Compared to other countries in the civilized world, the United States is strikingly religious. There are far more evangelical Christians, more churchgoers, and more believers per capita here than in Western Europe.
It wasn’t always this way. At the time of the American Revolution, the United States wasn’t an unusually faithful place. The Enlightenment was as influential to educated 18th century Americans as the Bible. And deism was more popular than fundamentalism.
In the 1820s and 30s, there was a social revolution that was every bit as influential and long-lasting as the American Revolution itself.
During the Second Great Awakening, a renewed passion for Christianity swept the country. Church membership skyrocketed. Evangelicalism became a major force in American life. Idealistic Christian activists began paving the way to the criminalization of both slavery and alcohol.
For some, established Christian denominations didn’t go far enough. Several new quasi-Christian churches were established during the 1830s.
The most revolutionary and most successful new religion of the Second Great Awakening was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Joseph Smith – a charismatic kook from upstate New York – published the Book of Mormon in 1830. It’s an astoundingly weird tall tale that claims that Jesus visited America, the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri, and that black people are innately inferior because God cursed their evil ancestors with dark skin.
It seems like a perfect inspiration for a hit Broadway show, right?
Apparently so. Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the comic geniuses behind TV’s “South Park” – have produced the most acclaimed musical of the decade.
I saw “The Book of Mormon” last weekend in Philadelphia. And I understood for the first time why theater tickets are several times more expensive than movie tickets: it’s because the experience of seeing a great musical is several times more wonderful.
“Book” tells the hilarious story of a pair of wide-eyed Mormon missionaries who are shipped off to poverty-stricken, war-torn Uganda to try to convert the locals.
I know what you’re thinking: “Here we go again. Yet another mainstream musical about religious fanatics from Utah trying to convert AIDS victims in rural Africa.”
“The Book of Mormon” is a truly original and charmingly profane night of theater that succeeds at every level.
The conclusion is surprising, heartfelt, and reasonable. Trey Parker and Matt Stone argue that the Book of Mormon itself is a ludicrous collection of lies. But the spirit of Mormonism is a positive force that continues to mold wholesome young adherents and change the world for the better.
Like it or not, the Second Great Awakening turned the United States into a more religious country. “The Book of Mormon” is a surprising testament – written by atheists for a secular audience – to the positive power of faith and religion. It may not be the best musical ever made. But it’s the best one I’ve ever seen.