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. Sam

    Unfortunatly with thise comment board, there can be 500 posts by ONE person. Alot of the style seems to be the same, some angry person is filling it with some untrue comments. Little do they know, for each negative comment, there will be 20 comments from real, loving people to correct/fix/make right what you do wrong 🙂

    November 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  2. Lisa

    I can see the media is out to try to make Mormons look good. As an African American I lived in UT for 13 years. I have lived and worked along side many mormons. Yes, majority of Mormons are nice people. However it does not change their doctrine which teaches white supremacy. They believe black skin is a curse from God. So I don't care how many billboards they put up to trying to show the church diversity, it does not change that fact. Many minorities who are in the church are very confused and some overlook that part of their doctrine.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • unabashed Mormon

      Not sure where you learned that mormons are white supremists. I am Mormon and have lived all over. I don't understand why the priesthood was withheld but glad all of my male friends have it today. Frankly I am not sure why women are withheld but God knows. I know many of the modern day prophets and they are men of God.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Kodiac

      I have dark skin. Yet it does not bother me that the Mormon church is where it is today. Perhaps you are a bit insecure? Oh and I lived in Salt Lake for a while and have known minorities in the the Mormon Church and seemed to be very aware of the doctrine.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Ken

      Thank you for speaking the truth. According to church history and doctrine, you had to be white to go to the Mormon heaven, and this is what they also taught to Native Americans. Secondly, the church also said that African-Americans were "cursed" with the mark of Cain. I can't think of a single reason why a non-white would WANT to become Mormon, and I can't think of a reason any non-Americans would want to do so either.

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

      @unabashed Mormon, that "witheld priesthood" position that the LDS teaches is case in point underpinning of mormon theolgy that screams cult. That teachiing is false. Everytime.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Norm

      Another comment that's either woefully ill informed or an outright lie for whatever reason.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  3. david

    Who cares who is Mormon though, Mormons? Ad campaigns for religion??? What a waste of money for them. SO DUMB.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  4. John

    These commercials are freaking stupid, kinda like the Mormon's are.

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

      Do you mean morons ?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  5. Gauntletwielder

    Just go to Salt Lake City, Utah...it has the highest concentration of Mormons on the planet. It is also the whitest, and most boring, city in the USA. The town has no pulse after 2 PM on a Sunday. Salt Lake City is so creepy that it scares Hannibal Lechter.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • TX Girl

      You are wrong – less than 50% of Salt Lake is Mormon...

      November 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • DEXUS

      Actually, Salt Lake County has the lowest percentage of LDS residents in Utah.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  6. Loveit!

    Wow!! The LDS church has really got people talking. Love it or Hate it the "Mormon" church is here to stay. What happened to simple respect for others views? All the negative comments just bring more attention to the LDS faith and cause people to actually do some research and find out the truth for themselves. Bad publicity is STILL PUBLICITY!! 🙂

    November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • David, CA

      Bad publicity is not always a good thing... just ask the RCC and their ongoing abuse scandals....

      November 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • David, CA

      Here's some more truth about the moromon "faith"- They illegally funded Prop 8 to discriminate against a minority of American tax paying citizens and then refused to disclose funding as required by law.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • David, CA

      Here's some more truth about the moromon "faith"- the mormon church funds the National Organization for Marriage- a borderline hate group that opposes any civil rights gay and lesbian tax paying American citizens.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • David, CA

      Here's some more truth about the moromon "faith"- Shortly after organizing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1830, Joseph Smith Jr. revealed that the Second Coming of Christ was near (The end is near!!!) , that the City of Zion would be near the town of Independence in Jackson County, Missouri (Currently the Meth capital of the USA!!!) , and that his followers were destined to inherit the land held by the current settlers (Faith based Land grab.)

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • BK

      Good point but there's more at stake than someones simple personal view. If you knew a friend or a loved one was gonna join a system or group that will delude and marginalize that loved one's ability to discern truth for life, you might not be so obtuse.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  7. BK

    Why not have a national televised debate ( for those who care) between the historical/archeologica/SCRIPTUAL evidence of the book of mormon vs. The Bible. If the LDS is the TRUE church, they should have nothing to fear. Lets put this CULT thing to rest. Truth is, LDS wont do it cause they inherantly know something is wrong with thier scriptures and historical and archeological evidence. The entire LDS church needs to be deprogrammed.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • James

      The Bible is ancient myth and the Book of Mormon is 19th century myth. So what's the fuss?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • BK

      @James, Dude, free yourself from religious ignorance. Become informed and widen your worldview. You do yourself a diservice.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Ken

      Amen, brother/sister! I teach history and to state it plainly, there's no evidence PERIOD to verify ANYTHING claimed in the Book of Mormon. I made up a joke about this:
      What does O.J. Simpson and the Mormons have in common? Answer: DNA proves nothing!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • BK

      @Ken, Not one shred of evidence. That is not said enough. It's cliche to say I love LDS people while tearing down thier heretical teachings but I do love them. i'm just tired of no one stating the facts and bringing the argument to the forefront. Cause it's coming....big-time.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      The Mormons believe the Bible is the word of God, perhaps more than many other Christians. They use the King James Version in English, and teach it 50% of the time in Sunday School. This year all Mormons have been studying the New Testament. Mormons take the miracles of Jesus, his atoning sacrifice and resurrection, and his appearances to the apostles and others quite literally. Yiou can read the Mormon Bible–the KJV–at lds.org.

