home
RSS
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.

How Mitt Romney's Mormon faith helped shape him

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. Mintgreen

    Who cares.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Jeremiah M

      i second this.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Porter

      I care.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  2. Chris

    As a member and former Missionary. I know that Jesus Christ lives, he is the only begotten in the flesh. He was crucified for MY sins of which I am completely incapably of repaying. All I can do is try my best and he makes up the rest. I love him and worship him. I hope with all my flaws that I may one day meet him on bended knee. I need to do better in my life and represent my Faith better. I am not just babbling I truly feel this. I have not always live my faith, I was the worse of the worse as a teen, I did it all. I was down to my last straw one night. Sitting agaist the wall at a rave party in Russell, Mississippi so depressed and empty. I went home and began reading the Book of Mormon (not sure why cause that WAS NOT ME). I got to the Book of Enos and his story changed my life. I felt something that swept over me and I began crying. Not sad but I felt that this Jesus Christ loved me. I know the book is true but others have to find out for themselves. Read James 3:5 " If any of ye lack wisdom, let him ask of God that giveith to all men liberally and upbraidith not". This is my testimony. I own it and no person can take it from me....

    November 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Tom

      If you want to be a god of your own universe do the following:
      1. Go on a mission
      2. Get married in the temple
      3. Pay 10% of your earning for the rest of your life to the church
      4. Keep a temple recommend

      November 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      You took it hook line and sinker. Feeling guilt and shame much, Chris?

      And re that crucify stuff, how come your omnipotent sky fairy needed to have his son killed to relieve you of your sins? Why not just do the job without the son-on-a-stick show?

      The reason is that your religion is all a big hoax. But you should still feel ashamed and guilty.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Magic Mormon Underwear Man

      You forgot – they need a minimum of 3 polygamous wives to enter the celestial heavens and rule a planet. So, they either have to naturally outlive 2 wives (or murder em'?)....or do some posthumous marriage hocus-pocus.

      Google "Mormon posthumous sealing" ____________ 😉

      November 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • God Illusion

      Chris – it's not really a hard debt to pay, the crucifixion. Jesus did not pay the ultimate price for your sins, he (and his dad) had their fingers crossed and guess what? He came back three days later – no problem, right as rain. Some sacrifice huh?! I've had colds last longer.

      Also, Jesus had an odd way of relieving suffering – as the son of god, creator of everything, all powerful, all knowing, etc, he could have healed all the sick and injured people in the world, in a single heartbeat. He chose not to however, just those who were able to hoble up to him, or that he personally visited. This is clearly mean spirited to the point of evil. Why cure twenty or so of you can eliminate suffering for everyone? Just facile, and puerile stories that on their face make no sense – the book of mormon is even MORE ridiculous if that's possible, but hey – if that floats boat have at it – but keep it to yourself, eh?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Chris

      Not accurate Tom or Dr. Z.
      By there fruits ye shall know them. I not spitting hate. Why can you believe what you want (without persecution) but I cannot? Like I said: I own it!

      November 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Mike

      Have fun in your cult. Make sure to wear your magic underwear, ignore your religion condoned polygamy then magically flip flopped, I'm sure Jesus came to America too.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Craig

      If he died for your sins, wasn't that the MASTER PLAN. I guess the Romans did their job.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Essie

      I know what they do at Rave parties. You were on Ecstasy right! No wonder you fell for this book.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Chris

      I was sober and looking for answers. I found what I was looking for. It works for me, love always wins over hate, anger and deceit. I wish others could just see that.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • Zach

      I wish Mormons could see that my boyfriend of 30 years gives meaning to my life here on Earth. I have God in my heart, but could never attend a church that doesn't want me and actively works against me with more money that I could ever make in 10,000 lifetimes. My take on churches is that life is not for me or my kind.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Dad

      Surely there is a special place in h_ll for people who thwart the natural unfolding of lives and hopes and dreams of gay adolescents. To be made to feel dirty and bad and worthy of nothing but h_ll is not the best way to feed the fragile psychological being of these young folk. I am saddened beyond belief every time I hear the word Mormon or church.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Former AZ resident

    ...and this is the story of Joseph Smith, dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb.

