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With 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, church counters lily-white image
Ruth Williams passes out bulletins at the Third Ward in Washington, D.C., a diverse Mormon church.
November 2nd, 2011
11:32 AM ET

With 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, church counters lily-white image

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - The scene at a Mormon congregation here on a recent Sunday would surprise Americans who think of Mormons as young white missionaries in stiff white shirts, black ties and name tags.

Yes, there are white missionaries handing out bulletins at Washington’s Third Ward - what Mormons call their congregations - but there's also Ruth Williams, an elderly African-American woman, decked out in her Sunday best, doing the same.

White, black, Asian and Hispanic Mormons mingle before the service begins. As it gets under way, an African-American tween plays a video game on his smartphone in one pew as a 30-something white woman across the aisle taps away on her iPad.

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On this Sunday, the Sacrament - what Mormons call the remembrance of the Last Supper and what other Christians call Communion - is said in French, a nod to the area's burgeoning West African population.

It is not a special multicultural celebration Sunday. For this growing Mormon congregation in northeast Washington, it's just another weekend.

“It’s 30% Caucasian, 30% African-American, and the rest is a combination of first-generation immigrants from around the world,” says Bishop Robert Nelson, the lay leader of this congregation.

A diverse group of congregants from the Third Ward listens to a sermon.

Washington's Third Ward is a near mirror image of the diverse neighborhood it serves, jarring with the Mormon Church's image as a faith-based club for upper-class whites.

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And the Mormon Church, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says the ward represents the diverse face of modern Mormonism, a message it has been trying to spread as part of a yearlong nationwide push to counter its lily-white image.

Since January, the LDS Church has spent millions on an "I'm a Mormon" advertising campaign that features television commercials, billboards and bus signs with Mormons from African-American, Asian, Latino and other ethnic backgrounds. Just last month, the campaign entered 11 new major media markets in Texas, Indiana, Nebraska, Washington, Georgia and Arizona, hitting cities like Atlanta, Denver and Phoenix.

(You won't be seeing the ads in Iowa, South Carolina or Florida. With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormon, competing in the Republican presidential primaries, the church says it wants to steer clear of politics.)

The Mormon Church even used the ad campaign to launch a shot across the bow of the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," buying a digital "I'm a Mormon" billboard just down the street from the theater where the show is playing.

The musical satire, co-produced by the creators of the television show "South Park," shows earnest white American Mormon missionaries and their misadventures in proselytization in Africa.

But the billboard shows a very different face of Mormons. There is an African-American couple playing Frisbee on the beach, a Latino grandfather and granddaughter, a goateed motorcycle sculptor.

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An official church website, Mormon.org, lets those interested in the church search for Mormons from diverse ethnic backgrounds and features videos from the likes of black soul singer Gladys Knight and Brandon Flowers, frontman for the rock band The Killers.

"It's to say, 'We're like you,' " said Kathleen Flake, a religious scholar from Vanderbilt Divinity School. "It's an attempt to combat stereotypes so that absolutely people are more open to see the normalcy of Mormonism."

The LDS Church says its attempt at an image makeover is as much a reflection of demographic reality as it is a PR effort. While young white missionaries may still be Mormonism's public face in the United States, they are no longer fully representative of the Salt Lake City-based church.

“Our doctrine is we’re all sons and daughters of God," says Stephen Allen, managing director of the LDS Church's missionary department. "Skin color or anything else is not a significant issue to us.”

Video: Defining Mormonism

As head of global missions, Allen supervises the 52,000 19- to 25-year-old missionaries knocking on doors around the world.

He's also executive director of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which began in nine markets this year.

“In terms of targeting, we’re not specifically targeting or avoiding any particular group," Allen says. "We send our missionaries all over the world to anywhere people will listen.”

As the church’s efforts to win converts has expanded internationally, “following the American flag around the world,” as Flake puts it, the LDS Church has grown more diverse.

“We’re in most of the free world right now,” Allen says. "We have a presence in Russia and Ukraine and the Baltic countries. We have a growing presence in Africa ... Nigeria, Kenya … then we have, Japan, Korea, Taiwan. There are small congregations in India, and the church is growing in those places.”

The church's membership has doubled since 1988, to 14.1 million Mormons worldwide.  Six million Mormons live in the United States. Many of the church's members live in the American West and Northwest, in some of the whitest states in the country.

But like many other churches, there has been explosive growth in the LDS Church in Latin America. There are more than a million Mormons in both Mexico and Brazil. There are nearly a million Mormons in Asia and 300,000 in Africa, according to church statistics.

“This attempt to emphasize diversity and to emphasize a wide range of people who are Mormon does reflect, in a lot of ways, what’s been going on in reality for a while,” says Matthew Bowman, an editor at a Mormon studies journal called Dialogue.

Even in the United States, the perception of who Mormons are has changed.

“We’ve done a lot of research to see what people think of us and what their perception is,” Allen says. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, if you said, ‘When you think of the word Mormon, what comes to mind?’ the answer would have been Mormon Tabernacle choir, polygamists, racists, the Osmonds [singers Donny and Marie].”

