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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Vaughn Durfee: ‘Book of Mormon’ highlights injustices within church

By Vaughn Durfee

By Vaughn Durfee

With the “Book of Mormon” musical’s performances in Spokane last weekend, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others of faith in the region debate the production’s purpose and value. I know because this once included me.

I vividly remember sitting in the Salt Lake City airport in May 2011 waiting for my flight to Alaska where I would spend the next two years volunteering as a missionary for the LDS church. Across from me, a man was reading a newspaper that had an article on the “Book of Mormon” musical, which had premiered just two months earlier. At this moment, I thought to myself: “The world needs me now more than ever.”

Growing up, Sunday school lessons portrayed many events in LDS church history as unwarranted attacks against a blameless victim. For example, I never learned that the reason Joseph Smith was in Carthage Jail when he was killed was because he had ordered the destruction of a printing press that had published an expose on his plural marriages. And recent articles in print and online begrudging the arrival of the musical to Spokane have portrayed it almost as a hit job, coming to target the institution and its members.

But now, a decade and a faith transition after my missionary service, I recognize that the musical’s focus on missionaries in situations that deal with homosexuality, poverty and race allows for the discussion to be flipped to acknowledge those who have been victims of the church’s problematic policies and doctrines and who continue to be marginalized.

A number of missionaries I served with in Alaska, as well as friends who served in other missions across the world, have since come out as gay. The church’s Family Proclamation declares that marriage is between a man and woman, preaches that gender is eternal, and warns that those who do not fit this pattern and partake of church ordinances will not qualify to live with their families forever – a goal that all faithful members strive for. Many church members – particularly youth – have struggled with these teachings and the manner in which they are presented, often feeling as if they would be better off in a grave than living honestly: “We would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.” (Marion G. Romney, “We Believe in Being Chaste”, September 1981).

“Book of Mormon,” the musical, takes place in Uganda, where two white missionaries from the United States are surrounded by poverty, yet seek to bring their message above all else. In April 2018, current LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson traveled to Kenya and declared that paying tithing – comprising of 10% of a church member’s income – is the manner by which the poverty cycle is broken. “We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty … that same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing.” (Russell M. Nelson, April 2018). The church sits on over $100 billion, according to reports first published in December 2019.

Regarding race, the First Presidency of the church, which consists of its three highest-ranking leaders, issued a statement in 1949 declaring that Africans and their descendants could not hold the priesthood because of a lack of faithfulness in the premortal life; this position was only reversed in 1978, following a time of church growth in Brazil, where it had become difficult to determine who had African lineage. One of the church’s Twelve Apostles who later became the church’s president declared that Native American children in placement programs among church members had skin that was “often lighter than their brothers and sisters” who were still on reservations, as a reflection of their progressing righteousness, (Spencer W. Kimball, General Conference Report, October, 1960).

I recognize that my words may come across as heavy, particularly to those with whom I once sat in the pews on Sundays or knocked doors as a missionary. My intent is only to provide a voice to those who may feel voiceless, particularly as I once purposefully contributed to the muffling of those voices. Satire and direct portrayals of these sensitive issues in a format such as a musical can generate beneficial discussion, being a palpable model for highlighting injustice.

I have not seen the musical , and may never do so. But if it conveys any sense of validity or value for those who have felt victimized for being who they are or for things they cannot change, then I can easily let it pass through my city a couple of times a decade.

Vaughn Durfee is a graduate of Brigham Young University, a former member of the LDS church and a Spokane native.

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