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.

Explain it to me: What's Mormonism?

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.

Opinion: Who says Mormons aren't Christian?

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. DHK


    November 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  2. Canadian

    I love this church. Always have, always will. Less of a church and more of a way of life. A good way of life, rich with happiness, self worth, love, and always hope – lots of hope, even when times are hard.

    I'm proud to be a Mormon.

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

      are you a man or a woman? i ask the same question to all believers of a se xest belief.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Lola

      I love how the article mentions that mormons are christians and yet doesn't advance any evidence to support that statement. Ask most traditional christians if mormons are part of that faith and 99% will say absolutely "NO". Mormons don't even see anything special about Easter and what it means to mainstream christians. To them it is just another sunday. Tha is what separates them from christians.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Melissa

      @ Lola. Easter is huge in the Mormon church. We have a special lesson at church, special programs, etc. Where are you people getting your information?!? This is INSANE the bigoted and false information that is out there!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • cara11

      Hey Lola

      What good will it do me to ask a traditional Christian whether I am Christian or not? Who is the expert that knows what it takes to be a Christian? I think we will have one judge who will determine whether or not we are true Christians. Not you so called evangelical experts.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  3. XenuRulerOfTheUniverse

    Mormans...har har! Your magic underwear cannot save you. Sorry Mormons, you don't get your own universe when you die, I already control it all!

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

      big universe...big job

      November 2, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Bazoing

      It will save them from having to treat women fairly.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  4. hammr

    WHAT IS MORMON? Pure meaningless tripe...rediculouse, absurd waste of time. Like all "RELIGION" man made, man created system to use god as an excuse to control human behavior...bottom line.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  5. noemi

    They're all a bunch of fornicating bigoit webfooted. Love thy neighbor ,sister!mother,aunts.ect,ect ect.........

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

      it is clear you need a d!k in your @$$ bad...believe me you'll luv it.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  6. jayson cohen

    Why Mormons Are Not Christian.
    First: Mormons do not follow or believe in the historic Jesus Christ of the Bible, but rather in a difference Jesus. This is why most Biblical Christians emphatically insist that Mormons are not Christians. Let me explain.
    The god of the Mormons is not the God of the Bible. To the Mormons, Jesus is the firstborn son of an exalted "man" who became the god of this world. The man-god of Mormonism was made the god of this world because of his good works on another planet somewhere out in the universe. He "earned" godhood, and was thus appointed by a counsel of gods in the heavens to his high position as the god of planet Earth. The Mormon god of this world was a man, like all men, who became a god. This is what the celestial marriage and the temple vows are all about. LDS men, by doing their temple work, are striving for exaltation by which they, too, shall one day become gods. Their wives will be the mother goddesses of "their" world and with their husband will produce the population of their world. This is the Mormon doctrine of "eternal progression."

    Historically, only until recently have Mormons wanted to be called Christians, preferring not to be included with Christian denominations, which Joseph Smith said were, "all wrong ... all their creeds were an admonition in his sight, and that those professors (Christians) were all corrupt" (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith, 2:18-19).
    Mormons have preferred to be called "saints"; however, in the recent years the LDS church has spent millions in an intense "PR" campaign aimed at moving the church into the mainstream of Christianity. The political and economic benefits of Mormons being included in the mainstream of Christianity are obvious. Further, for Mormons to be accepted as traditional Christians would greatly aid in proselytizing the members of Christian denominations into the LDS church. This is why the LDS church is trying so hard to present itself as Christian and is trying to overcome the stigma of being a cult.
    The answer to the question, "Are Mormons Christians," is simple. They are not Christians for several reasons, and their unbiblical doctrines show them to be a "Christian" cult.
    The name Christian was first used, as Acts 11:26 records, to identify the disciples of Jesus Christ. The word "Christian" is the Greek word "christianos," and it means an adherent of Jesus Christ. It literally means "Christ ones" (Acts 11:26, 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16). The correct definition of the word is one who is a follower of the Jesus Christ of the Bible. For almost two thousand years it has never had a reference to anyone other that the historical Jesus Christ of the New Testament.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • rybl101

      You tell 'em Jayson! There's one one specfic group of people who are right about the cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father and who sacrificed himself to himself so he could save you from an evil force within your soul that is present in humanity because he knowingly created a rib-molded woman who he knew would be convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree?

