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. beinglarry

    It's amazing what "God" would overlook when it effects the bottom line.

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

      What?!? Just a stupid comment. Really, just plan dumb!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  2. Brad

    Well, if Mormons embrace the trinity as described in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds they can be accepted as Christians. I would also refer everyone to 1 Peter 3:18 – "For Christ died for sins once for all"

    November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  3. bipar

    i don't care what they do, as long as they don't try to push their religion on me
    i respect their religion and i want them to respect mine

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • The Mormon Truth

      They secretly posthumously baptized millions of holocaust victims.

      The Jewish league found out and sued them big time. Google it. 😉

      November 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Truth is subjective

      Most of them don't respect yours. Just sayin'.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • 3D02

      Yes, baptism for the dead. Why do you think the church is a leader in geneology? Your dead, they perform a baptism, your spirit accepts or it doesn't. Good luck with any lawsuit.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  4. The Mormon Truth


    "Mormon underwear"
    "Mormon celestial polygamy" (a heavenly harem for every male)
    "Mormon posthumous baptism" (they secretly baptized holocaust victims)
    "Mormon 1978 black people"
    "Mormon posthumous sealing" (marrying other men's wives after death)
    "Mormon insurrection" (at war with the US Government)

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Steve

      Or you can be like Joseph Smith and marry other men's wives while they're all still alive.

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

      Just like you shouldn't believe everything you read at lds.org or mormon.org, don't believe everything that you read on Google. When you visit a site, look at the owners. What do they have to gain from trashing or supporting the Mormons? There are a lot of fair and balanced sited out there. mormonstories.org is one such site.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  5. Lindsay Gray

    Does dropping the second 'm' in the name Mormon do anything to explain the religion?

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • DOG told me to do it!

      Hilarious. I've been telling that one for 43 years, and it never gets old!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Steve

      The noun you allude to describes the believers of all religions.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • 3D02

      No its pretty old.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  6. Guitfiddel

    Boy, Oh BOY!!! I finally get to go worship in the “TEMPLE” with those who are worthy just like I’m worthy too!! Excuse me for a minute as I’m crying, trembling with HAPPINESS and can’t see the keyboard….OK, I’m back. So, yeah…like I was sayin’….

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  7. thruth

    How many mormon leaders in Utah, their headquarters, are minorities? The fact is, this is a corporation. If you want to make more money, you need more customers. That is why they opened their church to blacks and other minorities in the 70's.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Emma

      It's a LAY ministry, Meaning: No one is paid it's done voluntarily.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  8. Cory

    Funny. Every person with an ignorant comment likely knows and admires a Mormon. Christ was rejected by the so-called mainstream religion in his day. Why would it be any different in the latter days? Good hard-working, service oriented people with strong families, better than average education, love of country and children who love the Lord. We love other religions too and praise them for all of their worthy doctrine and good works. Don't have time to bash...the Lord didn't either.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • DOG told me to do it!

      The Lord tell you that in a dream Cory? I'll await your answer that will be revielled to me in some river rocks.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • thruth

      you love other religions? is that why you baptize dead people from other religions? The origins of this religion all point to power-hungry men, not god. Tell me again about how the garden of eden was in Missouri.

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

      my lord judges all, I pray to Crom...

      November 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      @cory is an idiot
      The lord doesn't bash?? Have you ever read the Bible? I would reject Jesus too. I don't see a big difference. Religion is for the hollow and the foolish.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  9. EXJehovahs Witness

    If your a mormon I get it, Its just the same as year ago when I was unfortunate enough to be a Witness. Its fellowship and a sense of belonging...and then there are the rules, and the crazy beliefs and the down right evil founders... yet we are brainwashed enough to not see this and anyone who may try and show us is an apostate etc... Its a powerful cult and their are many others in America that manipulate and control people all in the name of a religion. If God does exist and in so many ways I hope he does... This church is not pleasing to him. Moroni is not a real angel, just a figment of Joseph Smiths lie. There were never gold plates and Christ never came to the Americas.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  10. Joel

    OK, here is the deal folks. I have many acquaintances that are mormon. Either those I have known growing up, in college, at work or in my neighborhood. They are some of the finest people I have had the privilege to know. They are helpful, giving, and friendly. I have found them to be honest and trustworthy. Sure, like any organization there will always be those who may not live up to the standards of their faith. People are people. No one is perfect. But look at all the church has done for the world. Their welfare program that is world-wide and when there is a disaster, the mormons seem to be the first ones there to help, regardless of the religious convictions of those they are helping. So, before you cast your stones at them perhaps you should work with them to solve the problems of the world and then debate who is right or wrong later. I may not agree with them theologically, but I respect and admire them for all they do for the world and for the upstanding lives they live.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • EXJehovahs Witness

      Yeah Joel, I think its pretty obvious and a pathetic attempt to hide the fact that you are a Mormon. Your a cult member brother.. That should bother you,

      November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  11. Deseret

    moutaindawg, I would like to inform you that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a Humanitarian Aid program that supplies aid all over the world in all types of disasters. It was a first responder for Katrina, it has started many neo-natal units to save infant lives in third world countries, provided fresh water wells for drinking water, farm equipment to to a country so they could feed their people, measle vacine, thousands of wheelchairs, tons and tons of food, clothing, blankets,hygine kits . This is just a tip of the iceberg. It's never in the news because it's not done for that reason. You are way off base in your comment. Shame on you. You need to broaden your narrow mind.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      So, there are lots of charities, what is your point?

