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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.”

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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. bxgrrl

    Whatever race they are, they're equally deluded.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  2. Amy

    I was a member of the church, and I remember the missionaries/elders getting into a discussion about the origin of black people. They think that blacks are the descendents of Cane. Marked by God to be forever enslaved for his sin of killing Able.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Forever enslaved-unless we can dance.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • cody

      this is false.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • loveit

      Yeah, what was Glady's Knight thinking? What about all the temples built all over Africa, or the preptual education fund. What about the extermination order that exiled them from missouri becuase of their anti-slavery position. Or what about all of Latin Americans, doted with temples, number one language spoken in the church, and I just heard one of the leaders from Salt Lake City coming to speak to us in Spanish, with an English translator. More members outside the country then in.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  3. Ron

    Please!!! So looking at this picture is suppose to draw African Americans to vote for Mitt Romney. I'm sure you can count their members on one maybe two hand it doesn't speak for the entire race. It's just another GOP/tea bag political scheme. The same goes for the so called black conservatives. If they were so powerful why haven't we heard about them the 2008 eletion and now? And what exactly have they done to make things better for not just African Americans but for all minorities. I sure hope people aren't as stupid as they jokers play them to be (slang terms, playing them stupid)

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  4. Anomic Office Drone

    Black people weren't allowed to join the priesthood in the LDS church until 1978. In fact, until very recent changes, they believed that black people were all descended from Cain and that their dark skin was a curse from God. They have since changed their stance so that the darkness is actually in the soul and has nothing to do with skin tone, but there is no ignoring 150 years of doctrine that said black people were cursed by God and therefor lesser than white people.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Ryan in Miami

      You have been misinformed. Blacks were actually allowed to hold the priesthood under founder Joseph Smith, who was an abolitionist, and called a black man to a high position in the LDS Church (quorum of the seventy). The change came under Brigham Young, likely for social reasons, since white congregants in the 1800's were unable overcome the racial prejudice that permeated through the entire country at the time. Some have since tried to explain the policy with doctrine, but that is inconsistent with earlier church practices under Joseph Smith. You're assessment of Mormon teachings on black skin is also mistaken. If you read the Book of Genesis, you will see that the "darkness" given to Cain was actually a protection for Cain and his descendants, not a curse. Mormons do not believe that the "darkness" you described affects one's soul, or ability to get to heaven. That was never LDS doctrine.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  5. Jed

    I see some complain about all the "white" mormons in utah, well go to any other church in utah and theyre all white too! Heck, go to a mormon church in Nigeria and you'll complain its a church of all black people! Honestly why does it matter? I'm white, and if the truth of God's plan and his gospel was fully contained in a church of all black, hispanic, india, whatever people, I'd sure as heck jump on the train!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Mike

    The only GOOD thing about the MORON religion is Polygamy. Yes, A man should have as many wives as he wants. And visa versa

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Joel

      Oh please... Mike, are you really that moronic?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  7. J.R.

    This is ridiculous. What the Mormons REALLY are, is a bunch of HATEFUL, bigoted hypocrites who add to the violence against GLBT Americans. Granted, there are a few who support Equality – but the higher-ups of the church and the staunch-conservative members are violently anti-gay and practice brutal, harmful "reparative therapy" that, in fact, does not work. As for California's Prop 8, I have some words for Mormons: It WILL be defeated and overturned and marriage equality will be back to California!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Sam

      The good people of California voted to protect the family and what it stands for before God. Don't blame the Mormons.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Mark

      No "good people" voted in favor of Prop 8, only sanctimonious bigots so convinced that they know the mind of a deity that they are willing to cause others pain just to have their religious views validated. If your religion and family cannot stand up to someone else being married down the road, then both are tiny, weak and should not be validated by a political system.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      I know of a few people who voted yes on Prop 8 because they thought they were voting to allow gay marriage. It may seem like that would be a very small percentage who made that mistake, but Prop 8 passed by a very small margin.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Scott

      A bigot calling a bigot bigotted. To the LGBT community, the LDS Church's involvement in Prop 8 was wrong. I'm a Mormon and I'll be the first to admit it. However, making bigoted comments about another organization's bigotry is not going to solve any problems–especially for LGBT rights. Remember the words of Gandhi "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