While that's less the case today, Allen says many people still don't know what a Mormon looks like - or don't know that there are Mormons from minority backgrounds.

A spokesman for the church said it doesn't keep statistics on members' race or ethnicity.

But “it’s no longer just a predominantly white church,” Allen says. “In our early history, you know, it was founded in upstate New York in the United States and was very much a white congregation, but today it’s very diverse.”

The complexion of the average Mormon ward reflects the neighborhood where the building resides. “Mormon wards are not self-selecting,” says Richard Bushman, a visiting professor at the School of Religion of Claremont Graduate University. “In Mormon congregations, they are just geographical boundaries, and wherever you live, you go to church.”

There is no church shopping. Congregants can’t go to another ward if they don’t like the music or the doughnuts at the social hour, as in many other faith traditions.

In Washington's Third Ward, two new converts who had recently been baptized were welcomed into the church on a recent Sunday. Both women were young African-Americans. The men who formed a circle around them and prayed over them were all white.

Unlike the ward, the church's global leadership in Salt Lake City is mostly white.

It was not until 1978 that African-Americans could serve in priesthood positions in the church, a prohibition that extended back to Mormon leader Brigham Young in the 1850s.

"When you see in that ad campaign Mormons, including African-Americans, they are trying to  communicate against that stereotype that Mormons are racist, there's no question about this," says Vanderbilt's Flake. "They are trying to say, 'That's not fair. That is not who we are. Even if we were, we are not now.' "

Allen says the "I'm a Mormon" campaign was designed to assist the small army of young Mormon missionaries out knocking on doors.

"Our feeling was anything we could do to help them was really important," he says. "And helping them means softening people’s hearts.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Jon Huntsman • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics • United States

soundoff (2,530 Responses)
  1. Bob

    Expect more and more Mormon stories by CNN and the rest of the Obama liberal media. Why? To make damn sure you ignorant conservative yahoos know that Mitt Romney is a Mormon.
    They will emphasize important issues like 'magic underwear'.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • dave

      Bob– cnn or whatever it's the republicans fault if they nominate a mormon who won't get the millions of republican voters for the gen election.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  2. Pope on a Rope

    Minority Mormons: the other 1%

    November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  3. Andrew

    One man, One wife. That's what we believe. My name's Andrew, and I'm a Mormon.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Ti-tties and beer. That is what I believe. I am something.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Monster drinks

      Hi Andrew, Question: Am I going to hell for drinking Monster Energy Drinks( highly caffeinated )?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Before I buy in, how many mistresses?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  4. toxictown

    People should be free to believe the silly fairytale of their choice. There was much consternation when JFK was running that his catholicism would cloud his judgment and he would be taking orders from the pope. I would *hope* that an elected official would create a wall between his fairytale life and the real world of running a country. However, there were some disturbing rumors during the W years that some of his born-again staff was indeed letting their religious views influence policy. We will see as I think there is a good chance that a Mormon will be in the Whitehouse soon.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  5. Mojo Jojo

    Mormons, the next Islam

    November 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  6. MormonsRUs

    I guess it shouldn't shock me that the bigots and racists would still say the same stupid things today as their predecessors said about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 50s and 60s. Allow people to practice the religion of their choice without ridicule and harassment. Religion is a private matter between a soul and his/her creator. As far as magic underwear goes; it's never stopped a speeding bullet, but it does remind members of the Mormon faith that they have made promises between themselves and God. It's called symbolism, and all religions use it. The catholics have their wafers at communion as a symbol of the body of christ, and thus we can't have any portion of the wafer touch the floor. Why do we have to be such a negative society that people are accosted for their religion?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Funny how those Protestants railed against symbolism since Martin Luther, called Catholics idol worshippers, etc., and now they walk around sporting more Jesus jewelry than a nun. You have lost your way.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  7. gd

    Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b53oYtz11S4

    November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  8. Artheru

    I'm a Mormon and in the last 10 years I have voted for a Catholic, Baptist, Luthern, and non-denominational. All decent candidates. Maybe this time I'll have a Mormon option on the ballot to consider. Who knows?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  9. Bodacious

    Almost without exception the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that I have known, and I have known many, are great people. Hard working, community building, family centered, great neighbors, serving others, good youth supporters of strong moral values, and acting as followers of Christ. “…by their fruits ye shall know them.” Matthew 7:16 & 20.

    Some of you making these vicious and hateful comments might want to look at their fruits and you may at least develop respect and drop the disparaging comments. Let's have MORE LOVE people.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      What you say is true. They do take care of their own, and there's nothing wrong with that. Given their history, no one else was going to. However, make them the majority, and they will oppress....they will do it for God.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  10. Terry

    I don't care how you bring-em, just bring-em young. A religion based on multiple wives is my kind of cult.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • toxictown

      "Bring em Young" LOL

      November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Jumbotron

      Careful, your ignorance is showing...

