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Forbes Magazine online May 7, 2015 @ 8:50 PM 68,635 views
Have Mormons Become America's Best Advocates For Freedom Of Speech?
Stuart Anderson, Contributor
I write about globalization, business, technology and immigration. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
I am the Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan public policy research organization focusing on trade, immigration and related issues based in Arlington, Virginia. From August 2001 to January 2003, I served as Executive Associate Commissioner for Policy and Planning and Counselor to the Commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Before that I spent four and a half years on Capitol Hill on the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, first for Senator Spencer Abraham and then as Staff Director of the subcommittee for Senator Sam Brownback. I have published articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other publications. I have written two books, one a non-fiction book called Immigration (2010) and the other a parody novel called The Lord of the Ring Dings (2013).
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
A worldwide debate has emerged over religion and freedom of speech. And who, by example, has become America’s best advocate for free speech? The surprising answer may be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Over the years and around the globe, cartoons of the prophet Muhammad have sparked protests among Muslims who believe such depictions insult their religious beliefs. The most extreme reaction came with the massacre of cartoonists at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, an attack that killed 12 people. More recently, in Garland, Texas, two men were shot and killed before they could attack an event featuring drawings of Muhammad.
In the United States, the most notable example of a work of free expression poking fun at another religion is the successful Broadway play The Book of Mormon, created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
The play features two fictional Mormon missionaries who go to Uganda and boisterously sing, “God loves Mormons and he wants some more!” While learning a new religion is far from the minds of people in a village combatting AIDS, poverty and a local warlord, they listen to stories, distorted by a loopy young missionary, about Brigham Young, Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon Church.
And what was the reaction of the hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to mining their religion for laughs? Did they condemn the play? Did they seek to pressure venues or cities not to allow it to be performed? Did Mormons threaten violence against anyone? No, Mormons did not do any of those things.
In fact, the church placed amusing advertisements in the playbills. One such ad tells audience members: “You Saw the Play, Now Read the Book (The Book is Always Better).”
That attitude is consistent with a press statement the Mormon Church released when the play first started:
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.
The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand the same First Amendment that gives people the right to poke fun at their religion also guarantees Mormons the right to practice that religion freely in America.
Cocreator of The Book of Mormon Matt Stone called the Mormon Church’s attitude toward the play, “A cool, American response to a ribbing.” He added:
Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, ‘Are you afraid of what the church would say?’ And Trey and I were like, ‘They’re going to be cool.’ And they were like, ‘No, they’re not. There are going to be protests.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, they’re going to be cool.’ We weren’t surprised by the church’s response. We had faith in them.
At the end of the play, even though the characters aren’t certain about everything contained in the Book of Mormon as a religious text, they seem better off for having beliefs that focus on caring about other people. And people in the audience were free to judge the play and its message for themselves.