Worst thing about ‘Book of Mormon’ musical is the racism

A musical coming to Auckland which depicts white American missionaries converting ‘childishly gullible’ indigenous people in Africa is bigoted and offensive, argues the University of Auckland’s Dr Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye

Prominent advertisements for The Book of Mormon Musical have recently transformed the look of transport in Auckland. ‘The Mormons are coming!’ shouts an ad on the side of the bus, showing a Latter-day Saint missionary in a black name tag jumping into the air with a Book of Mormon in his hand. Ads on giant floor posters and display screens fill Britomart Station.

These advertisements made me uncomfortable, for two reasons. First, I am a scholar of religious history at the University of Auckland and historically it has never been a good idea to mock people’s religious beliefs, no matter how peculiar they seem. Imagine bus advertisements shrieking ‘The Muslims are coming!’ and displaying an image of a woman in a burqa leaping into the air with a Koran in her hand? Or if massive advertisements in Britomart Station proclaimed, ‘The Torah: Funniest Musical of All Time!’? Most people would find this unacceptable and rightly identify it as bigotry, plain and simple. In light of the Christchurch tragedy, in which we saw how contempt directed at minority religious groups can lead to social hostility and even violence, it is more important than ever for people in Aotearoa to defend each other’s sacred beliefs.

Second, I myself am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (people often refer to us as ‘Mormons’). Our worship services bring together people from all walks of life: bus drivers, lawyers, small business owners, teachers, construction workers, doctors, parents who look after kids full-time. The majority of Latter-day Saints in Auckland are Māori and Pasifika, along with Pākehā, Asians, and others. Our faith communities here have their own distinctive culture which is wildly different from the musical’s depiction. We are not a comedic caricature, but are your friends, neighbours, students, nurses, professors, and fellow citizens. Two in every 100 New Zealanders are Latter-day Saints (for comparison, about one in every 100 New Zealanders is Muslim and 10 in every 100 New Zealanders are Catholic).

In the musical, Ugandans are depicted as living dreary, horrible lives devoid of meaning, afflicted by grotesque diseases, and as childishly gullible.

When travelling in the US last week, I decided to see the Book of Mormon musical in order to have a more complete basis for evaluation. I am sorry to say that after seeing it in person, I find it even more unpalatable (though I will grant that some jokes about naive, overeager missionaries were on point). It’s not just the soft religious bigotry that is troubling, but the racist depictions of Ugandans and, more broadly, Africans and indigenous peoples. 

In the musical, Ugandans are depicted as living dreary, horrible lives devoid of meaning, afflicted by grotesque diseases, and as childishly gullible. The musical’s characters are easily taken in by Latter-day Saint Elder Cunningham’s wild tales combining Latter-day Saint doctrines with elements from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Real, complex people facing real, complex problems are flattened into punchlines: ‘the doctor with maggots in his scrotum’ or ‘the woman with AIDS and dysentery’. The arc of the story is a classic ‘white saviour’ narrative.

The musical’s narrative of how indigenous Africans accepted a ridiculous Christian missionary tale because they were simple-minded and because they had diarrhea is especially offensive in the context of Auckland, a diverse city in which many Christians trace their spiritual heritage back to encounters between foreign missionaries and Māori, Samoans, Tongans, Koreans, Indians, and so on. As a historian of global Christianity I see that mission encounters are complex and often problematic due to factors such as imperialism and colonialism. At the same time, it is very disrespectful to attribute people’s deeply-held religious beliefs to low intellectual capacity and socioeconomic deprivation. This narrative is even more problematic when, as in the case of the musical, white foreigners are telling this story about indigenous people of colour and making money from it.

Comedy in exchange for soft religious bigotry and racist caricatures of indigenous peoples is too high a price to pay.

Before seeing The Book of Mormon musical, I thought that an appropriate remedy for theatregoers who wanted to experience an international entertainment phenomenon while avoiding petty religious bigotry was to educate themselves beforehand about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by reading the actual Book of Mormon (online and in hard copy in the city library system) and talking with actual Latter-day Saints. I thought: I’m a Latter-day Saint; I can take a joke.

Now that I have seen the musical, however, I am astonished by its racism and ethnocentrism in its depiction of indigenous peoples. I cannot accept it. People who value faith and abhor racism should not pay money to support this show. Its zingy jokes about Latter-day Saint missionary culture often hit the mark, but comedy in exchange for soft religious bigotry and racist caricatures of indigenous peoples is too high a price to pay.

* Dr Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is the recipient of the University of Auckland’s Early Career Teaching Excellence Award and the author of two books: China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 2019), and Crossings: a bald Asian American Latter-day Saint woman scholar’s ventures through life, death, cancer, and motherhood (not necessarily in that order) (Deseret Book, 2019).

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