      The Book of Mormon does not oppose the Bible. Instead, it affirms that the miraculous things in the Bible are true, from the creation of the earth, to the splitting of the Red Sea, to the resurrection of Christ. It stands as a rebuke to people who claim the Bible is just myth and legend. It proclaims that Jesus Christ is Jehovah, the Creator, who gave the law to Moses, and then was born on earth in order to fulfill that law and open the path to salvation for all mankind. If you believe in the Bible, the Book of Mormon says, Good! It challenges you with the question, If you believe in Christ, don't you want to know all you can about Him? If there is a book that will teach you more about your Savior, would you reject it without even opening its pages, or seek it out?

      The Book of Mormon promises that if you read the Book of Mormon and seriously consider its teachings about the importance of humble faith in Christ, and then ask God the Father in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, if it is true, God will affirmatively answer you. Maybe you are too afraid of getting that answer, and won't even try the experiment. But those who have the courage have joined the Mormons, by the millions. They can testify that they recognize the same Christ in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon,

      November 2, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  8. StillTranscendingtheBS

    Still waiting for my skin to turn white after accepting the Mormon faith. What did Michael Jackson and Sammy Sosa have that I don't?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  9. CareJack

    I think mormon god is the true god. I am going to convert.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  10. waycist

    Whats wrong with being too white?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Perplexed1

      The poor dance skills.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • CareJack

      I think it is upto Pope Benedict to decide the validity of the mormon religion.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  11. anoneemus

    Mormons started out as a cult. Read up on their history and you'll see why nobody likes them, and why they were continually pushed further and further west. They would openly talk about how "non-believers" possessions would become theirs after they died during the rapture of some sort. I'd be hateful of them too

    November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • sltribreader

      Do you have a reference on the possession statement?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Rhett

      Read up on them using what sources? Could you please cite them for me so I can see how horrible the Mormon church is? Thanks!

      November 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  12. Norm

    If you don't personally KNOW any Mormons or have ever attended one of their church services, you should not be commenting here.
    Basically you have no idea whatsoever of what you're talking about so you only make yourself look ignorant.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • BK

      @norm, have friends, been to service, read book, cult.

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

      Soory, but I have dated a mormon and be to their church a few times. Best day in my life was when I dumped that woman and got away from her nutcase family and their joke of a church.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Don't get Snowballed by this cult!

    Run fast, run far from the koolaid the mormon church is trying to sell you. I grew up in Idaho where there are more mormons per capita than there are in Utah, and they are NOT right. Their goal is to take over the country/world, whatever they can get their greedy paws on. Why do you think their Maroni statue on top of the temples points to the headquarters in Utah, and that one points to the banks? Money. Period.

    FYI, only contractors who are in good standing with the church are allowed to work on their buildings.

    Lets not even get into the special garments they have to wear under their clothing.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • T

      Actually,the angel Moroni statues on top of the temples all point east no matter where in the world they are. But yes, I suppose you could say they point toward Utah...as long as they are west of Utah.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  14. Terrell

    May I refer you to: 2 Nephi – Chapter 5 – verses 20-25. Read the whole chapter if you wish. Why join a religion whose version of God loathes me and wills others to do the same? All for something one person did. Why curse all of the descendents? God could have killed Cain aome say and so it says in the Book of Mormon, so instead of wiping out that entire line of man (who was already white according to this so called scripture) lets curse them and bring stupidity and wildness, and mischief upon them and scorch their lands into deserts and turn them black!


    November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  15. WY

    Not something I would admit to. Never been a mormon, but have family members and friends that are. Sad to say but most of them don’t even know all of what all the church really believes. They are very good and hiding their true beliefs. They try to come across as main stream, but are far from it.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  16. The Fish

    The fish symbol you see on Christians cars comes from the Phonetician symbol for va jay jay........You tell a Christian where their worship really lies and the come up with some doozies to try and deflect the truth....It all goes back to Semiramis wife of Nimrod ( the original virgin birther). Actually, she gave birth to Tammuz long after nimrod died and to cover her tracks, she gave the story about him coming to her one night in spirit form of a bull.......This is probably where you get the virgin birth, cow worship, and holy spirit stories from.......

    November 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      References please?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  17. Carol

    I haven't said what I just posted, so I'll post it again. There isn't one Republican contender for President I would vote for today, they are too diversive, unbending, and troublesome people. Why do we have to be indoctrinated into a contenders religion in order to make up our minds to vote for or against him?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  18. My God's Bigger Than Yours

    Not saying I'm for or against anything here, but if an organization even feels the need to point out how racist they aren't, this is a bad way to go about it. Like that Christine O'Donnell "I'm not a witch" ad.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • twiddly

      I wonder how many non-white mormons are in line to rule their own planet when they die?
      Uh, that would be none. And, it goes wihout saying, of course no women.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Or Obama's "I'm not a Socialist" schpeil...

      November 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  19. Ferit

    like we didn't know that was their aim from the ads. why give them a free multimillion dollar ad campaign like this?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  20. Kareen

    Silly Silly Americans

    November 2, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • David, CA

      Amen to that LOL.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:39 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.