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. fromann

    mormonism is a cult

    November 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • whatever

      All religion is a cult.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Albert

    They are still not Christians.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Truth

      We believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. The bible is the word of God.... is that not christian?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • jason

      They are Christians, the name of their church has Christs name in it...... Why would they do that unless they were Christians?
      Why are people so ignorant when it comes to Mormons?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Annatala

      Absolutely! Christians are people who not only believe in Jesus, but also wear red clothing every day, as symbolic of the blood of Jesus. I say that's what a Christian is, so you're not a Christian if you don't agree.

      Oh wait, I forgot: I only get to tell people "what they are" if I have a demonimation of idiots who agree with me. Never mind.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  3. Doris

    Move along now nothing to see, CNN did not just print the most racist anti Mormon headline ever. These people call themselves journalists?

    November 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • nepawoods

      How is it either racist or anti-Mormon?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  4. dont ask

    Religion just gives people an excuse not to think, discover, ask questions, or be accountable for their actions. They reduce themselves to sheep playing follow the leader.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • TommyD

      You do not know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Being a member is not easy or simple. Did you understand what was meant by "lay"? No one gets paid. The Church is operated by its members. No Leaders drawing his/her pay check. And we are indeed held responsible for our actions and are responsible to help ALL others.
      But we are blessed more than we could ever give.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • TR6

      @TommyD: Are you saying that even the high ups in the Mormon Church receive no economic benefit from the church? Or are you lying by omission and just saying they don’t get a formal pay check?

      November 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  5. TheMovieFan

    Mormons are nice people but I still won't vote for Mitt Romney...and my reasons have nothing to do with his religion.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  6. JRev

    It's about time we have a president that wears magic underwear.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • jason

      Does your religion believe in free balling it?
      Yeah they wear underwear, made of.... wait for it....... Cotton! Oh no!!!!! .... big deal

      November 2, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Jeannot

    The lower your IQ, the firmer your beliefs are. The higher your IQ, the more you question things and the less you tolerate people forcing ideas on others. Mensa members are majority agnostics.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • jason

      Because it's how smart you are that determines how good you are....
      Worldly intelligence has nothing to do with religion

      November 2, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • kls817

      I'm a Mensa member with a degree in biochemistry. To think that the extremely complex biological process simply created themselves is ridiculous. Also, how does anyone with an open mind explain the near-death experiences that have been reported by millions of people.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • unabashed Mormon

      Interesting thesis. My colleagues and I all have phds and faiths. Some find religion elightening. Big bang, evolution will change tomorrow. God does not change.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Jeannot

      How can you be a member of Mensa and be comfortable with the leap of logic between near-death experiences and religion?

      Of course God does not change, it's your creation!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • HellBent

      "To think that the extremely complex biological process simply created themselves is ridiculous."
      -No, it isn't. Maybe if you're really short sighted, or unimaginative it is. What certainly isn't intelligent is humans having an appendix. I'm calling total BS that you're an actual biochemist.

      "Also, how does anyone with an open mind explain the near-death experiences that have been reported by millions of people."
      By replicating them in the lab by stimulating different parts of the brain. This has already been done. Lots of people also claim they've been abducted by aliens. Or have seen mermaids. Do you also consider these accounts to be based in fact?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @kls817: I'll bet dollars to donuts you're lying.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • kls817

      Jeannot and Hellbent:
      Yes I'm real biochemist. Jenaot: explain the evolutionary advantage of near death experiences (yes I do believe in evolution by the way)?
      Hellbent: explain why life hasn't been created in a lab under even the most controlled conditions and then explain how life assembled itself on its own.
      I used to be an athiest myself (as a teenager) and know where you are coming from. I just grew out of it. Both of you have your own 'faiths' and have closed your mind to logic.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • TR6

      @kls817 : “near-death experiences that have been reported by millions of people.” Millions of people? Are we making up statistics again? Or will you post reliable references?

      November 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Michael M

      Big problem with your argument, according to the US Gov. own research and that of several colleges, Mormons are by far the most well educated people in the US. They hold advanced degrees in greater numbers than any other group in the US.

      In other words, the group of people who are highly educated, who are known for being great business leaders, and creators of jobs and new inventions, who dominate higher learning and dominate honors programs per capita are also the most active in terms of religious participation, the greatest percentage of donated time in service, and who donate more money than any other group per capita are somehow not as smart as you?

      Looks like you are the one who needs to do a little more homework.

      November 6, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
  8. informed

    I could never be involved in a culture that felt I was cursed because of the color of my skin.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Jeannot

      I hope you're not green.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Truth

      we don't believe that, didn't you read the article? mormon.org

      November 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • bluemax77

      That’s every culture...

      November 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  9. bluemax77

    I know really..! I’ve never seen a Mormon Fly Fish in my life – there’s no money in it...!!