    /Obscure

    November 2, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Tom

      Ha ha good ol South Park

      November 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Trish

      Now that we know that they aren't all white and have spent millions to prove it, how do they explain spending millions to stop gay marriage in California? This is a public relations piece straight from the Mormons and has little journalist integrity.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Dan

      So their leader was a racist! Interesting.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Craig

      I just can't get passed their yearning to have such large families. They are building "heavenly families" here on Earth at the expense of Mother Earth. This is not sustainable. Our natural resources are finite.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  4. JA Ramsey

    On this topic, I'm glad the modern LDS culture embraces diversity, but I don't understand how members manage to reconcile the blatant racism shown so clearly by high ranking church officials in the historical record with the central tenet of the faith that God has always spoken directly to them using prophets and apostles as his mouthpieces. If racism is a bad thing, then wouldn't God have directed his representatives on Earth to steer clear of it from the very beginning? Why did the revelation that blacks could finally be accepted into the priesthood only happen after the civil rights movement?

    November 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Perspective

      Have you read the Lincolnd-Douglas debates? Lincolns soundbites are incredibly racist, but he is also attributed with freeing the slaves. Please explain how these coincide.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • JA Ramsey

      Lincoln was motivated by his own intellect, perspective and opinions in response to what was going on in the world around him, and would inevitably be influenced by the culture into which he was born. You can say the same about early LDS church leaders, but on the other hand they would supposedly be answerable to a higher power that should be beyond any bigoted 19th century notions about race. Anyway I don't mean to condemn anyone for their faith, it's just one of the things about Mormonism that leaves me scratching my head.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  5. Shayna

    Hey, if you can believe Book 1 & Book 2, why not Book 3? Mormons also believe that if you're really, really good and a man, you can can become a god, complete with your own planet & spirit children. I kid you not, check it out.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Justin

      What do you think you can become?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  6. David

    @Bosshoss: Is every person that believes Moses received "stone" (rather than gold) tablets with writing from God equally stupid?

    November 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  7. Former AZ resident

    Warren Jeffs is also a Mormon. Lol.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Nord Jim

      Jeffs is a fundamentalist Mormon. It's a breakaway splinter group. Very different thing.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  8. Don

    When I was in college, we used to boycott BYU games because blacks were not even allowed on the team. They were considered inferior, and descendants of Cain in the Book of Mormon ... as was anyone with dark skin. As long as I remember that, I will not support a Mormon for office. I always have to ask myself, how can anyone with a shred of intelligence support a church that has such an outrageous story behind their origin, and that rewrites its own history to suit the current mores?

    November 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Justin

      The school never kept blacks out of the school or off the team. Now who's making stuff up. The church never kept anyone from joining it.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Magic Mormon Underwear Man

      Amazing – this racism and exclusion happened within our own lifetime – for many of us.

      1978 was over 10 years past the Civil Rights Act!!! How could they be more racist? 😦

      November 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  9. Cpeters

    Gosh darn, CNN, you'd think you were a reponsible organization with this realistic reporting of the LDS Church. I was once a Mormon. While not a big believer in its spritiual interpretations, I was quite impressed with its teachings of moral values to the youth particularly, and its views on responsibilities and conduct. I'm not decided yet on who to vote for the GOP nomination, but if Romney gets elected, and he follows whats been the philosophy of the church regarding America and moral decency, we will have ourselves a pretty good president.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • GIna

      ...who will continue the long tradition of stomping on the rights of gay Americans at every turn and with every possible nickle that can be added to the cause.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Shane

      There is no morality in uncontrollable breeding.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  10. jeff faul

    hey, stop the rhetoric , one of my best friends is Mormon

    November 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Magic Mormon Underwear Man

      Ask him if he is going to be a planet ruler and take your wife as his posthumously to fulfill his requirement for 72 wives.

      Google "Mormon posthumous sealing". They'll steal your wife posthumously. 😉

      November 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  11. curious

    What are the odds that the first black man to become president would be followed by the first non-christian.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Nord Jim

      Doesn't believing in Christ make you Christian?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Seattle Chica

      Uh, Mormans ARE Christians....

      November 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Amber

      It scares me to think that someone would care what religion or race our President is – isn't the most important litmus test competency?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • God Illusion

      They aren't really christians – they believe that Jesus came down to an Aztec temple in Central America in a beam of light... That's not christian by any real sense of the word. Hey, I believe Jesus rode a motorcycle after he died, only ate coconuts, had wings and three heads... does that make me a christian too because I "believe in Jesus"?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  12. D. Carl

    For statements about their faith from somewhat more than three hundred Mormon scientists and scholars, see

    http://mormonscholarstestify.org/

    http://mormonscholarstestify.org/category/testimonies

    November 2, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • muucavwon

      Also check mormonthink.org.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • James

      Mormon scholars apply critical thinking to their field of study. Unfortunately, they don't also apply it to their religion.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  13. Magic Mormon Underwear Man

    My dad passed away recently. He was a hardworking man who loved God dearly.

