Ever since it was founded in the 19th-century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has often been marginalized. The one thing everyone seems to associate with the church is polygamy, a practice mainstream Mormons have long since abandoned.
This theater season, Mormonism is being politely parodied on Broadway in a hit musical, “The Book of Mormon.” Becoming the object of laughter is not all bad, because the humor is friendly. As John Lahr notes in The New Yorker, the satire is “more about the Mormons’ buttoned-down, bushy-tailed style than about the substance of the religion.”
In fact, Mormons offer the largest single example of spiritually motivated utopian living in America. Motivated by a faith native to the United States, they overcame persecution, assassination and the rigors of the wilderness to create their heaven on Earth in the Utah desert. Today, almost no community of any size in the nation lacks a local church of the denomination.
On average, notes historian Thomas F. O’Dea, Mormons live more than a decade longer than other Americans, partly because there is low poverty among them. They are notoriously clean-living, denying themselves alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and other stimulants.
Consistent with the value they place on marriage and the family, Mormons condemn adultery and promiscuity. They also frown on divorce and contraception, but tolerate both.
Lawrence Wright, writing in The New Yorker, marvels that people so distinct “are ostensibly so conventional. Mormons have managed to make themselves into an ethnic group without any of the usual markers of ethnicity.”
What stands them apart is their work ethic. The Utah state symbol is the bee — an industrious bee — yet the Mormon quest for success is uncompromised by workaholism and Type A behavior, favoring dedication and optimism. Professor Harold Bloom calls Mormons “perhaps the most work-addicted culture in religious history.” This work ethic suits a people who believe that worldly success translates into industrious eternal fulfillment.
Although marginalized, Mormons have been subject to some study through the years. The great 19th-century British explorer Richard Burton traveled to Utah to admire the Mormon society. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called Mormonism “the American religion,” saying he “preferred a religion which professed to have dug its sacred books out of the earth to one which pretended that they were let down from heaven.”
• David Yount is the author of 14 books, including “America’s Spiritual Utopias” (Praeger). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and dyount31@Verizon.net.