      Everyone else does not know what they are talking about!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bodacious

      You define Christians correctly ".....disciples of Jesus Christ......adherent of Jesus Christ......follower of the Jesus Christ of the Bible." You might want to look at how most of the Mormons live their lives (....by their fruits ye shall know them. Matthew 7:16 & 20). I have know many and have studied how they live and what they do. While I might not agree with all of their beliefs, they are certainly disciples of Jesus Christ, adherents to His teachings, and followers of Jesus Christ. BY THEIR FRUITS YE SHALL KNOW THEM.

      Let's not be so degrading of those that may have a slightly different belief, Christ wasn't.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Aaron

      See ya at the harvest crusade

      November 2, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • hammr

      ssutt the phukk up

      November 2, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  7. Leroy McMath

    Do they give away free magic panties with every visit?

    I might be able to get down with that.

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

      Really? You are a complete loser!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      Actually morman, it was a joke.

      Did Joseph Smith tell you guys that jokes were like black people and not allowed?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • hammr

      @ Leslie...he's making fun of the cult..get it..overly sensitive needs to be layed female

      November 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  8. KC

    Mormons are not Christians. The basic tenet of Christianity is not that Jesus was , but who Jesus is. He is God the son and there are no other Gods other than the Trinity.
    That is a huge difference with the beliefs of Mormons.

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

      I'm always surprised when people feel they have the personal authority to define Christianity. Shocking really. I thought Jesus said "love everyone" not split hairs about personal beliefs.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Leslie

      Actually we believe in God, the same one who is the father to Jesus Christ and to us all and we believe in the Holy Ghost. Kinda blows your theory to bits. Sorry!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Jim Massey

      You sound so Evangelical Christian (and that is not a compliment).

      November 2, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Sammy

      melissa has a point....the reason there are millions of 'christian' denominations is because they cannot agree on what being a christian is. so trying to dismiss the LDS because they arent as christian as you are is the oldest trick in the book.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "The basic tenet of Christianity is not that Jesus was , but who Jesus is. He is God the son and there are no other Gods other than the Trinity."

      Yeah...according to the men who wrote the bible. Yeah yeah yeah, i know...they were inspired by god....of course that is all according to man.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  9. Pete

    Unsurprising how this style of identical advertising came out right after Microsoft's "I'm a PC."

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

    uh i hate to break the news to the LDS...im sure they are nice folks...but the problem they have is not some 'perceived' lack of diversity. its their whacked out and nonsensical teachings. it wouldnt matter if a room was filled with black and asian mormons, as soon as they start talking about Joe Smith and where their "message" originated people will start smirking and shaking heads

    November 2, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • rybl101

      Crazy Mormons – don't they know there is only one true Jewish Zombie who was his own father and who sacrificed himself to himself so he could save you from an evil force within your soul that is present in humanity because he knowingly created a rib-molded woman who he knew would be convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree?

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

      Up State New York Makes Me Laugh

      November 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Jeremy

    I cannot wait until there is a candidate in the race for office who does not believe in any of these fairytales, no matter the source. A candidate who will rely on themselves when the going gets tough, as opposed to talking to themselves (praying) to solve problems. Religion is a glorified book club. It's okay if you want to be part of the club but that is where it should end. No one should take this man written nonesense as real (I'm speaking of all religions) Just think of how much better the world would be if people didn't have religion to distinguish themselves from one another. We are all humans. We are all empty vessels. You know how I know religion is not real? Because all humans are a product of where and how they are rasied. You don't come into the world with a name. Your parents give this to you. It is with this name and your upbringing that shapes you into what you become. No pre destiny. No magic. The same can be said about religion. One is not born with god either, it is given/forced upon you. You could make any human believe anything that you tell them, especially if you start from birth.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Dr. Zeuss

      I so hear you.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  12. RELISH-1

    And the mormon haters are out in force today. amazing what lies CNN allows to be posted here.

