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Joanna Weiss

Mormons on center stage

The religion travels from Broadway to campaign trail

Andrew Rannells from 'The Book of Mormon' Andrew Rannells from "The Book of Mormon" (Reuters)
By Joanna Weiss
July 5, 2011

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MITT ROMNEY has said he plans to see “The Book of Mormon,’’ the hilarious Broadway musical from the creators of “South Park’’ and “Avenue Q.’’ And there’s a moment in the show when you can practically imagine him onstage.

It comes in the second act, when a group of Ugandan converts puts on a pageant for visiting Mormon leaders: a bawdy, profane, and very incorrect retelling of the story of the Mormon faith. (It involves appearances from certain “Star Wars’’ characters, plus a song-and-dance depiction of how dysentery happens.) As the Mormon leaders watch in shock and disbelief, it’s hard not to notice that they all have very Mitt-like hair.

Which makes one wonder what Romney himself would think of the show. In public, he’s been good-humored. In private, would he fume?

Or would he realize that “The Book of Mormon,’’ blasphemy and all, is precisely the kind of public relations tool that Mormon candidates could use?

Mormonism looms over Romney’s presidential prospects, just as it did in 2008, except that instead of one major Mormon candidate, now there are two. For both Romney and Jon Huntsman, the path to the presidency is the same: appease evangelical Christians to win the GOP nomination, then assuage social liberals in a general election. (In a recent Gallup poll, notes Southern Methodist University political scientist Matthew Wilson, more Democrats than Republicans said they’d never vote for a Mormon.)

So far, Romney and Huntsman have taken very different approaches. In his speech on faith in 2008, Romney defended his devoutness, and argued that Mormons are no different from other Christians. Huntsman has played down his Mormonism, saying several faiths play roles in his life.

It’s a message the voters might or might not buy, since the nation’s fourth-largest religion has been more prominent of late. The church played a major role in supporting Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban. It has been having, as many have noted, a pop culture moment.

And when it comes to depictions of Mormon life, “The Book of Mormon’’ is, in some ways, the most accurate. HBO’s “Big Love’’ and TLC’s “Sister Wives’’ focus on polygamy, which the church has disavowed for a century. In “The Book of Mormon,’’ the subject doesn’t come up. Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the show, told me that there once was one polygamy joke. It didn’t get a laugh, so it was cut.

Yes, the show pokes fun of Mormon customs, goofing on the church’s reputation for repression and its ban on coffee and tea. (In a raucous dream sequence set in hell, Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer dance with a pair of giant coffee cups.) It paints young Mormons as repressed, in ways they spell out in a tap-dancing number called “Turn It Off.’’

But it also paints young Mormons as wholesome, optimistic, well-meaning, all-American. It focuses on the Mormon mission, a rite of passage that’s a character-building credential in itself, says Nathan Oman, a law professor at the College William and Mary who spent his own Mormon mission in South Korea.

The mission, Oman said, teaches personal responsibility, service, humility, and an expansive view of the world: Huntsman learned to speak fluent Mandarin during his mission in Taiwan. “The Book of Mormon’’ even makes a case for proselytizing - if the alternative is, say, a culture that allows female circumcision.

Ultimately, the show takes a sunny view of the Mormon faith, and faith in general. Its main point is that religion can be a powerful, positive force, provided no one takes the back story too literally. And that Mormonism is really no stranger than any other religion - which is in keeping, in a way, with what Romney argued in 2008.

Lopez said he always trusted that Mormons would take it well. Evangelicals launch cultural wars. Mormons let things pass. “Part of the reason we like them so much,’’ Lopez said, “is that they take the same view that we do, which is that the First Amendment takes care of all of this stuff.’’

Indeed, the church’s official statement about the show was benign, and even slyly evangelical: “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.’’

And whatever he thinks, Romney has, wisely, stuck to that message. “You know your faith has finally made it big time when people are poking fun of you on Broadway,’’ he told NBC. The best way to prove that you’re like everybody else is to show that you can take a joke.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.