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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. Confused

    I want no parts of a religion that officially allowed banned Blacks from the "priesthood" before 1978. Don't even get me started on the magic drawls

    November 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  2. DOG told me to do it!

    Me thinks they protest too much. Hard to live down all those years of "mud people" inferences. But I guess they have discovered that "those people's" money is as good as everybody else's. And one more little stickler. Why do all the native American Indians in their Ward paintings ALL look European?

    November 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  3. idontthinksotim

    I am surprised this article isn't balanced with the facts that, not only were non-whites not allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978, but there were "revelations" made by the general authorities, (very high-ranking officers in the LDS church) that said white people could NOT co-mingle with black or Latin people, and that non-whites were not white because they had the "mark of Cain" a so-called "curse" placed upon them. In addition, there was a lot of angry pro-segregation talk from the pulpit in the 60s from the upper echelon of leaders of the church, but now these days they want to just sweep all that under the rug and pretend it never happened. Very disturbing.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • jdls

      Mormons didn't invent discrimination against blacks, and their doctrine pales to that of other societies in the past., Move on.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      JDLS-

      Why is that such a common theme from you guys? You can't defend it so you just tell people to move on? I suppose that's what all of you people who actually subscribe to this nonsense have done. Just gone along with what you were told, never asking questions.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Colin

      Leroy,

      I find it ironic that the whole country treated blacks shamefully until the 1970's, but you are singling out the Mormon Church, which was anti-slavery from it's inception in 1830, and NEVER segregated it's congregation like many others did.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  4. noblehorse

    This story is just spin... Mormons believe that dark-skinned people will turn white if they become Mormon... which apparently they see as a good thing... so for the Mormon Church to try to pass themselves off as just like every other religion... guess what? They're not! They're worse!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Chris W

      We don't teach nor do we believe that... Your off with that comment.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  5. jon

    I'm waiting for a billboard that reads, "I'm a Jew and proud of it". Unfortunately the scientists, doctors, and film executives have better things to do with their time.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  6. jebb

    which religion advocated the murder of native indians
    mormonism

    November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  7. joe800

    ...it's kinda nice with all the religious kooks (that includes ALL religion) openly identifying themselves and pushing their brand of crazy....because it allows me to readily identify those among us that I'm smarter than....

    November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  8. Brigham

    Most Mormons run around with Mormons and its a very tight click. Generally speaking, you generally dont find Mormons running around with non-Mormons. At least not sharing a conversation over a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, or tea. The young men and women are very predictable. Young man goes on mission at 19, leaves girlfriend behind who he has been dating for a couple of year, young man comes back 2 years later from mission, gets married 6 months later to his patient girlfriend (if she doesnt dump him) , baby comes usually a year later. Its a cookie cutter life style, in my opinion. for a majority of the religion. No issues with the religion, but its just not my cup of tea.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  9. Peaseblossom

    And I believe...that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  10. Pedro

    Mormonism sets our society back 150 years. Just when people are finally realizing how silly belief in any theist religion is, BAM, here comes another ridiculous belief system.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      Nothing wrong with theist religion. You don't have to agree with it, but there is nothing wrong with it and it is not silly to many people.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  11. Tron

    I always think their signs say "I'M A MORON"

    November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  12. Ex-mormon

    One reason I left the church was I prefer to choose my own underpants....yes, their church DOES dictate your lingerie!! I grew up in the church, Dad was Bishop and Mom was Relief Society President. And yes, Mormons do believe in Polygamy, just not in this life, but once you land on the planet Kalob, you can go ahead and have a plural marriage. And they truly did state at one time that Blacks could not receive their Priesthood and had the mark of Cain. Lots of good people are Mormons, but seriously...have you seen the underwear? No thanks.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Chris W

      Your dad could have been the prophet but it doesn't give you any credibility to what you just said. The LDS church doesn't teach Plural marriage on Kolob stuff. They teach from the Bible, Book of Mormon, and other scriptures.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Ex-mormon

      Yes they do! I attended 4 years of Seminary and that is exactly what my teacher taught us. It is so bizarre, but Mormons blindly follow. I did the same until I actually took a big step back to look at what I was being taught.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  13. zsabre2

    I'm a mac.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  14. Goodstuff

    Mormons....Lulz.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  15. Michelle

    I completely understand why so many people don't understand, and don't like mormonism. However, why must everyone be so hateful and mean in their comments? Since when did any religion make logical sense? Of course its weird, its religion! If CNN ran an article about any other religion, no way would people feel free to be so openly hateful.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • dave

      Because were americans thats why

      November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • gd

      Simple: Lack of education.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Bill

    The foundation laid by Brigham Young that appealed to members in the past sure gets in the way when one tries to be accepted by and voted for in a majority of America. One really has to put one's brain on the aht rack when one enters the temple and professes to believe the Mormon doctrine. Anything is possible today. Huntsville Alabama voted in Mo Brooks who is a died in the wool fundamental Mormon. So I'm not so sure exactly what the Mormon's are worried about. If they can pass themselves off today as not being what they professed to believe since their founding, then maybe thay can become the perfect thing to believe in by changing with the wind of the moment.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  17. amos