      November 2, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  8. galen1023

    I live in a Town of Mormon's and they are the BIGGEST Hypocrite's!!!
    They will help Maybe only a Mormon??
    That is not a CHRISTIAN to Me.
    That alone can't be Right!!!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  9. pdxrains

    A "religion" running an ad campaign to improve its image?! That's hilarious.. And it's not going to change the fact that Mormanism is the most idiotic religion (read cult)...well OK maybe Scientology tops them... But a close 2nd place for Mormons. Seriously guys, just give it up..or move back to Salt Lake and shut up.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  10. Jessica

    Please make the Mormons go away.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Joel

      Why?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  11. Mike

    Yes, the MORON religion... No that's NOT a typo.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Ryan in Miami

      Look, another post using the same joke....it's amazing how original people are on the inter-web.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  12. God-Bless-America

    Good news article CNN. Many of us are wanting to learn more about Mormons and this feature answered a lot of my questions. Mormon .org was another good source. Thanks mucho!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  13. JJC

    While it's nice they're showing diversity I find it ironic since doctrine dictates that while various races can be Mormon they can't enter heaven because they're not white. Unless that too has now changed.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • SantaMAC

      Your made up lies are deiculous. We are all God's children and Mormon's teach no such doctrine. Get a grip.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Michelle

      There is no doctrine in the church today that specifies which race can go to heaven. I don't think that was ever anything taught by the LDS church, but I'm honestly not positive.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • helenolai

      You are incorrect.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • helenolai

      "...can't enter heaven because they're not white"

      You are incorrect about Mormon doctrine.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  14. Mike

    Mormon like ALL religions is a CUlT and DESTRUCTIVE to Humankind and should be BANNED from the Planet!!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  15. blablabla

    one day they will all commit suicide together.

    a religion from UTAH??

    November 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  16. Cheryl Carter

    You have to check out the senior Deacons in the church before you declare that they love everybody. They have for decades demonized peoples of color. The Elders in Utah have long been known as considering themselves better than even other Mormans. The church is very much a hierarchy with little chance of a man advancing in the priesthood. WOMEN ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE PRIESTHOOD. So how can this be a church of equality?

    November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • cody

      fyi, deacons are 12 and 13 years old. there is no senior deacons. get your facts straight before you hate.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Adam

      The founder of this religion was incredibly racist. I have no place for this nonsense.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • RP

      To answer your last question, perhaps you should consider putting the Catholic church in that category also!! There are no women in their priesthood either. No, the good nuns of the Catholic church are not part of their priesthood.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Ryan in Miami

      @ Adam, The church's founder, Joseph Smith, was an abolitionist, which is one reason why he was so persecuted when the LDS Church was headquartered in Missouri. Joseph Smith also called an black man to a high ranking leadership position in the priesthood (quorum of the seventy). It wasn't till Brigham Young that blacks in the LDS Church could not hold the priesthood (although they could still be members).

      November 2, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  17. Mark

    Where does the ad express the reality that behind that simpering smile, they represent a church that wants political control over who you can marry, who you can have a relationship with, when you should be allowed to make love, etc? Nothing will ever disguise the sanctimonious arrogance of this entire organization to me.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • jsg

      Well, I suppose we (Mormons) want to have some say over how marriage is legally defined, but the accusation that Mormons want to control the relationships of other people is way over the top. The idea that people should be able to conduct themselves according to their own will is bedrock latter-day saint doctrine; and so is the Biblical account of Christ making atonement for the sins of mankind. I am amazed by how much misinformation is out there, and glad that CNN is representing this religion in terms that are actually familiar to those who are in it. It's as if their reporting involved conversations with actual Mormons!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  18. blablabla

    Since when Mormon whatever is a religion???

    November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  19. Joe

    I initially thought the ad said Moron instead of Mormon. Seemed to make more sense in a way.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • BNB42

      Pressing "Like" button repeatedly

      November 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ryan in Miami

      How original, never heard that one before......[eyes rolling]

      November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  20. elementary...

    Everytime I see a mormon ad i think of "A Study in Scarlet"

    November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Mark

      Well noted.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:11 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.