By John Moore
Pundits are already calling this the most negative presidential election in history. And pollsters are calling it one of the closest. At a time when any slip of the tongue could move the polls ever so slightly in either direction (Joe Biden), the question bears asking …
Could “The Book of Mormon” actually impact the outcome of the upcoming presidential election?
Not the guiding testament of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, exactly … the Broadway musical that is now taking its beliefs to snickering task from a theatrical pulpit in Denver.
On the surface, the question is as silly as the sweetly subversive smash hit that turns out to be less a focused attack on Mormonism than a pointed spoof on religious literalism of any kind.
Surely a clever little story about two cheerfully naïve Mormon teens who set off on a mission to Africa, only to discover there are far greater social problems than any one book could ever solve, can’t affect the outcome of a presidential election?
It might, when a continuing Gallup poll most recently conducted last month shows that 18 percent of Americans would never vote for any Mormon for president.
And it might in the hotly contested swing state of Colorado, where the Rasmussen Reports poll has the race deadlocked at 47 percent for both presumptive Republican nominee (and Mormon) Mitt Romney, and president Barack Obama. That’s been unchanged for weeks, meaning the state’s nine electoral votes could be determined by the just 2 percent who currently declare themselves as undecided. That comes out to about 57,000 of the state’s registered voters.
Guess how many people will be attending the first national touring production of “The Book of Mormon” in Denver? About 53,000.
And with tickets drawing as much as $1,600 each on CraigsList, this musical is surely drawing a much wider cross-section of the local population than a typical musical might. Including swing voters.
Just how closely is the war for Colorado being waged? It’s one of nine swing states where more than $500 million is being spent on presidential campaign TV ads. The Denver and Colorado Springs markets have been saturated, accounting for a combined $12.7 million in ad spending by the end of July, according to the Washington Post. And all for nine measly electoral votes.
And the sick thing is, surveys suggest that they work. A Gallup poll from last month found that one in 12 voters admit that TV attack ads have helped them change their minds about who they will be voting for in November.
With the election still two months away, it’s inevitable that the odious campaign rhetoric will eventually get around to the topic of Romney’s Mormon faith. So it surely can’t be in Romney’s best interest that “The Book of Mormon” is now being seen for the first time by audiences outside of Times Square. Not here, of all places.
“The Book of Mormon,” written by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Bobby Lopez of “Avenue Q,” opened Tuesday (Aug. 12) at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, where it will run through Sept. 2. Within the structure of a fairly traditional Broadway musical, the story cheerfully pokes fun at the defensibility of many of the fundamental precepts and beliefs upon which the Mormon faith is based. Among them:
- That Jesus visited what is now upstate New York after his resurrection.
- That ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.
- That any reigning president of the Latter-Day Saints Church speaks directly to God.
- That God lives on a planet called Kolob.
- That the biblical Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Mo.
- And that, in 1978, God changed his mind about black people, who had been long-believed by pro-slavery Mormons to be the cursed descendants of Cain, and their enemies. In 1978, blacks were allowed to join the priesthood for the first time.
The mere suggestion of these ideas drew hoots and snickers from the Denver audience attending Thursday’s preview performance of “The Book of Mormon.”
The show’s potential impact on the Colorado electorate should not be discounted. Not when it won 14 Tony Awards, second-most in Broadway history, and has generated $102 million at the box office since opening in February 2011. Audiences love this show. They sing its songs. They quote its jokes. Some are paying four figures to see it.
But most heartland viewers in Colorado will be seeing it for the first time, with only vague preconceived notions of the show’s tone, which is more teasing than taunting. It is a show that is likely to have Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists admitting, in lock step with young Mormon Price, that there are things about religion “that just don’t make any (bleeping) sense!”
When Price sings with great gusto, “I am a Mormon … and a Mormon just believes,” audiences laugh. But whatever their faiths are, they are in large measure laughing at themselves, because a belief in things that cannot be proven is inherent to any faith.
But given the musical’s specific focus on Mormonism, could its cumulative impact leave an undecided voter less likely to support a presidential candidate who might believe the Garden of Eden really was in Missouri?
Mormon journalist McKay Coppins, who covers the Romney campaign for BuzzFeed Politics, told CNN this week that the debut of the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon” in Denver could bring Romney’s religion to the forefront of the campaign.
“Whether that hurts or helps him will depend on whether he addresses it,” Coppins told CNN. “So far he’s been reluctant to so, but I think (the musical playing in Denver) will make it a bigger campaign issue.”
One of the musical’s signature songs is a cheerful but cutting tune called “Turn it Off,” in which a Mormon elder suggests to a young training missionary that when you feel certain feelings that just don’t seem right — like doubt, sadness or sexual confusion — simply turn it off, like a light switch. “It’s a cool little Mormon trick,” the song goes.
In another scene, young Elder Price embarks on a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” where he lands alongside Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler and other notorious fiends, for having committed the sin of leaving his missionary partner alone. It’s funny stuff but, Coppins pointed out to CNN, Mormons don’t actually believe in hell in any traditional sense. And, he added, Mormonism “isn’t as mysterious or crazy as it’s made out to be.”
“The Book of Mormon” has been a big part of what Coppins and others are calling the ongoing “Mormon Moment” in America, but the musical’s part in it that, so far, has been largely relegated to Manhattan. Now that the musical is spreading out to stages in Denver, and soon Los Angeles, Chicago and others, this is an opportunity for Romney and other Mormons to help dispel lingering misunderstandings about the faith, Coppins said. While the musical does not perpetuate the myth that Mormons continue to engage in polygamy, for example, many outsiders still believe it to be true.
“There’s a good chance that people will be talking about this (now), so this is a chance for Mitt Romney to really talk about his faith in a way that he would like to discuss it,” Coppins said, by talking about “the experiences he’s had, the people he’s helped and how it’s shaped his character.”
And how it’s shaping the presidential race.
Previous “Book of Mormon” coverage: