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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. dave

    They can add jews and arabs if they like. Bottom line is the book of mormon is a fabrication written by a man named joseph smith.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • otis

      Dave, you have as much factual proof for this as the Mormons do for the truthfulness of the book.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  2. Godstar

    Mormons are like a more Christian centric version of Scientology, but like Scientology it's equally as wacky when you look under the covers.

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

      Dang it, I have been looking under those Amish beards all this time!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Godstar

      Beards...magic underwear, it's all the same.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  3. fred

    I never heard of a sermon where a Mormon preacher said "God Damn America"

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

      I know right? GOD-DAM Mormons, when are they gonna get with the program??

      November 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • dave

      Actually in history they did and still have a grudge. They actually went to war with our country.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • roland

      Point. Also that's only because you start caring about the news when Obama was running for office. Mormons actually rebelled against several states which is why Joseph Smith was killed.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  4. GINGER!

    To put all things to rest, please pull out your bible and read Galatians 1:7-10.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • ScienceWorks

      To put all things to rest, please pull out your bible and read about child abuse...
      Prov.13 [24] He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
      Prov.23 [13] Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. [14] Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
      Prov.29:15] The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.
      Sir.30 [1] He that loveth his son causeth him oft to feel the rod, that he may have joy of him in the end.

      Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_does_the_Bible_say_about_child_abuse#ixzz1cZdv1Oix

      November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • BNB42

      "It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." Mark Twain

      November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  5. fred

    Another day another article trashing a republican candidate. No wonder nobody watches CNN any more.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • ScienceWorks

      WHAAATTT? You couldn't be more wrong. CNN is not even near oh how bias FOX NEWS is.. Wow another moron with not intellegence speaks again.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • ScienceWorks

      sorry typo** ...no intellegence....

      November 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  6. PoZER

    Too many evangelical haters on this site. Please – get a life. Real Christians don't have time for your toxic comments.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Apparently they do.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      Were not speaking of real christians, were speaking of Mormons...

      November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  7. Not so fast

    The entire key to this article lies in this sentence: "The men who formed a circle around them and prayed over them were all white." The vast majority of the male leadership in the Mormon church is white, lily white. The billboards certainly don't portray that.

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

      Does anything penatrate that bigoted mind of yours?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  8. mountaindawg

    Way to go. You spent MILLIONS on "advertising" for your church. That seems like a pretty good use of church money...Idiots. Maybe, and this is just a thought here, you should use that money to help people. Now there is a novel idea. Oh wait, no it's not. That's what Jesus said to do, right? Also, y'all were a little late to "allow" black preachers don't you think? 1978. Way to go Mormons.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      At least they don't use the funds to hide priests from the law like they do in other christian religions.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • cody

      you are a dumb@$$. the mormons are the most generous people with money and service on the planet.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      Actually Bobinator they do and have, they have the same sorted past that almost every organized group has regardless if its a religious group or not.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • John

      Take some time to actually learn about the LDS Church instead of spout off hateful and untrue comments.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • dave

      Not to take away from what you said since I don't want to argue your point. I am a Mormon and I can tell you that the church probably spends way more money to help people all over the world than the U.S. government, not to mention, we're usually the first to arrive at disaster areas, which isn't usually mentioned in the media.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • RP

      In many instances the LDS church is helping in many parts of the world with disaster relief to drilling water wells in distant parts of the world. I personally helped with disaster relief right here in the USA. I did not help one single Mormon family. I did help people who needed it and never asked their religion nor did we accept money from them. While helping these people another unrelated Christian faith came and offered water to us. If that on both parts is not being a Christian then I don't know what is.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Art

      Mountaindawg – Of course the church offers assistance to the rest of the world: http://lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/and-who-is-my-neighbor?lang=eng&query=*+(name%3a%22H.+David+Burton%22)

      There are very few organizations throughout the world that spend more money, more time and offer more volunteers than the LDS Church does in times of crisis. The church chooses to spend for some public outreach and marketing to contest the ignorance demonstrated in your post. Should they let those that unhappy with or axe-grinding on the church shape the Church's public perception without any resistance? Would any church be OK with those attacking it being the only voice in the public forum?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      If any Mormon actually decided to "REALLY" learn about the LDS and opened their eyes and blocked out the constant bombardment of brain washing the cult produces you would easily see how crazy it is from Joesph Smith and Bringham Young and the rest of the original cult leaders, liars and manipulators. Mormons choose to live a life of blissful ignorance...

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

      The Mormon church isn't allowed to just spend money arbitrarily. When someone gives money to the church they fill out a slip that states what the money is for. It is the church's responsibility to use that money in that fashion.

      So,

      1. If there are individuals that give money for advertising, then it's the church's obligation to use it that way. It is not the church leadership that ought to be criticized for spending, it would be the church's members.

      2. When you give money to the LDS church for relief (like in times of disaster) all the money you give goes directly to that cause. Not to executives for salaries or anything like that.

      To act as though the church is wasting money by advertising itself is really pointless. As Mormons we would like to see all church's reach out to the populations of every country and encourage them to, if nothing else, just believe in God. It costs money, yes, in that most of us would agree, but the few millions of dollars spent from honest donations for just that cause, pail in comparison to the amount of money that is TRULY misspent by our government.

