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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.

Explain it to me: What's Mormonism?

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.

Opinion: Who says Mormons aren't Christian?

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. Scott

    Say what you want about the LDS Church and its racist past, but they got Gladys Knight in their ranks now. How black is that to have Gladys Knight in your church?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  2. Christian

    There is no way that Jesus made a "pitstop" to the western hemisphere after he left his disciples in Israel and spent time with the native Indians on this continent thousands of years ago, as alluded to by Joseph Smith. Where are the golden tablets that Smith dug up and translated? Gold doesn't rot, they should be around since their discovery in the 1850's. The elders of LDS in Salt Lake City need to disavow the history of Joseph Smith. From that point on, the LDS will become fullly mainstream

    November 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • unabashed Mormon

      Have you read it?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      Yeah, then it would be just like all the other Christian sects: pure delusion. Well, it already is, just with a different set of tall tales.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Scott

      Yeah, there is no way that Jesus would be able to make a "pitstop" on the western hemisphere, but he can turn water to wine, multiply bread and fish, heal the sick, raise the dead, and overcome death himself. Yeah, you're right, it is ridiculous to think that he could travel to another continent.

      Oh, and Joseph said that an angel retrieved the plates and took them to heaven. The story of the Gold Plates is not more ridiculous to me than Moses and his tablets written with the finger of God.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Ryan Shells

      I think you meant to say it isn't recorded in the Bible, so it is understood that Jesus remained between Israel and Rome his whole life here on Earth. Jesus wouldn't have done something like that and not let that be recorded in the Bible. The holy spirit would have let that be recorded. Joseph Smith was just trying to lie to make himself appear as a prophet. The last prophet of the Bible was John, who wrote Revelation through the Holy Spirit. And Revelation clearly states that it is the last book of the bible, no one is to add or to take away from the Bible as of that point in time as recorded. And that is why it is one of the most preserved books in our history. And the mormons distorted it by adding additional books.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  3. citizenUSA

    Somebody needs to block out the letters "R" and "N" in the word Mormon on the billboards so it reads, "I'm a momo".

    November 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Ryan Shells

      just take out the second m. Moron.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  4. purplestikypunch

    So basically the news is "mormons still letting blacks be mormon"? Guess news is like art... smear feces on a canvas and SOMEONE will call it artistic.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  5. Ryan Shells

    They can "be a mormon". I'm a Christian. Big difference.

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

      Not really, both small minded.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • UncleM

      No difference. Both deluded.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Chris W

      No both believe Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Ryan Shells

      Ha, ha. not funny. Mormons don't believe in Hell, nor do they think the Bible is the 100% truth from God. That is why they have their own special bible called the book of Mormon. It is all a fake religion that deceives the masses. Real Christianity isn't about having your own version of the Bible and distorting the truth. It is about seeking forgiveness from Jesus for your sins and following after Christ and turning away from sin. That is what Christianity is. Being an example of Christ to the whole world. Christ didn't deceive anyone. He told it like it was. And the mormon church has been full of deceipt from day 1.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Ryan Shells

      The bible says that even a little leaven spoils the whole lump. So even a little deceit makes the truth turn into untruth. And that is what they did. Made little changes here and there, and turned God's message into their own message.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Tye Michael

      How is they different? How are they not Christians?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Tye Michael

      Not sure how your description of how they're not Christian makes them not Christian. And it sounds like your comments have no base, it's all your opinion. So maybe your statement should have been, "In my uneducated opinion, They can "be a mormon". I'm a Christian. Big difference."

      November 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Ryan Shells

      You must have the truth. You can't expect a liar to tell the truth. Nor would you expect the truth to lie. In order to be a Christian, you must turn from sin and follow after Jesus by learning from the Bible and practicing it. But the mormons don't use the Bible. They have distorted it with their own "Book of Mormon". And the book of mormon seeks to explain things that aren't in the Bible. And if you are adding what you want to the Bible, then you aren't really following it, are you?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Ryan Shells

      To explain further. Salvation is faith through Jesus Christ. Take a light bulb, for instance. Faith is believing that light will turn on when you flip the switch. In like manner, faith in Jesus Christ is believing without seeing. You must not only believe in him physically, you must believe in Him and everything He is, and submit yourself to His will. That means to repent of your sin and to seperate yourself from sin and follow after the things of Christ by searching the Bible, and no longer follow after the things of this world.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • AHappyConvert

      Mr. Shells, I beg to differ with your stating that the LDS faith doesn't follow the Bible. I'm a primary teacher for the 8/9 year olds in my Ward, and I'm teaching them the New Testament. Last year, they learned the Old Testament. Kids in Seminary are learning the Old Testament this year. Considering we are called to do our own talks during Sacrament meetings, in which we include Scripture references, it's my experience (and I've been to a lot of different churches in my day before I converted), we tend to know the Scriptures, on a whole, better than people in other churches I've been to.

      You're welcome to not agree with my faith. But please understand what we study, what we know before you speak about things you don't understand.

