Given his risk-averse personality, Mitt Romney is unlikely to schedule his formal entry into the presidential race to coincide with the March 24 Broadway opening of the musical comedy "The Book of Mormon," from the creators of the edgy, animated cable series "South Park."
On the other hand, given the unease about Romney's Mormon faith that Sunbelt evangelicals communicated to pollsters in 2008, it might not be bad timing for the former Massachusetts governor. It could demystify the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a little humor.
You can find faith in the funniest places -- and where you would least expect to, like on Broadway or even on a scatological show like Comedy Central's "South Park."
Yet in researching a book and numerous articles on spirituality and popular culture, I found belief in abundance -- along with some of the most perceptive critiques of organized religion -- in the long-running Fox TV hit "The Simpsons." In a later edition I added chapters and wrote essays about the faith dimension of other animated network sitcoms, including "Futurama," "Family Guy," "King of the Hill" and "American Dad," where God and Jesus frequently show up, often with speaking parts.
However, none of these series comes as close in depth and devastating commentary to the way "South Park's" writers approach religious controversy. The show -- nasty, naughty and nihilistic -- features a quartet of pint-sized, potty-mouthed fourth-graders, as crudely drawn as their words are spoken.
The Catholic Church was relentlessly pounded for the clergy sex abuse scandal and for its doctrine and practices regarding the role of women. Even the church's most prominent (if unctuously hyper-sensitive) defender, William Donahue, leader of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was literally eviscerated in an episode.
"South Park's" searing, two-episode satire of the Church of Scientology
made headlines, as did its head-on assault of media timidity regarding Islam
and the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. Through two regular characters with cerebral palsy -- Jimmy and Timmy -- the show has even explored the delicate issue of theology and disability.
But in its portrayal of Romney's church, the show has broken the most ground, and may do so again. In March, show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (with collaborator Robert Lopez) will premiere "The Book of Mormon" on the Great White Way. The story recounts the trials and travails of two young missionaries in modern-day Uganda, although those involved in the production have been sworn to secrecy about further plot details.
This is not the first time Parker (whose first three girlfriends were Mormon and who attended church summer camps) and Stone have portrayed the denomination. In 1998, Parker directed and co-starred in an independent film, "Orgazmo," in which he played a naïve Mormon missionary who stumbles into a leading role in a porn movie in order to finance his wedding. (Not a promising sign if you're a Mormon official concerned about the new Broadway show.)
Still, Parker (now an agnostic) and Stone (a secular Jew) grew up among Mormons in Colorado and have a soft spot in their heart for the church. In their comic cosmology, the denomination's founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was always included as an equal in "South Park" episodes that featured Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Ganesh and (yes) Muhammad. In another episode, a preview of Heaven, Mormons are revealed as the only residents, prompting one observer to say, "Boy, did we guess wrong!"
In a 2003 episode called "All About Mormons," Parker and Stone interwove a modern plot about a Mormon family that moves to South Park, with a flashback to the 19th-century origins of the denomination in upstate New York. Both the modern and the vintage sections poked gentle, knowing fun at Mormons, and gave them a total pass on the issue of polygamy -- normally an easy cheap shot.
Mormons from Orlando to Salt Lake City whom I have interviewed think the episode is funny and not at all mean-spirited (or so distorted historically that it should be discounted). Some admit to sharing DVDs with their friends. More to the point, the episode strongly suggests that Mormons may have little to fear from the new musical.
"We wanted to make this not just cynical and Mormon bashing," Parker recently told the New York Times, "but hopeful and happy, because to me that's what musicals are about."
Despite a willingness to find common cause with Mormons on issues like gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research, as many as a third of middle-class evangelicals in Sunbelt suburbs -- the GOP base -- told pollsters in 2008 that they would be uneasy with a presidential candidate many consider to be a non-Christian.
In 2008, American popular culture did little to allay their concerns: HBO's "Big Love" focused on a contemporary, breakaway Mormon sect's embrace of polygamy; the feature film "September Dawn," starring John Voight, highlighted the dark side of Mormon history in Utah -- the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Although "Family Guy" took a shot at church hypocrisy this past Sunday, with any luck "The Book of Mormon" may actually give Romney's candidacy a boost, however unlikely a vehicle it might seem.