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. BigBoy

    What a racist headline. "Lily white"?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  2. Mahna Mahna

    Mormons white? Mormons are mostly illegal Mexicans converted from Catholicism so they would be accepted by communities in the Southern US.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  3. CoryB

    I personally get very annoyed with this Ad Campaign only Because I Didn't know that a Religion was something to market. and who cares if Joe Fisherman or Bob the Builder are Mormon...

    November 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  4. starrface

    Well said Phil!!

    November 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  5. StillTranscendingtheBS

    Mormons have been deluded by the ultimate old-school deception: that we can become Gods. I mean seriously...that through our good works we can someday populate our own planet...if the husband chooses to "call up" his wife? I'm sure the feminists must love this.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  6. Bob

    Yes, they can find people to be hypocritical, judgmental, bigots among all races.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  7. Snow

    They did not accept others into their cult earliar. They started off as a polygamist cult that was oh so interested in the divine love for teenagers (or even before). They laid out their rules according to their racist agenda..

    Now just because they began accepting others for the fear of the law and retracting those doctrines that made them look like the morons they were, does not make their agenda any correct.. so why should anyone follow the religious agenda of a bunch of per.verted racist morons?

    November 2, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  8. Dave

    You will find many haters in these comments. My suggestion? Go to mormon.org, read up on what Mormons ACTUALLY believe, read the Book of Mormon, and decide for yourself. I did. I know it's true. Sure there are people that have wronged me in the church in the states in which I have lived. But I have found that a majority of people are there because they believe in Jesus Christ, and want to do better, and are generally good people. I'm Dave, and I'm a Mormon. 🙂

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

      Dave, I grew up in that cult and it is NOT the people that are wrong, ITS THE CHURCH! Its all made up, 100% of it.

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

      they believe that god was a human and now lives on planet Kolob with his many wives. this is NOT Christianity and only revealed to upper level priesthood holders

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


      November 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • JoeF

      I would like to agree with Dave. The best place to go to learn about this church is from this church. And I would say to ask the tough questions! Many of these posts are filled with half truths and outright lies about what the LDS church's history is and what they believe in. I have also been insulted or treated poorly by Mormons before in wards I have been in. It is the exception and not the rule. I have also been insulted by Catholics, Baptists, Buddhists and Hindu's but I haven't gone on a hate filled rant about it. How about some class? How about some respect? Even if you think Mormons are deluded and you are trying to "save them from their ignorance", do you think that insulting them is the best way to do so?

      I would argue that any who are trying to "save" people by insulting them are at worst missing the point of the Savior's message and at worst purposefully masquerading their hatred as concern.

      The people of my church are kind, charitable, friendly, giving and Christ-like. I am Joseph and I am a Mormon

      November 2, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  9. CMC

    They are a tax-free political action group. Nothing more.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  10. troy

    Huh???? Mormons wouldn't allow blacks into their church in the late 1970's, and they still believe that blacks and non-whites are born naturally evil. I can't believe CNN continues to try to advocate for Romney and his cult "religion".

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

      That's not true at all. Just because your pastor showed you a "shock-u-mentary" doesn't mean that you know mormon doctrines and beliefs.

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

      In my 30 years in the church I have never heard or seen anything to indicate the Mormons believe blacks and non-whites to be born "naturally evil". I'm certain you have no credible sources. . . Are there racist Mormons? Sure. Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints racist in any way, shape, or form? Nope.

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

      I've known many Mormons and they always treated me with respect but le's not forget that racisim is everywhere. I used to live in Idaho and joked that I knew every black person in the state but in reality it was not a joke.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  11. Mack

    Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life...No One comes to the Father except through Me...

    Luke 9:23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

    Matthew 7:15 "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.

    Questions about the difference??? Read this great blog...better yet, read the BIBLE!

    Another great resource: http://www.concernedchristians.com/

    November 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Lead-Eeyah

      You're so right! I'm on the Old Testament right now, and it strengthens my faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his restored Church every day! Thanks for your support!

      A Mormon

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

      To Lead-Eeyah.....

