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Why is it okay to mock the Mormons?

Years ago, noted actor Dustin Hoffman played the role of Shylock in a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” That generated a certain amount of controversy, given the fact that “The Merchant of Venice” is a decidedly anti-Semitic play. Shylock is nothing but a collection of hoary Jewish stereotypes, as well as a melodramatic stock villain a la Snidely Whiplash. It’s not hard to imagine audiences in Shakespeare’s day booing and hissing at him as he performed the Elizabethan equivalent of tying a damsel in distress to the railroad tracks.

But Hoffman, himself Jewish, was lauded for performing the role in a way that turned Shylock into a three-dimensional person, generating a degree of sympathy for the character and his cultural plight. Ever since then, every production of “The Merchant of Venice” has taken a similar approach, which is entirely appropriate. Modern audiences, to their credit, refuse to tolerate ignorant slander of groups of people because of their race or religion.

There is, however, at least one glaring exception.

I was watching a late night rerun of “The Simpsons,” in which Homer and his family find themselves in an indoor play place, with a huge slide that leads to a dark hole in the ground. “Where does that slide go?” Bart asks. The answer comes as we follow a young boy down the slide as it empties into a room filled with dead-eyed children wearing white shirts and ties and standing in rows. The boy finds himself wearing a white shirt and tie, too, and he hears a voice over a loudspeaker saying, “Welcome to the Mormon Church, America’s most respectable cult.”

Cue uproarious laughter.

My guess is that, unless you’ve seen that particular episode, this is the first you’re hearing about this snotty little dig at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The broadcast was not followed by protests or outrage. Members of the church who saw it took it in stride. I wonder if the same thing would’ve been true if Shylock–style stereotypes were hauled out of mothballs for a throwaway sitcom gag. There’s really no way of knowing, because no producer would ever do something so disrespectful to the Jewish community, and furthermore, no audience would find it funny. But when the Mormons are the butt of the joke, laughing is acceptable and indignation is absent.

If you doubt that, look no further than the Broadway stage, where an extraordinarily vulgar musical portraying Mormons as deluded, albeit well-intentioned imbeciles is the toast of New York, hauling in big box office and winning hordes of prestigious awards. Now imagine if the show were called “The Koran” instead of “The Book of Mormon,” and it depicted the Prophet Mohammed having zany adventures alongside some of his most dimwitted followers. How many Tonys do you think that would win?

My point in bringing this to light is not to lobby for Mormon victim status. To the contrary, there’s something positive about the fact that Mormons are now considered worthy of ridicule and no longer ignored. It’s also a credit to members of my church that the specter of violence is never raised when Mormons are mocked like this.

At the same time, I wonder if the people who would recoil at Shylock but laugh heartily at a performance rife with Mormon caricatures even notice the double standard. I would hope so, but I also know that it took hundreds of years before Shylock stopped being funny.

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  1. My assumption has been that Mormons are “fair game” because it’s not exactly an ethnicity — despite multigenerational membership, the huge missionary effort emphasizes that being Mormon is a personal choice, not an ethnic or racial heritage. Compare that to Jewishness, which is a cultural/ethnic/racial trait even among those who have not been observant for generations.

  2. I think it simply comes with Mormonism being a new(ish) religion. Remember, it took Christianity about 200 years before it became “respectable”, and it took a Roman emperor converting to make that happen. At least, no one is throwing you to the lions…….

    P.S.: What happened to the board?

  3. Because Mormonism is funny, seriously funny, and I mean that in a good way. My definition of “a good way”? I feel that my family and I would be safe, and happy, in a cloistered community surrounded by Mormons. They would knock on my door every afternoon — bicycles, ties, and pressed white shirts — and I would kindly say “I’m not interested, but would you care for a refreshing glass of cold lemonade?”

    I’ve never met a Mormon I didn’t like. I’m sure there’s one or two out there, but they’ve never knocked on our door, and I’ve had a multitude knock on our door.

  4. Perhaps it is an opportunity to learn from those around us. We are preseived as strange because we all wear the same clothes and have the same haircuts. We generally vote the same. Maybe instead of always being insulted we should relax and be more open for difference. We do look like a cult in many ways.

  5. I will only speak for myself. The reason I mock Mormons is because they’re mean. Any religious group which tries to bar gay people from joining their marriage club is mean. I’m not a Christian. There are no rules in my religion which says I can’t get married to a man. Yet, I have to follow your rules. The Mormon Church poured and continues to pour millions into preventing gay people from getting married. Denying someone their happiness and their economic benefits when it has no effect on you or your marriage is mean.