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. Wes

    There are records of Blacks being baptized prior to 1830, by Brigham Young. There was even a black president of a branch of the LDS church in 1842... Joseph Ball. Ball was the Boston Branch president from October 1844 to March 1845 – the largest LDS congregation outside of the Nauvoo area. He was ordained a High Priest by William Smith (the first African American HP) and was sent to Nauvoo by Parley P. Pratt in the spring of 1845 to work on the temple

    People do your research. Most everyone in every religion had their opinion about race in that time in history, in every church. The mormons love and Accept everyone and anyone, blacks, gays, hispanics, whites.

    find out the truth on mormon.org

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

      The truth is the book of mormon is a fabrication written by a man named joseph smith. The truth is the book of mormon is not another testament of jesus christ. The truth is what i said is a fact beyond any reasonable doubt.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Tim

      Wes, with all due respect and reading your comment, I no longer have any! It was 1972 that people of color were allowed into the church. And to mention accepting of gays, you're thoughts are a little more than delusional.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • RP

      Thank God that we have Dave who must be in the age range of 180 to 190 years old!!! How else could he know so definitively that that Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith unless he was alive and watched as Joseph Smith wrote the book rather than translate ancient records!!!??? Oh by the way Joseph Smith had no better than a third grade education!!!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  2. Greg Morgan

    How's this for a slogan for the Mormons:
    We're so open-minded we've been ordaining blacks for over 30 years!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  3. DOG told me to do it!

    Some of these comments made me laugh so hard, I soiled me magic underpants. Does that make me a Mud Person now?

    November 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm |

    Any individual with strong religious beliefs holding public office is a scary thing. More evil has been and is being committed in the name of God. The only thing that seperates the rightous from the wicked is perception. Religion allows forgivness for those who feel they have the right to pass judgement on their fellow man instead of help him. Racisim is just one of those judgements and its in every religion. How sad there are so many to perpetuate such an evil thing, but
    have peace of mind that God agrees cause he is forgiving. The religious congrigaters need to read thier bible better. All repentant sins are not forgiven. The final judgement is his. The Mormon followers are one of many churches who
    seem to surpress those teachings.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  5. James

    Mormon isn't as White as Lutheran (ELCA). The ELCA is a mainline church as is close to 97% White. Now that is white.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  6. zivo24

    I respect the rights of other people to believe in and follow whatever faith they choose....including Mormons.

    I just wish the Mormon church and it's followers would return the favor and respect my right to love and marry the consenting adult of choice.

    The whole reason why the Mormon church is having to do this "I'm a mormon" campaign is to undo alot of the damage they did to the image of their faith and it's follower by taking such a large and vocal role in promoting discrimination via Prop 8.

    So go ahead and be proud of being a mormon. Good for you. But if you want everyone else to respect your choices and believes..you need to respect theirs as well. It's a two way street.

    By the way.;..this advertising campaign is costing the church and/or it's followers MILLIIONS of dollars.....all to project a kinder, more inclusive image of their faith. Parading people of different colors and cultures in commercials doesn't prove that your faith respects diversity. Respecting people from all backgrounds does that.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  7. rick

    Whats wrong with being lilly white?Who says its better to have blacks,whites,asians,indians,etc.why cant a place be all black or all white or all asian or all of what ever. Diversity may work for one and not someone else.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  8. Kevin

    Wasn't Joseph Smith a professional con man before he became a prophet? Kind of makes you wonder . . . .

    November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Mike Taylor


      November 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  9. karen

    Notice by the comments that religious bigotry is alive and well in America. Religious belief is about as tangible as the wind. Who cares how someone else desires to worship or think? America allows all people the right to believe what ever they desire, feel whatever they want to feel, do good to those that they would do good to without persecution or bigotry. Stop judging, stop hating, be an American.

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

      You can't have it both ways! You say you want respect and are against religious bigotry? Then why so judgmental? Why do you shove your dogma down people’s throats? The teachings of the Mormons is that they “think” that they are practicing the one true religion and that everyone else is lost. THAT is religious bigotry!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  10. forallseasons

    I'm Eric. I'm a Mormon. I am proud of my choice to be a member of this church. Whatever you believe, you should be honored you live in a place (the USA or elsewhere) that allows you to worship the way you do. Am I a christian? Absolutely. I know Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind and died for me and was resurrected so that I, and you, may be also. The church, our beliefs nor the Book of Mormon are on trial. We claim to be part of an organization where truths were restored to the earth after having been lost for centuries after the death of Jeus and his original apostles. Many people find it difficult to believe that, but that is what we believe. It's not up to me to convince you of this, it's your choice alone to decide. If you follow the proper and honest course of study, investigation and prayer with real intent you will come to find out by the power of the Holy Ghost if it is true or not. It's that simple. Don't take my word for it, ask God directly and onlyl He can provide you the answer. If you're honest, you'll know.

