Making Fun of Mormons: How far is too far?

Comedian David Cross of “Arrested Development” drew heavy criticism from Twitter users, religious commentators and others when he posted a photoshopped picture of himself in Church of Jesus Christ temple garments ahead of a tour stop in Salt Lake City in August. “Utah, learn the real truth!” the promotional image said.

Many weren’t amused, including those who booked him. The University of Utah, who hosted the event, condemned the photo. “The offensive use of sacred religious imagery … was in opposition to the university’s values of respect and inclusivity,” the university said in a statement. They didn’t cancel the show, however, citing 1st Amendment rights.

During his set, Cross said that he was surprised by the outcry, but he didn’t “give a [expletive].”

According to a Latter-day Saint teacher, who asked not to be recorded or attributed with his official title since he isn’t authorized to speak for the church, it was the imagery that made this joke — and others like it — go too far. He said it doesn’t bother him when people poke fun at what people call “magic underwear”. The line is crossed when something he views as sacred is displayed in full, as it was in Cross’ photoshopped image.

The church has long protected its sacred imagery, not allowing photography or recording of any kind in its temples. It also instructs its missionaries to “not photograph sacred objects or statues” in the communities where they proselytize, according to their handbook.

The nature of making jokes about the church and its members may also depend on the source. In the United States, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are minorities, making up just 1.8 percent of the the population, according to a recent Gallup poll. However, in Utah County, Latter-day Saints make up over 80 percent of the population according to the church’s own figures.

Kelli Potter, a professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University, says that the position of the joker in relation to the religious institution makes all the difference.

“The line here has to do with where the critic is in the power dynamic,” Potter said.

While calling Cross’ image “distasteful and disrespectful,” Potter added that not all religious jokes are inappropriate. In fact, they can be a force for good.

“Parody or satire from within the community might be very powerful and necessary to challenge to the structures in the community that marginalize certain groups,” she said, citing feminists and queers within the Islamic community who “criticize the orthodoxies of [Islamic] traditions from the point of view of a marginalized group” as a positive example.

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