    November 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Michael M

      Really? I guess you go around and ask every fly fishermen their religious affiliation? Like any other group of people many Mormons have many hobbies and I personally know tons of Mormons who fly fish. I'm not one of them I have other hobbies. But then again your assumption that all Mormons are interested in money or wealthy could not be further from the truth either.

      Sure some of the successful ones get attention, just like in any other group of people. No one cares about the ordinary folks.

      November 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  10. Annatala

    Although Mormons have many religious schools, I'm aware they eschew "magnet schools" for lack of evidence on effectiveness or operation. Recently when questioned on this, Thomas Monson replied: "Magnet schools...how do they work?"

    November 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  11. Joanna

    Sometimes you have to take a bite out of the apple to know if it really tastes good. As a member of 'The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints', I can only say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is love, peace, joy, and happiness. The Church invites all- male and female, black and white, bond or free, to partake of this fruit. Anyone claiming to understand us, should first try to understand our faith (www.mormon.org)- not hate for what you may think we believe. There's nothing to be afraid of. It's all true – it's all beautiful – it's all of God. This Church has brought me more joy, and understanding, peace and confidence than anything else. We invite ALL to come unto Christ, and to feel of His love. Come and see.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Jeannot

      I am agnostic and favor love, peace, joy, and happiness. What I favor and you don't, is freedom of thought.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Brian

      @Jeannot Except when it comes to people who choose religion, right?

      November 2, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • TR6

      @Joanna: ”Sometimes you have to take a bite out of the apple to know if it really tastes good”
      So you’re willing to take a bite out of SHTI to know if it really tastes good?

      November 3, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  12. temple questions

    here is a good neutral site about Mormon religion written by an ex-missionary http://www.lds4u.com

    November 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • lori

      Not a neutral site.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • temple questions

      Just because the site does not have " halleluja" in every sentence does not make it a non-neutral. It is the best investigator's guide to Mormon religion there is.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • nj

      I'm sure you mean well, but this is not neutral. If you want to know the truth about God, go to God directly. Read what He has revealed through His servants, the prophets, and ask Him yourself. Don't ask me. Ask God. And don't go about it in a fake, wimpy sort of way. If you're going to comment about someone else's religion, do some serious homework and go to reputable sources. I do not go to a Presbyterian to learn about Catholicism or vice versa. Mind you, I have known both throughout my life and have never felt any fear or aversion to them being my friends. I do not judge anyone for them being whatever their religion is. Please do not judge what you do not fully understand. It is possible that the day may come when you will wish you had been more courageous and less fearful of what you were too afraid to find out. I hope not. What we offer to the world is meant and intended in all sincerity with deep love and concern for others. I offer that to anyone and invite all to come unto Christ with full-purpose of heart and a desire to Follow HIM.

      November 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  13. queenbee

    Joseph Smith was a con man – read about the Kirtland Bank failure...in the New Testament of the bible, Jesus says that there are no husbands and wives in heaven–which makes sense when you realize that with no earthly bodies , the earthly ideas and ties would make NO SENSE. (Jesus responded to a challenging question when the Sadducees tried to trip him up on asking who would a woman's husband be in heaven if the first died then she remarried and when she died all 3 were in heaven) Little things like this–really underline some of the fake stuff in any religion.

    Common sense says that "marriage" is a human state for human bodies and relationships and would not be the same or exist at all in the spirit world which is why the idea of 72 "virgins" makes no sense since there probably is no gender in a spirit and definitely that fleshy bit that would like a virgin would have rotten away with the rest of the natural body.

    it makes about as much sense as promising streets "paved of gold" as if anyone in heaven without a need to eat, drink , sleep or buy stuff would need gold or have any connection to an earthly mineral.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • sara

      Funny how you will spend time researching supposed faults with Joseph Smith but you won't take the time to read the Book of Mormon to learn what they really believe.
      Of course people will hate on Joseph Smith, people always be angry at men of God... people always hate on prophets. It's how people are

      November 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  14. Phil

    "I'm going to create man and woman with original sin. Then I'm going to impregnate a woman with myself as her child so that I can be born. Once alive, I will kill myself as a sacrifice to myself - to save you from the sin I originally condemned you to".

    Ta dah!

    Only man could come up with the idea of god. If there really were a god and satan existed, god would easily be able to eliminate him...but what good would that do? You have to have the other side to balance things out, otherwise it would fall apart. It's no different than a comic book villain who never dies.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Leroy McMath

      You get no magic panties. YOU RACIST!!!!!!

      November 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Norasusan

      You are ridiculing Christians, which is your right because we have free speech in America. However since humans evolved into sentient beings, they have always believed in something greater than themselves. You can call it God, Jesus, Allah, the Great Spirit, etc., and each faith believe(ed) in something beyond our earthly lives. You don't believe in God, but that's okay because He believes in you.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • queenbee

      You are confused. Man and woman were not created with "Original Sin"

      God the Father dictated that since Sin was death the only way to nullify it was with the sacrifice of life but when evil became too great there was no sacrifice large enough to "cover the sin " of the world so He was going to destroy it. Then a call went out for one of the angels or someone (anyone) to be a sacrifice but none were great enough to cover the sin, then that aspect of the Godhead which was called "The Word, but also called the Lamb of God" offered Himself up and God the father (the first aspect, there are 3) accepted The Word as The Lamb. Then God the Holy Spirit (quickened the womb of an ordinary woman so that she could receive a child not created by a man) WHY BOTHER?

