When I got up this morning, knowing what was on my DVR, I was almost giddy with anticipation. Two of my favorite people on earth (neither of whom I’ve ever met, or am ever likely to meet), were going to be on television together! Yay! Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl, on the Daily Show, being interviewed by Jon Stewart. Couldn’t wait.
Okay, The Book of Mormon Girl is Brooks’ account of growing up Mormon in Orange County California, her education at BYU, her coming-of-age as an intellectual and liberal, her dismay over problematic issues in Mormon history and over the Church’s involvement with, among other conservative causes, the Prop 8 campaign in California, and the way she eventually found a balance, found a way she could be herself, committed to progressivism and social justice, but also at home, spiritually, as a Mormon. It’s a lovely book, funny and smart and achingly honest. Sad and profound and simple and real. It’s one of my favorite memoirs ever. And it’s made Joanna Brooks something of a spokeswoman for Mormonism.
I don’t know of you’re aware of this, but a Mormon is running for President. I mean, who knew? Right now, apparently, even as we speak. And, you know, official spokespeople, for the Church or for any other large public entity, that carefully modulated institutional voice of officialdom, that’s not so much what anyone wants anymore. Offical statements are seen as inauthentic, are seen as spin. It’s interesting to me how a conservative Mormon is running for President, and the people the media want to talk to about him are liberal Mormons. It was so interesting on The Daily Show when Brooks said, about gay Mormons, something frankly innocuous (‘there are gay Mormons and we don’t to lose them’) the audience cheered.
And The Daily Show. I adore The Daily Show. Jon Stewart’s only real allegiance is to the Church of Funny, but within the world of politics and media and the media’s coverage of politics, he finds a rich rich vein of Funny. He’s our Aristophanes. And I know Jon’s interviews are oft-criticized, but they’re often my favorite parts of the show. He finds great books to read and talk about, and when he talks to the authors of those books, he’s clearly read the book, he’s clearly interested in engaging its author in conversation, somethings challenging, sometimes laudatory. I respect and admire that about him.
Jon Stewart stands for something. In part, what he stands for is the satiric tradition, that essential requirement of any free society, that we get to mock those in power, that we get to laugh at human pretention, that laughter and sunshine are the best combined disinfectant. He’s Jonathan Swift, he’s Mark Twain. But he’s also an intelligent and decent man, with a genuine interest in public policy, informed by a strong moral sense.
And Joanna Brooks stands for something to, in Mormon culture. In part, she stands for the Eugene England strain in our culture, the deeply committed faithful intellectual. But she’s a satirist in her own right–nowhere is her book more brilliant than in the passages about the Marie Osmond beauty secrets book she received as a Christmas present one year. And she’s an ardent and committed feminist. She stands for equality, in the best sense of that word.
So the fact that Joanna Brooks was on The Daily Show was sort of more important than anything either of them said. And Jon seemed genuinely respectful of both her book and her position in Mormon culture. I think there was more to it, though, than respect. Jon seemed to spend a lot of time comparing Mormonism and Judaism, as though he was comparing her childhood to the resources he has as a Jewish father, for his own children. At times, he seemed almost wistful, especially when she talked about LDS dance festivals.
It might have sounded a little condescending to some. Jon seemed at times to be saying ‘you’re a young religion, and as a representative of a very old religion, here’s where you are, here’s how you need to evolve.’ I don’t know when I’ve heard Jon talk about himself as a Jew quite so much. But I thought he was actually trying to get a different, better sense of Mormonism as a faith.
Jon Stewart has certainly mocked Mormons from time to time. Well, he’s mocked some Mormons, Mitt Romney, Harry Reid in particular. They’re his favorite targets, politicians and especially politicians as wooden as Romney. (Earlier on the show, for example, he made fun of the Romney campaign, a frequent target). Did his conversation with Joanna Brooks serve as a kind of mea culpa, an apology? Maybe. But what I saw was a smart and thoughtful conversation between two great people. Made for a great night of television.