WASHINGTON, January 9, 2015 — Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for insulting their prophet, Mohammed. They left 12 dead and four critically wounded in their attempt to make Western journalists shut up.
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone dish up scathing satire on their show as well. Like Charlie Hebdo, they’ve mocked everyone from Jews to Scientologists to Catholics to Mormons to Muslims. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, they’ve left the person of Mohammed largely unscathed. They attempted to include him in an episode, but skittish network executives made them turn Mohammed into a giant teddy bear.
The South Park production team seems unafraid of physical reprisals from angry Mormons or Catholics, though Scientologists can be litigious and may hit them with a plague of lawyers.
But the network’s fear of Muslim reprisals wasn’t overblown.
People who go to Broadway to see The Book of Mormon musical don’t fear violent reprisals from angry Mormons. Their greatest danger is that a Mormon missionary might try to hand them an actual copy of The Book of Mormon. Rather than explode in furious indignation, LDS (Latter-day Saint, the church’s preferred term) leaders decided in good humor to piggy back on publicity for the musical and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to actual Mormons.
The difference between the Mormon and Muslim responses to mockery is striking.
In the 19th century, the LDS response to mockery might have been less gentle if it occurred in Mormon territories. Church members were badly persecuted in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois in the 1830s and 40s, until they were forced to emigrate from the city they founded in Illinois, Nauvoo.
The Mormons weren’t always ready to turn the other cheek even before the expulsion from Nauvoo. They occasionally provoked their neighbors with their own brand of unneighborly behavior. But they were more often the persecuted than the persecutors, forced to flee before mobs that burned their homes and churches and killed their prophet, Joseph Smith.
Under the leadership of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, they began the migration from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake valley in the Utah territory. The place was so desolate — a salty desert surrounding a dead salt sea — that some explorers doubted they’d ever grow so much as an ear of corn there.
Several waves of Mormons crossed the plains over the next decade. Many of them walked all the way pulling handcarts, a trek that left thousands dead. With stubborn ingenuity, they denied the doubters and turned the desert into an oasis and a garden, building a new temple and a city around it.
The Mormons in Utah weren’t in a mood to be shoved around any more. Their anger over the expulsions made many of them much less nice than the naïve elders (Mormon missionaries) depicted on Broadway. Brigham Young established a theocracy in Utah, which they called “Deseret,” with lines of political and religious authority merged.
Surrounded by an expanding and hostile United States, this was a recipe for disaster, and disaster obliged. On September 11, 1857, the Baker-Fancher wagon train traveling from Missouri to California was attacked by Mormons from the Utah Territorial Militia under a flag of truce at Mountain Meadows. Over 100 men and women were killed in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The children were taken in by Mormon families.
Whether Brigham Young knew about the attack beforehand is hotly argued. Even if he did not, he and the church had fostered a climate that made it possible. Mormon anger, their fear of a U.S. government invasion, teachings against outsiders, and the strong, hierarchical organization of the church meant that local church leaders could organize and lead the massacre with little complaint from their followers.