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

      The Taliban gives fresh water, clothes and supplies too, when they can afford to. Its just all an effort to win hearts and minds, there is nothing truly magnanimous about it.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Mikey

      It would be much more impressive if they weren't trying to convert everyone they are helping!!!! I am so sick of young men in white shirts and black ties showing up on my doorstep trying to convince that Joseph Smith was "the prophet". Believe what you want to and leave everyone else alone to worship trees, cows, or no deity at all.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Clevelander

    It's nice to actual see some accurate facts regarding Mormons/The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They are a Christian based faith. They are very family based oriented people with good values. I think it's ok that they have billboards and ads out trying to get their voice heard and clarify misconceptions of their religion.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • jnemesh

      They also believe in Holy Underwear (Sacred Garments) and baptizing the dead (without consent of the deceased or any other living relatives). They believe that the President is a prophet of Jesus, who speaks directly for God. They restrict access to their temples, and indeed to the "higher truths" of the religion until you are fully indoctrinated...so, unless you have been a lifelong member and rank highly in the Church, you cant really speak to what the religion truly is, because YOU DONT KNOW! The more you learn about the Church of Latter Day Saints, the more you will see that, yes, it IS a cult. They are only "Christian" on the surface. Yes, they believe in Jesus, but everything after that goes by THEIR Bible (which they wrote themselves, how convenient)

      November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  13. BigMike619

    Bull Shizzle, i you don't know a mormon, then they are as arbitrary as Bigfoot riding on the back of the Loch Ness chasing the Chupacabara!!!!! LMAO

    November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • idontthinksotim

      Oh no they are far more scary because they are real. Just because you don't know mit romney doesn't mean he doesn't exist.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  14. MiddleWay14

    The Mormon slogan should be:

    "I'm an |di+ who believes in god aliens and spirit babies."

    What is even sadder is that this statement can essentially be generalized to anyone who believes in any theistic/supernatural religion. This world is full of a bunch of irrational |di+s who operate like children in full-grown bodies. It makes no sense that human beings continue to so easily compartmentalize irrational ideologies and beliefs when it is obvious that rationality (i.e., the ability to reason) is what elevates us beyond lower order animals.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Phil

      Because they were indoctrinated at an early age and told they'd burn in hell if they didn't believe. That, in my opinion is considered abusive...and they grow up holding dearly to the idea that one day, they're life will be over and they can spend eternity, and eternity after that, and eternity after that, living with god.

      No thank you. This lifetime is all we have and after we're dead, there is nothing. We just die.

      Oh gee. What about my loved ones. Will I ever see them again? No, you won't. And I've accepted that as part of life. That might seem terrible - but that's just how it works.

      I used to be Catholic...but I grew up and logic took over.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  15. Phil

    I'm sick of the ads personally - especially on YouTube. I find it offensive - however, it is their right to express themselves.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Truth is subjective

      Everyone finds everything offensive. Get over yourself dude. Comments like yours are as bad as the other side saying they are offended that you don't believe in magic rocks that you drop in a hat.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      I am offended.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Phil

      @ truth is subjective

      Did you stop reading my comment halfway through? What did I say at the end? I said "THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES".

      November 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  16. manRUserious!


    November 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Steve

      It would be interesting to see what people of many religions think about their religion's discarded obsolete doctrines. Past is past.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • r-hope

      please post in lower case if you want people to read. ALL Caps is an indication of aggression/shouting. Please seek help -if necessary

      November 2, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  17. Reasonably

    Do your homework. Mormon's considered people of color inferior and that they were cursed and would turn white once converted. Then the NAACP got all up in their stuff and they changed their story on their "word of God". They couldn't consume caffeine until they bought Coke then it was just hot caffeine. Cult in a box.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Mikey

      Pepsi and they didn't "buy" it ....they were given a bunch of shares.... Geez I am not a fan of the LDS church but at least get your facts straight.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  18. Mormon College Student

    This was a pretty good article. I am an active and enthusiastic member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.. There is a lot of misinformation in the comments here... I would just like to make the following invitation: if you want to know more about us Mormons, ask a Mormon! We know more about our religion than any critics, and we're happy to share!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • DOG told me to do it!

      Thanks for the offer, but after consulting my Seeing Stones, I'll have to pass.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Phil

      Okay - since you invited us to ask.

      How do magnets work?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Bbob

      Sorry, but Mormons are told not to discuss doctrine. They'll just ask you to read the book of mormon and pray, asking God if it is true...

      November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Truth is subjective

      Actually, most Mormon I know don't know much about their religion. That's why you guys have to travel around in pairs when you're on a mission. If one doesn't know the answer, hopefully the other does. The same for your 'visitors center' where a half a dozen of you come in to try and convert people. Maybe you know a lot about your faith and to that I say good for you, but a vast number of Mormons that I have talked to don't even understand the history behind your religion. Not to worry though, the same thing can be said for followers of most other religions.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Frank

      A mormon told me that guys travel in pairs to prevent each other from fornicating or even touching themselves (if you get my drift).

      November 2, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • 3D02

      How fascinating that people are either afraid of Mormons or they talk out their **s as if they know better

      November 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      No you don't.

      If you knew more, you wouldn't be enthusiastic about it.

      You would be embarrassed.

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

      I recall that facial hair was frowned upon when I went to church. So what is with some of the ads showing men with goatees and beards?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Mikey

      Except you don't answer when we ask about the more arcane aspects. You know that!!!! And if you ask a former Mormon, a current Mormon says "no that's not correct, they are lying"

      November 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Jason

      Excuse me LDS College Student – can you explain the whole "the earth is only 5000 yrs old" thing? I don't get it?? If you really believe that, how do sit through a Science class in college?

      November 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  19. MarcosLB

    Just wanting to let everyone know that the cult is open anyone and everyone!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  20. Sarah

    These racist whites with their Congressional White Caucus, NAAWP, White Panthers klan groups need to be shut down.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:40 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.