    When my father retired in Idaho he became a school bus driver. Each day he drove the Mormon kids to their seminary building – during school hours on a PUBLIC bus. (One high school in town didn't have the Mormon seminary building on campus.)

    One day he and another driver asked if it would be okay to bus the Catholic and Lutheran kids to their catechism classes. My dad was looking forward to helping other kids find God too.

    Within two weeks the Mormon director fired both of them. I wonder why... 😉

    November 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • Kinjo Korswa

      Got the names of these people?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Sy2502

    It still amazes me that, after Joseph Smith was uncovered as a charlatan and his alternative American history disproved as bunk, there still are people who continue the Mormon farce. I guess some people have such a need to believe that they'll believe anything. Personally, I would never vote for a president that fell for such obvious nonsense.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Trish

      I'm less concerned about their lily white image and more concerned with their urge to overpopulate. Unbelievably at Halloween I had two different sets of young men dressed in black pants and a white short asking me if I had heard the "good news". Their proselytizing goes to great lengths. The "good news" was that more didn't show up to ruin Halloween.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • S. BOON

      Even though you fell off, I will continue to pray for you my friend. One day, you will thank me and all those who are praying for you. Good day.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  15. Alex

    *paid actors
    *results not typical
    *please see your doctor prior to beginning this regiment
    *possible side effects may occur

    November 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  16. Austin

    The mormon cult is nothing but a money laundering haven for child rapists.

    November 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Justin Polson

      Are you sure you're not talking about the Catholic church?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • S. BOON

      Have you stopped to count your blessings lately? I'll bet you have none because you come across as a very negative person. Negative people are Satan's allies and you my friend are one of them. I'll pray for you also. Good day.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • God Illusion

      Both – they all peddle similar brands of poison.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • God Illusion

      S BOON – I wonder what could be more "negative" than calling someone "Satan's ally"? You need to get to confession as you are clearly an evil, negative, unhappy person.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  17. Mike

    Its sad that they feel like they must fight the perception that they are mostly white.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Perspective

      I would agree that Mormon's (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is trying clear up alot of misconceptions about their group. But is it really to anyones surprise. The Entertainment industry (broadway most recently) and News Industry (CNN) attempt to write a narrative about the church. I am not surprised that the church has sought to dispel so much of the misconceptions.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  18. jeff faul

    where are all the log cabin mormons to support this ? Can't we all just get along as Canadians ?
    jeff in Toronto

    November 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • jeff faul

      John mcCains mother has great on this issue insight I am voting for her
      Jeff in Toronto Canada

      November 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  19. Nord Jim

    I have a problem with this. Why should I support LDSs promotions and evangelism with my taxes? Any church that evangelizes - advertises, goes door-to-door, what have you– should lose its tax exemption.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Justin Polson

      They don't receive any US tax dollars NORD.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Austin

      Agreed!

      November 2, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Nord Jim

      Please read the post, Justin. I made it very clear that they should lose their tax exemption.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Justin

      Fair enough...

      November 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • muucavwon

      He said tax exemption, which the LDS Church does receive.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Kathy D.

      Tax EXEMPTION !!!

      November 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  20. Tevii

    Who cares? Its a religion created by a known and convicted con man. Anyone who actually knows the history of Mormonism would have to be an insane to still believe in it.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Ryan

      Joseph Smith was not a convicted con man. If you know your history you would know that he was arrested several times on trumped up charges because individuals were scared of the large Mormon population in there areas. Much of the concern was over the belief that Mormons would vote together on issues and in particular against slavery. Joseph Smith was always exonerated in a court of law until an angry mob decided to take matters into their own hands and brutally murdered Joseph. It is patently untrue to call Joseph Smith a convict or a con man. In fact all those who new him personally, both members of the Mormon Church and not, would characterize him as an honest man of faith.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Nord Jim

      Actually, he was a con man - snake oil salesman more like. He'd hire out to find lost objects with his magic crystals. Was he regarded as an honest man? Well, Brigham Young admitted that Smith would get drunk and try to seduce your wife, but what the heck? He was their prophet.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Kathy D.

      Not a con man, but an isolationist who managed to put together autonomous settlements where they were a law unto themselves. No one was allowed the freedom of choice within their limits, and it hasn't changed much today. It was even worse in Utah under Brigham young, until it became a United States territory and the Federal government stepped in...which was not successful in the beginning because the Church leadership saw to it that the first agents sent to oversee the territory conveniently "disappeared" (attacked by "Indians").

      November 2, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
Advertisement
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.