      Because God (all 3 had created this world with certain rules)

      1. all beings must be fruitful and multiply and seek God (but they may not know that is what they are seeking, they will think they are seeking "happiness or their soulmate or life's truths)

      2. To exist on this plane in a corporeal body, all humans must be born of a woman and must die to leave this plane of existence

      3. All people must have choice in how they seek or serve God or even if they serve Him at all

      4. Those who diligently seek and want to know Him (no matter what they call Him) shall find Him and they shall have a shot at eternal life

      5. Those who do not seek him and do not want to know Him will not know Him and will not have eternal life

      6. The wages of Sin are death and that everything has a balance–the balance against Sin is life–

      7. God is Perfect–this does not say God is all good–though He has all good within Himself It says He holds all good and evil ("Know ye not that I created both Good and Evil?"

      8. God is 3 aspects (similar to our government being 3 bodies) God the Father is the creator he thinks up things –God the Son is "The Word" his speaking validates the creative aspect , God the Holy Spirit, this part of God transforms things and brings them into realization.

      The 3 are ONE and the aspects of the 3 are the essence of faith.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • nympha

      Man/woman were not created by original sin. Sin is a product of the fallen angel, Satan. Satan tempted Adam/Eve and they fell for it. Their disobedience was the introduction of sin into this world. God did not make them do it. "Free Will".

      November 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • queenbee

      The original sin was a "choice" and from that like from all other choices–all the other possibilities and outcomes have sprung on every plane where God is conducting this same experiment. BTW–YOU are failing.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • queenbee

      Nora: God does not believe in humans, He considers them–that is something different. He already knows what each of us will do and already knows the outcome of our little experiment (we are not the only ones or the only place or only plane He is doing this same thing on) He CONSIDERS us and in that consideration is grace, tolerance and yeah–in the end, a judging He will not keep what is an untried or defective vessel.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  15. Dear Everyone,

    Disagree nicely. Don't accuse. Check your sources. Get to know a Mormon and see that we're not crazy/bigots/polygamists/racists/cult members (even if you disagree with the teachings).

    November 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Phil

      Let me post this again...this is how a majority of us feel about religion...especially the mormons.


      November 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  16. Brad

    This is news only inasmuch as it is geared toward making Romney more palatable to the masses.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Stephanie

      wow - seriously insightful, especialy given the timing . . .

      November 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  17. John

    When Mormons can produce the supposed golden tablets polygamist Joseph Smith receive maybe I will look at the Mormon cult with some interest . Until then Mormons need to go after their polygamists in states like Utah and Arizona.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Truth

      Members of the LDS church are not polygamist... read the first three pages of the Book of Mormon and you'll read testimonies of people who saw, touched, and read the plates. you interested yet?

      November 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Tony

      The polygamists aren't Mormons. It's up to the state to go after them. So go talk to your state representatives in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and wherever else the polygamists are at so they can do something about it.

      However, you'll most often find that they aren't breaking any laws. In most cases the man will marry the wives in an unofficial ceremony, and so aren't officially married, hence not polygamists. In other cases the man will marry a wife, divorce her and married the 2nd, and so on. They continue to live with the current and previous wives. There is no law breaking being done. This is why the states have a hard time prosecuting them.

      November 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • sara

      That's as dumb as saying you won't be Christian until you see the tablets with the 10 commandments on them.
      Go read the definition of cult, stop being ignorant

      November 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  18. Bob

    Mormon beliefs and practices are no more ridiculous than most other religions. All religions are ridiculous, but it's harder to realize how silly your beliefs are when youve been raised with them all your life. We're all atheists, when it comes to the faith of others. Some of us just happen to believe in one religion less.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  19. derp

    "Mormons fight lily-white image" – next fight the 'crazy' image. Good luck with that one, and that goes out to ALL religions. Your numbers are dwindling as common sense and good ol' science is taking over. Ba bye fantasy land, hello reality.

    November 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  20. trice

    Oh, now since ROMNEY is giving out the LDS koolaid – BILLBOARDS reflecting every nationality known under the MOON and SUn start showing up all over America –
    Yeah, right – LDS church has always/always will be a CULT of white men who think that when they die, they will be a GOD...
    Oh, okay. lol lol lol I believe in God's son, Jesus Christ and him crucified and whoever finds salvation, will have everlasting life and be with God the father.... We will celebrate with the angels... Joseph Smith was high on something – to take all those wives... So sad – America, AWAKEN!

    November 2, 2011 at 4:08 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.