Years before the South Park guys’ The Book of Mormon made a fortune by making fun of the unbelievable theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s scripture, I was in the satirizing-Mormonism business myself. “Didn’t we all come to New York to escape Mormons?” says a character in my 1999 novel Turn of the Century. In my novel Heyday, set in the 1840s, the journalist character who'd reported on the founder of Mormonism calls him a lunatic and a charlatan. In my new nonfiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, an excerpt from which was September's Atlantic cover story, I devoted an entire chapter to Mormonism and its founding. “American Christians from the start tended toward the literal and hysterical and collectively self-centered,” I wrote. “Joseph Smith met that bid and raised it a million.” And, as I argue, “Smith’s Heaven is very sci-fi.
It has three quality levels, like American Express cards—one for run-of-the-mill people who don’t deserve Hell, one for good Christians, and a superpremium level for Mormons. There you’re not just one of a mass of a billion indistinguishable souls in some ethereal netherworld, but a king or queen of your personal planetary fiefdom as a resurrected immortal physical being, continuing to produce princes and princesses. God lives near an actual celestial object called Kolob, a definite number of miles away from Earth. Plus, any dead friends or relatives can be posthumously baptized and sent along to Heaven as well. Better history, better future—and at least for men, a better present, now that sex with multiple women was no longer a sin but a holy commandment. … So much about the founding of the church seems so comic, even at the most fine-grained level.
And so on.
But like the authors of the brilliant Broadway musical, I’ve also always had a sincere soft spot for Mormons because of their sincere commitment to leading virtuous lives. In Heyday, my two Mormon characters are good and kind. In Turn of the Century, my character who ridicules Mormonism calls them “creepy and admirable.”