      November 4, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  6. StillTranscendingtheBS

    http://www.amazon.com/God-Makers-Shocking-Expose-Believes/dp/1565077172/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1320261998&sr=8-1

    November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  7. woodrow

    Joseph Smith was an American con man. He started this cult. Then Scientology came along. It was based on science fiction. But they made the Mormons look good.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Chris W

      Joseph wasn't a con...He was a prophet.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  8. XenuRulerOfTheUniverse

    I wonder if I can get Mitt Romney to jump up and down on a couch and speak a bunch of crazy talk like I did Tom Cruise! Oh wait...he does that himself at all those debates. Bah!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  9. WB

    Undoubtedly, the Mormons are rebranding themselves with this campaign. But there has been an effort to do this every since the time polygamy ended and the disastrous loss of Mormon troops fighting the US Army. But we cannot lock them in their past. They have a good community and strive for excellence in their personal lives. Religion, well that is just a fanciful ideas otherwise rational people seem to need.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  10. Praetorian

    As Trey & Matt put it...DumbDumbDumbDumbDumb!

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

      Marklar?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Sarah

    Um, Mormons don't have "sermons."

    November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  12. jimbo

    Just goes to show that all races are gullible and easily manipulated.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  13. Phil

    You know what - this video describes how I feel. I'm tired of arguing with you guys on here.

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0p4_GGDbS0&w=640&h=360]

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

      Should probably warn you - at least those of you who are at work...this is NSFW.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • TJohnson

      Bad example for you. In that movie she ends up converting to Mormonism.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  14. MiddleWay14

    Why is it that people think religion is beautiful when its dogm_atic, supernatural core consists of patent fals_eho_ods disgu_ised as truth? It is des_pica_ble, actually. It is all an ill_usion that should have ended hundreds of years ago, but because the vast majority of the population are a bunch of du||_ards, it continues to dece_ive to this very day.

    Morals and ethics are expressions of the human emotion of empathy (i.e., the golden rule). They are not derived in any way from religion. They have been incorporated into religious doctrine. But be rest assured they did not originate from a supernatural source. Man observes the tenets of morality and ethics everyday that he deals with others. Being able to identify with others' suffering is biological. This empathy is there to induce cooperation, which in turn ensures the survival of the species. Cooperation IS an evolutionary survival mechanism (as is empathy). The simple process of evolution yields amazingly complex and intricate results. There does not need to be a god or gods for reality and life to be wonderful.

    Why we cannot admit to not knowing everything while recognizing what we do actually know about reality is a mystery to me. Science is simply a method, or tool, by which to understand the mechanisms of nature and the universe. We know what we know about the world because we utilize what is now known as the scientific method of inquiry: observe, postulate/hypothesize, test, repeat.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      blah blah blah.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • MiddleWay14

      @Leroy McMath Oh the sweet irony. It is the uneducated like you who have the most to gain from my posts.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      Riggggght. I'm sure we're all uneducated to you. Glad you have yourself to impress though.

      You read my name and think I'm uneducated. You are a RACIST!!!

      Give me your email address.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  15. TheCastro

    Why is this news? The ads have been running for over a year, and yes Mormons are still boring.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  16. person

    "Mommy, what's a cult?"
    "Every religion but the one we belong to"

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

      Amen.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • MiddleWay14

      You are the f'in man!!! (internet high five)

      November 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  17. faberm

    The Mormons supposedly believe their leader "The Prophet" speaks God's truth. The Bible is clear that there is no difference between Jew or Greek or any of God's children, yet they had a bigoted prohibition against people of color holding the "priesthood" in their organization until very recently. Did God change His/Her mind or might their "prophet" not speak for God at all? I don't think the Creator of the Universe is that whimsical.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • MiddleWay14

      The book of mormon, the bible, the torah, the koran, etc. (ad infinitum) are all loads of horse shI+. Look elsewhere if you want to know the truth of reality (like right in front of you).

      November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  18. Joseph Smith was a con man - read about the Kirtland Bank failure

    "... the church says it wants to steer clear of politics." Oh, really? Then what was Proposition 8 all about?

    The common people of this church are mostly good people, but the leadership are a bunch of old, white, racist con artists! This church has a history of revising their holy book when it suits them, i.e. blacks not being able to hold the priesthood until the 70s because God revealed to them that it should be so. Hmmm, methinks it was more about civil rights and the pressures associated therein.

    THIS RELIGION IS A SHAM!!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Chris W

      The church stays out of politics not moral issues, Prop 8 was a morale issue. I have studied the Kirtland Bank society and am still 100% Mormon and love my Savior.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      Is your savior joeseph smith, the smurf, divine aliens or magic panties?

      I can't keep up.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  19. I don't have a problem with Mormons

    I have a problem with all man made religions who praise Jesus and then go to the voting booths to support the same type of men that had him killed.......Jesus kicked the moneychangers and politicians out of temple and they had him killed....Why would you climb into bed with those same people? $$$$$NEVER MIND I KNOW THE ANSWER$$$$$

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  20. 2 Cents

    They are the best at marketing and there are many in the fold that are good and genuinely believe that all are equal, but from personal experience, I sat in far too many leadership positions, in many stake and ward meetings to know they are involved in politics, keeping women quiet, and keeping the gay community from marrying or having children. It's image and they sell it better than anyone. It's not like they are going to advertise, "Hey when you die you can get hooked up with a man as his 34th wife and have endless amounts of spirit babies" or "Be White in the Afterlife" They have to play it more mainstream, the other stuff just wouldn't fly or attract others. There are some wonderful things about the Mormons and some not so wonderful things, this should put them in the same category as every other religion out there, not perfect. Born Agains remember that when you throw out your harsh judgements.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Born Again

      Born Again comes from an ancient ceremony in Babylon where people actually went into an temple that was a cave with legs and came out of the mother god, "born again".....Its things like this that crack me up that people blindly follow without looking at its origin.....

      November 2, 2011 at 3:29 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.