Last Saturday my husband, Bob, and I were driving to a wedding reception and thought we’d turn on the radio and listen to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on NPR, a show we’ve enjoyed for years. It takes place in a fictional town of his creation, called Lake Wobegon.
We’ve always enjoyed Keillor’s unpretentious style and clever stories, all about the largely Lutheran, largely Nordic residents of this Minnesota invention where Keillor says, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” He includes made-up sponsors such as Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and often plugs the fictional “Powdermilk Biscuits,” something you can imagine even if you’ve never eaten one.
A real fan, I’ve purchased his books over the years, now resting in my bookcase alongside other cherished novels. People throng to attend his live broadcasts which are peppered with folksy music and self-deprecating humor, Americana at its best. For decades it’s been a glimpse of simpler times, when families gathered around the radio for their entertainment. He enjoys good-natured teasing of those in his own culture-their Lutheran potlucks, the ever-present coffee they enjoy, the German/Norwegian accents.
We do the same thing. I’ve written several books about the humor in LDS culture-our green Jell-O, our Funeral Potatoes, our unfinished homemaking projects. And we love the “Mormon” movies that depict clueless home teachers, desperate singles, clumsy missionaries. There’s Catholic humor, Jewish humor, and humor about any group of people who’ve learned to laugh at themselves.
But, while we cheerfully acknowledge our cultural quirks, we never actually criticize our faith itself. The people are one thing, the Restoration is another.
Last week Garrison Keillor crossed the line. He told a humorous story about a woman who was dating a pastor who’d been dismissed from the Lutheran faith. This pastor had signed up with a “prophet” in Canada who had embraced a bunch of nonsense, including the belief that the earth’s poles were going to shift. Chuckling from the audience punctuated his tale. In addition, this “prophet” had identified a place where the Garden of Eden had actually been, and had “found some silver plates in the forest.” Even louder chuckling, now.
Bob and I exchanged glances, and as if reading my mind, he turned off the radio. We drove along silently for a moment, both of us feeling stung by the obvious reference to Mormonism. Sure, he’d said silver instead of gold, but the point was still made: Aren’t Mormons ridiculous?
Keillor has rubbed me the wrong way before, with his far-left-of-center politics. But this time I felt attacked. Persecuted. It awakened feelings I hadn’t felt since high school and college, when my religion was mimicked and scorned by thoughtless students too young to know better. This was religious bigotry, no different than if Keillor had chosen to scoff at Allah, Mohammed, Buddha, or even Martin Luther King. Imagine the hailstorm of accusations he’d face if he had called Islam into question, in this day of political correctness.
Mormonism, however, appears to be an acceptable target. Certainly the unabashedly profane musical on Broadway, which pokes fun at the Book of Mormon, goes even beyond Keillor, yet faces no public outcry for apology or retraction. New York audiences lap it up, and now they are joined by millions of listeners who claim Middle America as their home, and Lake Wobegon as a good representation of all that is wholesome and good.
My profound disappointment in Keillor extended to his audience as well. Had I been there I would have walked out. And I like to think I’d have walked out if he had made fun of Judaism or Hinduism as well. Ridiculing one faith threatens the religious liberty of all. And probably Keillor’s ancestors were among those who fled to America for that very freedom. How ironic that what is so quintessentially American-certainly sacred to our Founding Fathers– was now being blasphemed in a show claiming to be particularly American.
I looked at my bookshelf when we got home and did some rearranging. Interior decorators are right: It’s nice to break up the space with some art objects.