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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. Leroy McMath

    Hey Mormans-

    Did Joseph Smith tell you guys that jokes were like black people and not allowed?

    Sheesh. We're just kidding. We believe in magic panties and smurfs and divine aliens and all of that stuff. we're just having fun!!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I know right? Thanks Leroy. They are such pu-ssies. We are just breakin' some balls her awright? Jeesh.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Lola

      Don't be makin fun of my magic undergarments. And if you see me drinking coffee and sucking on a cigarette doin't tell anyone. These are big no no's but you can have some of that sister wife action!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      Lola –

      This sounds promising? Any way to incorporate the smurfs and aliens too? Or are the magic panties protection from them and black people?

      I just cant keep up.....

      November 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  2. Mesa, AZ

    MItt in 2012 is our only hope for getting this nation back on track.. We all need to start working together instead of pulling this nation apart. Amazing what a people can accomplish it they are united. Devided we fall!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      If that guy believes the morman BS, he's not fit to be president. @We need know nothing more about this man.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • faberm

      If Mitt gets elected will we all get "priestly garments"/magic underwear?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      @mesa
      If Mitt gets elected we all get to bend over and take in the underwear. Give Obama 4 more years to do his job. Cleaning up after Dubya is not an easy task. Mitt or anyone else would struggle trying to do it too. Obama is intelligent, thoughtfull and a good leader. Give him a fair chance. After all, you gave Reagan and Dubya 8 years each and they were COMPLETE morons. The Dems are always having to clean up after the GOP.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  3. Yahweh

    The supply of gullible people seems endless.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  4. G the Man

    Please don't let this go mainstream. After being in close contact for with many mormons for many years I finally came to realize that Mormonism is an elaborate facade that hides truly unhappy people. Mormons are fake, the community is full of failing marriages that turn on the smiles as soon as they walk out the door. They really can't even be considered Christians (not that thats an issue) but they use it as a guise to garner support. Just be careful and don't dive headfirst into this mess, if you take them time to analyze and use your wisdom as guidance you will see that what I am saying is true.

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

      I, too, live in a community smothered by a mormon majority. It truly is sad to see a human population repressed in such a way.

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

      Please! The over generalization is killing me. I am a very happy Mormon who is not hiding anything with a facade. Just try to spread a blanket generalization over Catholics or Jews – not going to happen.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Faith

      I live in a predominate LDS community. My marriage is great. My neighborhood is not depressed. I'm very happy. I'm sorry that you have a bad impression.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • No way!

      How can you be sad in magic secret underwear? And life without coffee would be soo awesome!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Bodacious

      Fake??? The Mormons are one of the largest donors to many different relief funds throughout the world is fake? Donating tremendous amounts of manpower and time in every relief effort around the world is fake? Sponsoring more Boy Scout Troops than any other organization is fake? Allowing the members of the Muslim Mosque to utilize the parking lot of their Mormon church building every day FOR FREE is "fake"???? The Mormons do this in my community and have for years. That is not "fake" that is as real as it gets! Kind sharing religion and people.

      Their beliefs may be far-fetched, but some might say yours are too....just maybe?

      Just love!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    so apparently if you are black, you can thru the mormon church, if your faith is stronge enough, become white! see, to them being black is a curse, or disease from god.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  6. James

    Yes Finally marriage Will be between 1 Man And THREE Women

    November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  7. MJ_4FL

    Merriam-Webster defines a CULT as...: a system of religious beliefs and ritual, OR : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work. So...... in reality all religions are a cult then? WOW!! So sad to see that when the public eye wants to bring something that is good or great to light so many people/public who have no idea what they are talking about opens their mouths and tells lies. Find out for yourself the TRUTH.... mormon.org!!!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  8. Common Sense

    Has it occurted to anyone that one of the primary reasons that the LDS church is white is that they were driven out of Illinois (and what was then the United States) by armed mobs in the mid 1800s. The small, primarily white, congregation settled in a region that was not heavily populated. Guess what, their children, grand children, etc. were white. Just because the home of the church in Salt Lake City is predominantly white (less and less so as the city grows and becomes more cosmopolitan), doesnt mean that membership as a whole is white.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • G the Man

      they endorse older 'white' ideals. That isolated region you mentioned also served to keep their ideas isolated too. very little diffusion with the rest of society helped them created some truly dangerous ideas. very estranged people.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Um - Read up, dude.