      I hope you know and understand (although, I cannot always detect sarcasm through e-mail). that I was not, in any way shape or form, supporting the Mormon belief. The Bible, the TRUE and ONLY word of God is very specific in telling us that Jesus is the Only way to Heaven and all other teachings (i.e. Mormonism) is false and only leads to destruction.
      If I misunderstood your comment, I truly apologize! If I did not, re-read your bible (Old and New testament) and you will see that Joseph Smilth was and is a false teacher!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • JoeF

      I agree with you Mack! Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and

      "the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, and mercy, and truth. And behold, it is he that cometh to take away the sins of the world, yea, the sins of every man who steadfastly believeth on his name"

      Alma 5:48

      We do not believe Joseph Smith is our Savior. He is a Prophet of God, who heard is voice and restored his Gospel.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  12. anothersmith

    I can't believe people give a "Moronism" acceptance. Read who these crackpots are! John Smith was a con-man criminal. Not run off from the East coast because of his religion BUT BECAUSE HE WAS A CON-MAN! Just because his children made an idol out of him and B.Young et.al. doesn't mean it deserves anything except to be called a cult. IT IS A CULT just like sci-fi scientology. But then again the saying here applies, "there's a sucker born every minute".

    November 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Lead-Eeyah

      Ummm... You mean Joseph Smith, right? Because John Smith was the one Pocahontas had a thing for. Just saying.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Kyle

      Not to be too critical, but this is like asking a Ford guy about their opinion of Dodges. It is Joseph Smith, not John Smith.

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

    Look up the quorom of twelve apostles. If the mormon church is not racist, show me a picture of anyone of color in that group. There are none...ever.

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

      You are half right. Right NOW there quorum of the 12 is all white men. Of course, since each is called for life, there is an opening in the quorum of the 12 about every 3-4 years. The men who serve on the 12 have a lifetime of service to the church. Which brings us to where you are half wrong. Unless you have a crystal ball or some other way to tell the future, you have no way of knowing who will serve on the 12.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • jc

      the 12 apostles is a sign of the true church as that is the way christ set it up when he was on the earth. Please show me another church with 12 apostles. the bible says the christ set up the churchwith 12 apostles.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Xgirl360

      That's coming. There are blacks, asians, latinos and polynesians in the 70s and area authorities. I know that I'll see diversity in the apostles in my lifetime. I used to think I'd never see a woman president or a black president. Time moves forward and no one is can stand against it.

      I may even see a day where women are accepted into the priesthood. I can almost see that happening in the LDS Church before I would see it in the Russian Orthodox Church. (my former church)

      In the end though, I don't want someone picked because of their race. I want them called because they are the best person for the job.

      November 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  14. waycist

    The whiter the better as far as I'm concerned, that goes for schools,,neighborhoods and nations as well,,,and there is a lot of data to back this up.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  15. mSfIxIt


    November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  16. Yourmom

    Just because your religion has all different ethnic types doesn't mean that you're not all nut jobs.

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


      November 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  17. TommyD

    Notice the angle of the picture of the people in the pews. The Church doesn't allow photos during meeting. I'm sure the photographer knew this but disrespected it just the same.

    November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  18. JMorgan

    I am a Mormon and I hope that people understand that the garbage that you are posting on these comments is unjustified. Read the Book of Mormon if you want to know if it is true and ask God in Prayer. Anyone can post anything on the internet and it is taken as truth. Remember what Christ taught "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God." And remember "By their fruits ye shall know them." God bless America and long may we stand for good as brothers and sisters whatever religion we profess.

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

      Sorry, can't hear you over the fact that your church worked so hard to tell me that I'm a lesser person because I love who I love as consenting adults. Don't whine about being mistreated when your church sponsors laws solely designed to do harm to people you don't know.

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

      Scientology > Mormonism

      We have a better advertising department, and Tom Cruise, too.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • unabashed Mormon

      Well said

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

      Some people weren't that close to Christ when he was on the mound. It is now believed that Christ actually said "Blessed are the cheese makers". Although that could refer to any maker of dairy products.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • StillTranscendingtheBS

      i don't understand this language ye are speaking...

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

      Mormonism is a cult and not legitimate. Book of Morons is more to the truth and trash novel at best.
      People will believe ANYTHING. Stupid 144k believer.

      November 2, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  19. Me

    How shallow does a person have to be....Just like any religion it preaches to all different types of people and I can't believe this is an issue in this day and age. Grow up

    November 2, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  20. Deputy Martin

    ....and Joseph Smith found 4 gold tables, dum dum dum dum dum

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

      hahaha. Long live SouthPark

      November 2, 2011 at 3:54 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.