    Now, a few other points:
    Warren Jeffs and his polygamist following are not and never have been members of this church. They claim to preach from the Book of Mormon but obviously they don't have the same restored truths as we believe them.
    the "I'm a Mormon" has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or any other public or political person or purpose. It's a tool, an extension of the world-wide missionary efforts. Each member is encouraged to live our religion the best we can and share and invite others to listen. This is simply a part of that effort, to invite you to listen.
    Blacks have always been welcome members of the church, even from the first days of the church. While it is true black men could not hold the priesthood until 1978, that is behind us and we have moved forward. I suggest you do the same. The gospel and atonement of Jesus Christ is available to all of God's children, regardless of race, color, nationality.
    We are christians. Jesus is the Son of God. He atoned for our sins. He will come again in all glory.
    The Book of Mormon is Another Testament of Jesus Christ, written by ancient prophets who lived in the Americas between 600 b.c. and 480 a.d. It was translated by Joseph Smith, who only had a 2nd grade education, by the gift and power of God. God loves all his people so if he revealed his truth to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Enoch, Isaiah, etc, then why not to other people in other lands, or even today? He does. I invite you to come and see and learn for yourself. If you decide by your own honest and careful investigation that it isn't true, then that is is your choice. I thank you for listening.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • The Mormon Truth

      Warren Jeffs is EXACTLY what the mainstream church was like until they renounced polygamy (to gain statehood...and more money naturally) around 1900.

      His church uses the same Book of Mormon.

      Why doesn't Mitt Romney denounce Warren Jeffs?

      Might he be afraid to? Mess with a true prophet?? Is this the kind of mystique president you want? 😉

      November 2, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      Sorry, but I drank to kool-aide once, and it came close to destroying my family and my life. While I applaud you for making it work, also be aware of the fact the Church does have a history that it must explain, and simply declaring the issue closed does not make it so. A carefully-crafted PR campaign does not change the facts, only the perception by people unfamilair with the more unpleasant decisions the Church has nmade during its history. Only with those facts, along with the personal exploration, can a person amke an informed decision like what you describe.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Jason

      How can you say blacks are 'welcome' but in the same breath say 'they are not worthy'? So, they are welcome, just not equal to the white members, is that right?

      November 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  11. pluto

    i'm a mormon and i'm not white, mormon missionaries came in contact with my parents going door to door. they taught my parents and my parents eventually became members on their own free will. I am happy to be a mormon and i know alot of people hate my faith but all i can do is ignore the negative people and continue to try and live my life as a follower of jesus christ.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • The Mormon Truth

      Sadly you wouldn't be allowed as a full member prior to 1978. Does that bother you. Did you know that?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • todd in DC

      what if said negative people enact laws that discriminate against a minority (Proposition 8), and you are a member of that minority. Are we supposed to ignore you? I don't think so.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  12. Matt Gaitan

    Nice try CNN & Romney. How in the world would anyone not see that this clearly headlining on CNN to help spread awareness that Mormon's are actually normal people, therefore; Mitt Romney should not be written off as cult member. Nice touch with an African American Mormon, front and center. Why doesn't CNN just come out and say they want Romney to get the GOP nomination already. Please just do it. There's nothing wrong with being honest.

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

      Actually the most truthful outcome they'd be shooting for would be a zany daily gaffe-machine – more headlines that way. Given the amount of muck that's been blasted at Mormons this autumn I'd say this article was overdue. It isn't a religion I can buy into, but it's a lot less objectionable than most, and as individuals all the Mormons I've met have been great people.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  13. kd

    Last year, when I lived in Salt Lake, I heard a local radio interview dealing with EVERGREEN, the Mormon Church's reparative therapy organization to change gay people straight. (They'll say it's not official with the Mormon church but that's a lie. It is.) When the host asked the guest, the head of EVERGREEN, what about gay people in their heaven the Evergreen guy answered, 'there are no gay people in heaven. God fixes everything and we're perfect.' If I were a 2nd-grader I wouldn't buy that crap.

    And that Evergreen guy sounded so extremely gay he would make Marcus Bachmann seem like Bruce Willis.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  14. TheBookofMormon

    "I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes."