      The Mormons official stance was that brown people did not HAVE A SOUL and they kept that stance strong until political pressure forced them out of it in 1978. They are the driving force behind proposition 8 gay marriage ban. If they are so loving and welcoming, why do they keep screwing with people?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  9. Anthony

    What I've learned: Being white is considered to be bad. Imagine if a news outlet dared to exclaim that the Nation of Islam was too black.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  10. iBELIEVE

    This message has been paid for by....... Willard Mitt Romney

    November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  11. Church of the Mongolian Beef

    Ask them about the slaughter, the murder of 196 men wi'men & children by Brigham Young, the guy they named their University after; go ahead, ask them.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Melissa

      Umm, after being thoroughly researched that was proved to be false. Nice try.

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

      Ask away. Brigham Young never ordered a slaughter.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Dave

      My great great grandpa was there. We have his personal journals. Brigham Young did everything he could to STOP that horrible event. Men were executed for what happened. In no way was the Church responsible. You don't have to believe in the Church, but you can at least get your facts straight. This is backed up by peer-reviewed research, not just my great great grandfather's journal. Of course there have been mistakes made by Church members and leadership over the years.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  12. Romney 2012

    I don't care what religion he is, I'm voting for Romney. The guy's got the right stuff!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • G the Man

      he's fake like all mormans

      November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  13. Civil32

    How much did Mitt Romney pay for this?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  14. Dave5354

    "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."

    This statement is incorrect. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and possibly several other groups use the term "Sacrament", and for Catholics, it is more than just "remembrance".

    November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  15. CrazyOwlLady

    The word "whitewash" is too cliche but that is exactly what they are trying to do here.... paint themselves as an inclusive, loving, wonderful family that you would just love to join. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Inclusive? Hardly, especially if you are gay. If you have to advertise that you're all that, you aren't.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  16. Doc Vestibule

    It is all about the money!!
    "Ti.thing is an important test of our personal righteousness. President Joseph F. Smith (1838-1918) said: “By this principle it shall be known who is for the kingdom of God and who is against it. … By it it shall be known whether we are faithful or unfaithful” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith [1998], 276)."
    The founder of the religion says that if you don't given the Church 10%, you're unrighteous. To make sure congregants are paying up, each year they must go before a Bishop for a Ti.thing Settlement. A member is questioned in a one-on-one interview with the Bishop to ensure the member is paying a full 10%. Those members who are not paying a full 10% lose their temple recommends and are prevented from entering the Temple. Mormons who lose their temple recommends are in serious jeopardy of losing their Celestial blessings. A Mormon who does not pay ti.thing cannot enter the temple. If a member cannot get into the temple, the member cannot learn the secret handshake, secret password, secret "new name" and special “sealings”. Without these, the member will be unable to pass Joseph Smith and the angels who guard the entrance to the Celestial Kingdom.
    Mormons are told: "if a dest.itute family is faced with the decision of paying their t.ithing or eating, they should pay their ti.thing." (Lynn Robbins, General Conference, April 2005).

    November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Cory

      Not sure why you're rambling so much? I guess you just can't understand. I would give everything for the church, I would have nothing without it.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I don't get it.
      Any religion that uses dollar amounts to judge your righteousness is obviously a scam!
      If you don't give them money, you don't get into paradise – doesn't that seem a bit odd to you?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • WOW!!

      I was so shocked by what you wrote that I looked it up myself. Absolutely unbelievable. And they are a multi-billion dollar organization. Just sick that they are telling people they can't go to heaven (or whatever they believe) if they don't pay up. Absolutely un frikkin real.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  17. Romper-Room

    I think the evangelicals are jelous because they aren't getting all the attention.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  18. Mike

    Let's be fair, haven't all religions made poor choices at various times in history. Mormons, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and any other faith all teach similar doctrines when it comes to feeding the hungry and helping the sick. Let's focus on commonalities and live together as brothers and sisters in peace.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  19. Watchthevideo

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZQJc5SxnVs&w=640&h=360]

    Mormons are great people, with great values, and you can be a great person and have great values while following any religion. From an objective point of view, there are just major contradictions between Christianity and Mormonism. If divinely inspired, things like the Bible and the book of Mormon should compliment each other in every way, not compliment each other in a lot of ways, and then contradict each other in others.

    The video gives a lot of good insights, and I think it could spark a lot of good questions that all Mormon's should research themselves!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  20. hippypoet

    mormonism, just another branch on the tree that needs to cut down and turned into science books for our children's sake! religion will ruin the world one child at a time so be careful!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Cory

      You'll understand on the other side.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • hippypoet

      yeah, sure! what other side do you speak of...the other side of ignorant – i'm there already, you should follow suit!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:31 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.