challenged by Latino Mormons and ultimately by the Church’s own recent statements in support of compassionate immigration reform. Gayle Ruzicka of the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum is a Mormon grizzly bear. The political legacy of Cleon Skousen has proved itself to be a Mormon grizzly bear. In 2011, Mormons will continue to wrestle public attention away from the extremist political figures who derive from our tradition but should not define it.

Finally, I look back on 2010 as a banner year for Mormon feminism. Ten years ago, after a heartbreaking series of excommunications (influenced by Elder Packer, according to some reports), some declared Mormon feminism all but dead. Since then, many Mormon feminists have lived with a fear of excommunication shadowing our daily words and thoughts. But something big has shifted—the internet was a major game changer, to be sure, providing us refuge and anonymity in healing communities like Feminist Mormon Housewives. And now, Mormon feminism is back in a big way, with the relaunch of the historic print publication Exponent II and new efforts like LDS Women Advocating Voice and Equality designed to reach out to moderate women within the church. And despite our fears no one (that we know of) got excommunicated for being a Mormon feminist. Sisters, take heart! Now, Mormon feminist godmothers like Judy Dushku (founder of the THARCE-GULU nonprofit for women’s postwar recovery in Uganda) are thinking global, and asking us all to do the same and put our shoulders to the wheel. Contemplating a global Mormonism, with new missions and temples quickly opening in Africa, it is a great time for Mormon feminists to take a deep breath, shed our well-earned fear of excommunication, and work towards greater understanding for the temporal and spiritual challenges and strengths of women (including LDS women) worldwide, including our Spanish-speaking sisters here in the US. For Mormonism 2011, it’s adelante, hermanas!

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.