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Mormons try to benefit from satire's success

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Published:   |   Updated: November 16, 2013 at 04:41 PM

TAMPA — It's rollicking, risqué and oh, so irreverent.

So if you're a member of good standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how do you react to “The Book of Mormon,” the blockbuster musical that makes a mockery of your religion?

You embrace it.

“Even bad publicity can turn into good publicity,” said Mark Cusick, president of the Florida Tampa mission of the LDS church.

“We're looking at it as an entry point to tell people what our religion is all about. The idea is you've seen the play, now read the book.”

So don't look for Mormon protesters standing outside the Straz Center in Tampa, where the smash Broadway production opened Tuesday and runs through Nov. 24.

Instead, the church has dispatched locally based missionaries to mingle with theatergoers before the show and during intermission in public areas outside. On the show's second night, four young men and two women gave out 350 “pass-along cards” that give the church's website and a QR code to scan a digital copy of the Book of Mormon, the church's sacred text.

The one drawback: Some people think they're cast members.

“They wanted to have their pictures taken with us,” said Heidi Birch, 21, of Utah. “After we explained who we were, I think they were excited about meeting sister missionaries.”

Her missionary companion, Madison Larson, 23, also of Utah, shared her partner's enthusiasm for this unlikely venue to proselytize her religion.

“This is an awesome experience coming out here,” she said. “What a great way to share our faith with people who are interested.”

Though she has no plans to attend the play, Larson said she has heard enough to know her closely held beliefs are skewered and satirized. She wants audiences to know that she represents the truth of missionary life.

“Accepting this mission was the best and most rewarding decision I've ever made,” she said. “It's also the hardest thing I've ever done. But I wouldn't want to be anywhere else at this time.”

To further take advantage of its moment in the spotlight, the Salt Lake City-based church buys three full-page ads in the playbill in every city the touring company visits. “The book is always better,” one touts. “I've read the book,” says another.

“People are naturally going to be more curious about us,” said Marc Lee of Bonneville Communications, which places the ads. “It's a smart way to capitalize on that moment.”

The musical is based on the story of two missionaries — one self-serving and righteous, the other naïve and prone to a wild imagination — sent to Uganda for their two-year mission. Instead of encountering Africans eager to hear their message of eternal salvation, they ended up in a village led by gun-toting mercenaries and ravaged by AIDS, famine and a fatal acceptance of their hopeless circumstances.

Written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators of Comedy Central's satirical and raunchy “South Park,” it goes without saying that nothing is sacred, from the church's founder, prophet Joseph Smith Jr., to God.

Since the play's Broadway debut in 2009, Mormon leaders have made a conscious decision not to debate the jabs — and there are plenty — taken at their history and beliefs. Instead, they took the stand that the play's popularity could be a possible conversion tool.

“If there's an opportunity to share the message of the church and Jesus Christ, we want to be available,” Cusick said. “This is a new approach for us, putting missionaries near the theater. We'll know in time if this was effective.”

Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa and an ex-Mormon from Utah, calls the church's reaction to the play “brilliant.”

“Whether you agree or disagree with the church, they win awards for their marketing,” Cragun said. “The Scientologists go the opposite direction by being so litigious. And look how it backfires on them.”

The church has learned through the years to meet challenges in a positive way. When law enforcement raided the Texas compound of polygamist Warren Jeffs, who led a fundamentalist splinter Mormon group, LDS leaders knew it could be a potential public relations disaster for the church. Jeffs' group was not in line with church teachings, Cragun said, but the general public may not recognize that.

“So they responded with the 'I Am Mormon' campaign, which showed church members are regular folks, just like you and me,” he said. “This was another example of how the church doesn't like to be confrontational. And it's works.”

Cragun said “about 90 percent” of the play is accurate about church teachings, though they're presented in a light-hearted or crass manner. It brought back a few memories for him: He spent two years in Costa Rica as a missionary.

“It was a little bit like torture. All those amazing beaches and you couldn't swim. I had to enjoy it all in my white shirt, dark pants and tie,” he said, laughing.

Instead of solidifying his faith, the mission experience led him to question it. The Book of Mormon, he finally concluded, was filled with “too many gross inaccuracies, and scientific and archeological errors.” He left the church soon after, and had to work through his feelings of anger and betrayal.

He still has family members who are practicing Mormons. They may not approve of his departure, but they would never cut him off because of it.

“That's not the Mormon way,” he said. “They're basically nice people. And more times than not, misunderstood people.”

“The Book of Mormon” will likely raise questions about the denomination, which claims 15 million members worldwide and 6.3 million in the United States (a figure that Cragun said is highly exaggerated). Regional church spokesman Lowell Fuller said members welcome any discussion that will enlighten the public about their faith. Among some of the practices: Discouraging the use of alcohol, tobacco or coffee; only allowing members in good standing into the temples; wearing the “sacred garments” under their clothing; and the story behind Smith's discovery of the “golden plates.”

“If you aren't aware of our doctrine, then I can understand why you might think, 'That's odd.' We're often misunderstood because there's a lack of knowledge about us,” Fuller said. “In the end, it's best to judge people by their good works and the lives they lead. Are they following Christ's example? That's the true test.”

Doris Fernandez of Odessa, who attended Wednesday's show at the Straz, said she was born a Jew and baptized a Catholic. So she's seen her share of religious rituals that may not make sense to cynics and outsiders.

Did “The Book of Mormon” trigger a red flag about the denomination that claims to be the second fast-growing church in the U.S.?

“Not at all. This is just pure entertainment, and a lot of fun,” said the retired teacher. “I know they're a tight-knit community, but I wouldn't consider them a cult or anything like that. They have their ways, and other religions have theirs.”

Todd Wilbur of Tampa, who gave the show a big “thumbs up,” agreed.

“Oh, yeah, it definitely reinforced some of the craziness in being a Mormon,” he said and laughed. “But definitely in a very good way.”

mbearden@tampatrib.com

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