      Churches give to the masses out of kindness.
      Governments OUGHT to provide for the masses by obligation.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • TommyD

      You have no idea how many millions are indeed spent to help people...all people, even bigots like you!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • mountaindawg

      Bobinator, I'm not a Christian so comparing "Christian" religions doesn't work on me. To the people who said the church gives more than the US govt. in aid to other countries, what the hell have you been smoking? I thought that was frowned upon in your "church". To the person who said that money donated can only be spent on what the donor specifies, do you really believe that? Really? Also, I see no one wanted to touch the third rail of why blacks weren't allowed to be priests until 1978. Can any practicing mormon give a reason for this? BTW, I'm not trying to defend any religion by bashing mormons. I think you're all a little crazy.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • mountaindawg

      Tony D, I'm a bigot? I'm not a member of a church who denied the priesthood to a certain group of people because of the color of their skin. Why was this the case? I'm sure you'll have a great explanation for this. I can't wait to hear it. BTW, ever seen the golden tablets? No. Didn't think so.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • TommyD

      mountaindawg
      Have you ever seen the slim that crawled out of the water and became you? I didn't think so....
      Take the time to learn the facts, let go of the hate. You'll finally have peace!
      Good Luck,
      and God Bless!

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

      How very "Christian" or "Mormon" of you to call someone slime. Do you know me? No. Did I personally attack you? No. So who is being the bigot here? Are you ever going to answer the question of why blacks weren't allowed to be priests until 30 years ago? BTW, I don't keep hate in my heart but it seems that you do, calling people names. Looks like you won't be getting your own planet. Tough luck.

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

      Mountaindawg
      Sorry for the misunderstanding. I meant "slime" only as an evolution first step (compaired to creation). Bad word... Sorry.
      As for my own planet...I don't really think about that. But I do know I have a Father in Heaven. And just as you may want to be as good or better than your earthly farther, so is it with our Heavenly Father...True children of our God (Father)
      As for Blacks, only God knows. Everything in its time...

      November 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Georgia

      The mormon church gives more money for "helping people" than any other church on the planet. That's what Jesus would do.

      November 3, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  9. JoeStL

    It just goes to show that people of all backgrounds are susceptible to hucksters.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      That's already been proven. People of all colours believe in religion.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  10. rue

    typical cnn left wing hack job, someone tell me when cnn which claims balance in reporting does a negative article on anyone other than a republican and or religion

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

      Ok I will. Today. Today cnn wrote a thoughtful article about how the Mormon Church (religion) is trying to shed it's historically negative image. So... today they wrote a pretty positive article about religion. Republicans still suck though...sorry. Actually I'm not sorry. Republicans just suck.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Joey

      This is actually in reply to Jaime ...

      Republicans and Democrats ... and members of every other political party in this country, ALL suck!

      They only seek to divide this country into two portions: Upper Half, Lower Half

      November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  11. Widobberman

    I had a jet black bishop in the UK. He was 14 when the 'ban' was lifted. I asked him how as a kid he reconciled himself to the fact he may never have the priesthood when white people would. Response: "I had read the scriptures, prayed and received confirmation that the gospel was true. Beyond that, nothing else mattered."

    Now, you can knock people for being brainwashed or whatever you want. But, if you have ever had a spiritual confirmation of something, it cannot be denied.

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

      AMEN brother!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      Spiritual confirmations are often just signs of mental illness. So they can be denied.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Widobberman

      Perhaps mental illness applies for some. But since my Bishop is the head of Ancient Records Digitization for the British Museum, I'm going to have to say No to your off-the-cuff diagnosis. I'll pass that on though. I'm sure he'll appreciate your sense of humour.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      Mental illness does not put into question his intelligence, just his grip on reality.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Ken

    The Mormons, like every other religious group, need to keep their religion within their homes and their church and NOT in my government. Religion distorts reality and is the cause of violence throughout history and all over this planet. I believe that all church should pay taxes like every other corporation.

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

      You need to educate yourself. You will never find a politician speaking in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints. And you have never heard a Leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints give a political speach. The only ones that brings the Chuch into politics is the Media and bigots like yourself!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  13. BobZemko

    THey still hate gays with a passion.

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

      Making such a statement simply shows your ignorance.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • dave

      There's a difference between hate and disapproving. Mormons don't hate anyone. They only dissapprove your actions if it's not in accordance with teachings from the Bible. I happen to know that there are gays attending church services because they are welcome there. You're allowed to be gay. They would prefer that you don't execute the action.

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

    seems to be alot of commenters on here that know an awful lot about mormons. wonder why they would need an ad campaign if you all already knew everything about them. rabble rabble rabble, hate hate hate. classy.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  15. EXJehovahs Witness

    So the advertising is making it obvious that people of any race or creed can be sucked in by a cult.

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

      amen

      November 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  16. Steveorevo

    Why not just be more direct: "We're not bigots anymore! Unless you are gay..."

    November 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  17. sortakinda

    Now if they can just shake that CRAZY image, they'll be all set.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      The only way to shake the crazy image would be to throw out everything they believe... So i dont see them losing that crazy stigma.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  18. Lamar in Dallas, TX

    LOL....Next thing you know, they will be featuring a gay couple in their ads! NOT!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  19. Frank Rizzo

    If i become a Mormon do i get 80 virgins? Also do I have to believe in Aliens?

    November 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      You get no virgins..sorry.. also you dont have to believe in aliens, but you will get to have your own planet and make many babies with your many wives in order to populate your planet...

      November 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  20. BNB42

    Religion: It gives people hope in a world torn apart by Religion....

    November 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Lamar in Dallas, TX

      LOL how true is that!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
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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.