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

      Shut up you Nefit!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • mm

      Newsflash Mormom...contrary to your "religion" everyone has rights and freedom of speech is one of them. Just as you and the other sheep are permitted to spew your man-made religious (a/k/a cult) garbage.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Steve-in-MA

      Actually, Relish-1, I believe that they despise you rather than hate you.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  13. A God Fearing Muslim Woman

    I'm not a Mormon, never will be a Mormon. I had to go to Mormon Church mass/meetings to convert but I never did the Baptism. The people may of been nice, but so is every church you go to for the first time. Full of fake people trying to get you to join their church. Their philosophy is a tad far fetched.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • person

      ...and fearing something that has never even remotely communicated with you ISN'T far fetched?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Bodacious

      Allowing the members of the Muslim Mosque to utilize the parking lot of their Mormon church building every day FOR FREE is "fake"???? The Mormons do this in my community and have for years. That is not "fake" that is as real as it gets! Kind sharing religion and people. Their beliefs may be far fetched, but some might say yours are too....just maybe?

      Just love!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  14. James

    Please Don't Let this go mainstream Like Catholic's. If We give this any type of legitimatize Next we'll have Scientologist all in our congress.But Their is a silver lining, If People will give a cult a chance eventually They'll Have to give atheism and scientific consensus A Round Go.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  15. DiscipleofElijah

    The LDS brought the "lily white image" on themselves through the writings of their "prophets" Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

    Prior to June 9, 1978 blacks could not gain priesthood in the LDS Church. This was changed by Spencer W. Kimball when he was president of the Church.

    Prior to 1978 The Book of Mormon previously used the words; "White and delightsome" this was later changed to "Pure and delightsome"

    Mormons were taught that blacks could become white. (See 2 Nephi 30:6 and 3 Nephi 2:15)

    November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Bazoing

      More people should know this truth.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  16. Jim Massey

    You can never find any more hateful, ignorant and intolerant people than evangelical Christians especially from the sourth.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Not a mormon

      Amen to that brother.

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

      You sound so tolerant and hateful.....

      November 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  17. rybl101

    You hear the one about a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father and who sacrificed himself to himself so he could save you from an evil force within your soul that is present in humanity because he knowingly created a rib-molded woman who he knew would be convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  18. jlf2002

    But do any of the Mormons have maggots in their scrotum?

    ...go see the musical. It's hilarious.

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

    Was a cult, is a cult, will always be a cult. 2+2=4

    November 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • RELISH-1

      Thank you god, for clearing that up. I'm in awe of our omnipotence. Since when did you start blogging?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  20. mm

    No matter what color you are or how you try to spin it...if it sounds like a duck, looks like a duck and walks like a duck...IT'S A CULT!!!!!!!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Joe

      All religions are cults. Ignorance among our society is still growing.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Shovel Ready

      Well pretty much anything that you believe in if you live you life by it can be considered a CULT because it controls what you do and how you act how you think and believe. Christian, Islam, Catholic, Enviromentalism, Pagan, FREE your MIND and believe in nothing!!!!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Brody

      It is interesting how ignorant people are to the real truth. I being a member of The Church Of JESUS CHRIST Of Latter Day Saints appreciate all the non bias comments on the truth about our faith. Please inquire within the church so you know the real truth, we are not a CULT we are a religion who believes in Christ and we are Christian. We believe in agency and consequences based on that agency. I appreciate the church doing these campaigns, I know there will be some that actually have a desire to know the real truth about the church. I felt the article was a very good non bias perspective, we always appreciate that.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:05 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.