      November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • TSB8C

      There is no polygamy in the Mormon church. In fact, one of the fastest ways to get excommunicated is to endorse polygamy.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  11. steve

    More hatred and venom from the atheists.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Look.... go out to the streets of Athens and tell everyone you were recently atop Mount Olympus and had a message from Zeus and ate with a Minotaur and see what peoples' reactions will be. It is all the same.... it isn't hatred, it is humorous until you start to try and rule a secular nation based on these silly beliefs.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Hi Steve. I have much hatred and venom. Oh, but I am not an athiest. Pretty much everyone thinks Mormons are loons. Except Mormons of course.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Hit them with your big lovin', Steve...

      November 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  12. jemzinthekop

    Do they still believe black people are destined to be slaves in Heaven due to being cursed or did they change their minds on that one???

    November 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Melissa

      Um..I'm a Mormon and I have never heard of such a ridiculous thing. Spew your slanted hatred elsewhere please.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Feris

      Check your facts. One reason Mormons were historically pushed out of Missouri back in the day was because they were against slavery. It was the Southern Christians who kept slaves, not Mormons from the East Coast .....

      November 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  13. cbinMaine

    When I think of the mormans I think of family values and the meaning of it, and I do believe that we will allows have posts from people that believe that if you can't say something intelligent than try and bring the rest down to your level.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      GOD-DAMIT cbinMaine, you get down here to my level right now or I will not marry you (and a few of your friends) and I sure as hell won't show you my magic underwear and when I am the GOD of own planet, you can't come to the party. You got that wench??

      November 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  14. HHHMMMM

    Religion is not about God tbegin with. Why do Asians, whites, blacks, natives, and jews and arabs all segregate their churches from those who share the same beliefs. Why is it important to point out differences in skin color when your heads are supposed to be bowed in humility and your eyes closed in reverence. The reason it is religion is because its about communty. That may sound like a good thing, but again its just a means to pass judgement with holy approval. Relgion of all churches have committed the greatest sin. They have no faith. Just "community".

    November 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Pumbaa

      Then there is the Southern Baptist Church. Didn't it break away from the Baptist Church because the Southern Baptist Church was not against slavery or segregation. The churches are very segregated in the rural South.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  15. Anji

    I kow the mormon are family people and are try to defend it. to many things trying to pull family apart.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I think we ALL know they are a...FAMILY people....

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  16. Belarius Marek

    I, for one, would be extremely worried to have a Mormon as president. Haven't we had enough wack jobs in office already?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • dwaynel

      He could do no worse than the muslim in the White House now!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Exactly

      What next a practicing witch-doctor? (insert Christine Odonnel jokes here)

      November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • J0nx

      You sir, are a hater.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • TSB8C

      There are a number of Mormons serving in Washington now and have been for many years. You are probably not even aware of most of them because they don't 'wear the religion on their sleeves' since it doesn't determine their governing style. Salt Lake doesn't run or dictate how they serve in their positions.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Feris

      One is Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada). Do his Democratic Senate colleagues trust him or did they just fail to realize his every move is dictated by SLC when they selected him to lead them?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  17. Ryan in Miami

    "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have alove one to another" John 13:35 People in this forum like to trash the Mormons, but the LDS Church was a major source of aid during Hurricane Katrina, provides disaster and other humanitarian relief all over the world, and is the number #1 private contributor to catholic charities.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Bodacious

      Great point! They mobilize all over the world during disasters and contribute huge amounts of money, goods and most impressively THEIR TIME. Last month every week in our community different Mormons were soliciting and collecting food for our local food bank – they collected over 100,000 pounds of food....amazing! Cheers to the Mormons for doing good!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Not to mention how they threw their financial might into political fights in California over gay marriage. Yet they call for tolerance.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Shorn

      "Yay and the con artist shall take his magic goggles and look upon the fake tablet and so shall he make up a fake religious text and lo the followers will be given secret names and funny underwear and a bunch of old men will run the thing (cuz brown people and women are icky), and lo when couples are married in the temple, weird old men will stand around looking at them naked so it is written praise Joseph Smith amen."

      November 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  18. Thomas

    Great article CNN. These religious posts are addicting. Keep up the good work. I found this article to be very informative. We all know Mormon's and I think most of us would say they are a pretty decent bunch. Thanks –

    November 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Who is "WE" ?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Knucklehead

      Decent? Hard for me to say, since they're so inclusive. Creepy is more how I'd describe it.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  19. Jennifer

    NO ONE CARES WHAT YOUR RELIGION IS. SHUT UP. KEEP IT TO YOURSELF QUIT MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF EVERY THING.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Chris W

      Envious:)

      November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  20. manhandler

    Oh...NOW the Mormons want to stay out of politics. And this is AFTER they put all their resources into denying gay couples the right to marry in California. Oh, that's right...Line # 10 in Smiths tablet says.."Gay people be bad...Discriminate against them." Guess they had no choice other than to forward their nasty agenda.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Melissa

      There were many churches fighting prop 8 – not just Mormons.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Cory

      Really? This is so rediculous it is funny.Lol

      November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • TSB8C

      When an issue is based on morality, it is proper for groups to encourage their own members and other like-minded individuals to supoprt the religious standing of their beliefs. In fact, the Catholic church first asked the Mormons to join them and others in the effort on Prop 8.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      No Melissa, pretty much the Mormons. Mormons are prejudiced fuk-heads. Sorry to break it to you.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.