How the Mormons Conquered America: a study in social adaptation

Michael Fitzgerald in Nautilus:

MormonAt the end of the smash Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, the protagonist, Elder Price, a zealous young Mormon missionary in Uganda, triumphantly sings, “We are still Latter day Saints, all of us / Even if we change some things, or we break the rules.” The ribald musical, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, mocks the Mormon religion and its visionary founder Joseph Smith. At one point Smith has sex with a frog to rid himself of AIDS. The musical gleefully incorporates how the real church will react to it, having an outraged Mormon leader, Mission President, declare, “You have all brought ridicule down onto the Latter Day Saints!” If the real Mormons feel like Mission President, they aren’t showing it. Instead the church has consistently bought ad space in cities where the musical has appeared to promote the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the real Book of Mormon, its sacred foundation. The ads have appeared on a Times Square billboard, around London, and in The Book of Mormon playbills for touring companies, featuring the taglines, “You’ve seen the play… now read the book,” and “The book is always better.” Clearly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can take a joke—especially if it gets people talking about the faith. That the Mormon church appears to be good-natured about a scatological musical might surprise those who associate the church with the squeaky clean image of the Osmond family and Mitt Romney.

The truth is that the Mormon church has always changed with the times. Religions have to mutate “if they’re going to survive,” says J. Gordon Melton, a religious scholar who founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion. They survive by setting what the anthropologist Roy Rappaport has called “ultimate sacred postulates,” ultimate truths, and then re-interpreting them over time. Scholars say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides a casebook study of how a religion has thrived by folding its postulates into a social institution that adapts to changing environments. The analogy, they say, can be stretched to science. Religions don’t have literal DNA, of course, but they can parallel how species mutate. There are key properties of successful genetic mutations that religions must have to succeed, says Lucas Mix, a researcher at the Haig Lab at Harvard University, who is both an evolutionary biologist and an Episcopalian priest. The properties are inheritance, variation, and selection.

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