    – Elder Price, The Book of Mormon

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

      "A Mormon believes in fairy tales" and shoves that belief system down others throats. They have ZERO respect for other belief systems. Its very sad.

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


      November 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  15. Laurie

    They baptize dead people. They got in trouble for baptizing Jewish people. They've even baptized Hitler. If you're good enough – but only if you're married – you can become a god of your own planet (men only). They wear special underwear that protects them from evil. Men can marry as many women as they want in their temple (polygamy on earth was banished so that Utah could become a state). Black skin is the mark of Cain. Oh yeah, they had a revelation on that one just like the polygamy one. Jesus and the devil are brothers. The Garden of Eden is in St. Louis. The list goes on.

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

      I'm a Mormon, and I can say from experience that we don't baptize dead people. Men can't marry as many women as they want. Maybe before you make hateful comments about this religion, you should educate yourself a little beyond google web searches.

      November 24, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  16. slim

    The LDS church doctrine is based on the word of Joe Smith, a man who was charlatan and adulterer. It is not ancient history, but history that occurred in the 1800s. Numerous authors who were Mormon and chronicled Smith have been excommunicated due to writings that were deemed negative to the Church. Utah towns are perfect example of how group control results in strict compliance to the rules of the Church. It is a religion that is based on smoking mirrors and tablets that one wacko purported to find.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  17. Jean Sartre, Milwauke, WI

    I belong to the Unicorn religion myself...

    November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  18. Hank

    2 Nephi 30:6 in the Book of Mormon taught that dark-skinned Lamanites (Indians) would eventually experience a change in the color of their skin should they embrace the Book of Mormon. This passage of Mormon scripture read:

    "...their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a white and a delightsome people."

    2 Nephi 5:21 says,

    "And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, and they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them."

    3 Nephi 2:15:
    "And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites."

    Second LDS President Brigham Young stated in 1859, "You may inquire of the intelligent of the world whether they can tell why the aborigines of this country are dark, loathsome, ignorant, and sunken into the depths of degradation ...When the Lord has a people, he makes covenants with them and gives unto them promises: then, if they transgress his law, change his ordinances, and break his covenants he has made with them, he will put a mark upon them, as in the case of the Lamanites and other portions of the house of Israel; but by-and-by they will become a white and delightsome people" (Journal of Discourses 7:336).

    "Juvenile Instructor" (26:635) reads,

    "From this it is very clear that the mark which was set upon the descendants of Cain was a skin of blackness, and there can be no doubt that this was the mark that Cain himself received; in fact, it has been noticed in our day that men who have lost the spirit of the Lord, and from whom his blessings have been withdrawn, have turned dark to such an extend as to excite the comments of all who have known them."

    In 1857, Brigham Young declared that apostates would "become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil" (Journal of Discourse 5:332).

    November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • The Mormon Truth

      Thanks for digging up the racist passages – right out of their own book. 🙂

      Remember, this was only written 150 years ago, give or take – and dutifully followed as late at 1978! 😉

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

      To "The Mormon Truth" (which, by the way you are VERY FAR from), the book was TRANSLATED 150 years ago. Not WRITTEN 150 years ago.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      Nat –
      translated from what? The book was written in English.

      You guys amaze me. You have bought all of this nonsense. They've given you a rebuttal for every single ridiculous piece of your church. Amazing specimens you are indeed.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  19. Matt C.

    I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints after observing the HUGE mountain of hate and misinformation being reported against them.. It led me to ask myself, "Why so much energy , hate, and lies being spread about one faith?" Where the truth is, there will the greatest oppostion be also. It's true with any redeeming cause.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      I also observed arrogance and bigotry towards other faiths by LDS: it led me to ask how could the Church do such a poor job of teaching its members love, patience, and acceptance unless the whole premise of the organization had nothing to do with real spiritual growth, but with money and the realities of secular power? Once I came to realize that, it was easy to walk away.

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

      There is no misinformation that the book of mormon is a fabrication written by a man named joseph smith in the 1830s. The problem isn't about blacks or the planet kalob or wives–The problem is that the book of mormon and the quran are fabrications. Mormons are not christians because they believe that there book is another testament of jesus christ hence the book of mormon. Fact is the book of mormon is a fabrication and always will be and even if the whole planet converted to mormonism wouldn't make the book true.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      No, it's not true.

      People hate Nazis too.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  20. J.W

    I think they should just put every religion story on the front page as one of the headlines. It seems to generate more comments.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Reply to JW

      As long as it doesn't include the religion whose initials are J.W.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 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.