    Thanks CNN for the fair article about my faith. Faith as it is being a very personal belief in something that is not always tangible. As a father of 3 children, I've found the teachings of the Gospel found in the New Testament about love and especially Charity to be crucial to help raise my kids. Not all "Mormons" are perfect nor are they close to being that way. Like all people struggling to due whats right in their eyes, we make mistakes, we are hypocrites , and are unkind. I do believe in God and the power that faith can have in the lives of good men and woman around the world, given that our intentions are to be charitable and to love. Religion can be and has been used to persecute and to hate, my hope is that we follow the teachings of Jesus and love. I'm very sorry if any of you have been persecuted by any of my faith. I still think there are many issues that need to be solved and hurts to be amended, especially the rifts we have with the Gay and Lesbian community. I don't know if it'll ever happen, but I sure hope it does.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • wellsaid

      Very well said Amos. What a wonderful comment and so very true, regardless of our individual beliefs.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Pedro

      Why don't you just leave the Mormon Church then? You can follow the teachings of the Bible, if you so choose, without belonging to any religion. By calling yourself a Mormon you are stating to the world that you believe in a religion founded by a racist con man. A religion which states that the Jews were in America before European colonization (I mean, really?). You believe in underwear with special powers. The list goes on and on. If there is even one thing in the Mormon doctrine that you don't agree with, then consequently, you are not a Mormon. It's a ridiculous religion. Dump it.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • amos

      @Pedro

      Thanks for your comment. I believe in the Mormon church along with it's problems. All churches, governments, and organizations have "interesting" pasts. I love my nation; however, it does not make me blind to the fact that America's past and present has entropy with 100% goodness. I believe in it because I have faith and I see my "activity" and what I do as a good to my family, my self and to the society I live in. Most of what I'm asked to do in the Mormon church surrounds an act of service, clean someones house, fix a neighbors roof, or talk at my Grandmothers Funeral. I think many people of faith and belief in something feel the same way.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Jason

      amos, that is all fine and good. But, how can you believe in all those crazy stories and not question any of it? Do you turn your brain OFF? Do you not know how to THINK for yourself. Oh wait, that is why we call it faith.

      Just wait, the mormon management will get a 'revelation from god' and state now that Gays are ok? Not because its now politically incorrect to keep them out, but because god said so......really? Its like a recurring theme, polygamy is right, no now its wrong, blacks are bad, no now they are ok....

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

      @Jason

      I cannot be blind nor am I ignorant to current issues. I do see your point and some of your logic. Again, like with my belief in my nation, I was not a huge George Bush supporter; however, I do like the compassion and work he showed to the fight against aids in Africa. The argument that you cannot belong to something unless it is 100% clean is and always will be a hard one to prove. I thank you however for you willingness to communicate. I believe, and I apologize for the bibilcal reference, because of the current fruits or works of the Mormon church and it's people.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Pedro

      @Amos – "act of service, clean someones house, fix a neighbors roof, or talk at my Grandmothers Funeral"... You could do all of these things without being part of the LDS. Heck, I'm as atheist as they come and I help my neighbors and volunteer a good amount of my time to helping those in need. You don't need to believe in a God or afterlife to realize that people are having a tough enough time here on Earth to just leave them to suffer.

      I think you're grasping at straws. It seems like you clearly realize the Mormon belief system is full of faults, yet you are fearful of following your own life because of the social or personal punishment the LDS may lay upon you. I find it to be sad.

      Also, the analogy to our country is not a particularly good one. Our country is a democracy that will be constantly evolving depending on the thoughts and beliefs of those that vote for its government (or at least that's the idea). A religion with a set doctrine, like yours, does not have that freedom. To change religious doctrine based on political and social pressure debases that religion, and shows how foolish the original doctrine was to begin with.

      I hope someday you realize that all you are is a human with a conscience and a good heart, and not a Mormon.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  18. Ashley

    Whenever I read negative comments about members of my faith (yes, I'm a Mormon, and no, I'm not a "moron") I wish that I could speak to the commenter individually so I could personally address their arguments against the church. If you have questions about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and know someone who is Mormon, by all means, PLEASE ask them anything you want about the Church. I treasure the opportunities I have had throughout my life to discuss my beliefs with those of other faiths (or no faith at all) because in every instance I have been able to dispel misinformation, rumor, and plain lies they have heard about our beliefs.

    Perhaps I should organize some sort of community question and answer event where only those with respectful questions or concerns could attend and I'd respond to anything they threw at me. Respectful, kind, informed dialogue is the only way to overcome prejudice and hate in society.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Pedro

      Explain the racism. Explain the "magic underwear". Explain how jews were in America before european colonization? amuse me.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  19. munkittrick

    Organized religion is the human race's attempt to create an infinite life that doesn't exist. ALL organized religion will be proven wrong, but unfortunately, most will never know until they are deceased. That's such a sad idea. You live your entire life being "holier-than-thou" only to find that you were a good person for nothing....or everything.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  20. hello

    All this discussion on religion is just the adult way of saying "my imaginary friend is cooler than your imaginary friend".

    November 2, 2011 at 2:36 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.