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.
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.”
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.”
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.
If they nees to call in the spin doctors, I know there is a problem. All religions are cults, just some cults kick it up a bit and there is not a spin doctor on the earth that will change my mind that these people a just crazy.
I always ask them when did it become acceptable to let Black people into the Mormon Faith when then they show up at my door.
Nothing good comes from religion,most of the problem in the World today as it's root in Religion.
RIGHT ON, NAIJA!!!!!!
I was always taught at church that every single person was loved by God and that we are all His spirit children and therefore, brothers and sisters. For years, though, people have lied and said black people were not allowed in the church, which is an abject lie. We then had to live with being called racist and all kinds of names because of those lies.
The answer is from the very beginning. Mormons were driven from Missouri for being anti-slavery, by the way. Just thought you'd like to know that.
Mormons believe that god was a human and now lives on planet Kolob with his many wives. they teach that if you are a good mormon, you will be a god and given your own planet to rule over in the "celestial kingdom" this is a FAR cry from Christian teachings and beliefs.
They will steal your wife posthumously for their celestial harem!!
Google "mormon posthumous sealing" 😉
If you want to learn the truth about who Mormons are and what they are about from a primary source rather than a secondary one visit http://www.mormon.org.
Theres nothing magic about any of those things. They are sacred, just like the garments and clothes worn by those preists in the old testament. They remind us of the commitment we made to God, to be good people and to keep his commandments. Yeah that might sound strange if you are immersed in 2011 media trash like south park, family guy, and desperate housewives. But if you read your scriptures, pray, and listen to your heart AND mind. Suddenly those things make sense and you will realize that God is real and how he deals with us as his children and not the things you learn on the TV. And no self respecting mormon wouldnt talk about Kolob! We even have a song about it. Why be stuck on the name? Some people call it the gates peter waits at? I'm sure other religions have other names for it. You could fight, get angry, stomp on it, but Gods work will always go forth and we will with a smile and continue inviting you 🙂
WHen you really stop and think about it, what matters most in life is how we treat others and learning to love unconditionally. Mormon's aren't perfect, but as a whole they are some of the kindest people I know here in Phoenix. Can't we all just get along??... we are afterall, brothers and sisters.
Lots of Mormon women love to pose in the buff... check it out on Google.... age 18+ only
LOL – Mormons didn't allow blacks, or any people of color, until as late as 1978 – over 10 years after the Civil Rights Act. 🙁
In 1978 the IRS threatened their tax free status. Suddenly the "prophet" had a "vision" to allow people of color.
Google "Mormon 1978 black people"
It's amazing what the power of money can do. 😉
and were all evangelicals and other religions pure as the driven snow before and after after civil rights?
The decision in 1978 had nothing to do with the IRS and money. It was an inspired revelation given in a time when racism and civil rights were a major issue, for reasons unknown. People can speculate about why, but that's all it will amount to. I am personally grateful that this decision was made and know it was because God acted through His prophet and the blessings of salvation are available to all; this is what is important. God bless.
This is untrue. The IRS has no power to pick and choose which religion gets tax exempt status. And when Mormon leaders researched the history of the church they found no doctrinal backup for discrimination against blacks, so they prayed and they did get inspiration from God to end the practice against keeping blacks from the priesthood. The process began in the 1950's when the church set up a discussion group with black mormons. The church changes slowly, but it does change. It does everything carefully and with close communication with God. Please visit blacklds.org
"The IRS has no power to pick and choose which religion gets tax exempt status."
Here's a thought: NO RELIGION SHOULD GET TAX EXEMPT STATUS".
see job.Bradshaw@live.com see his notes for ive never seen anything like it in this life time ................ to any of mankind that talks bad about ones releigion may u find depressions for the mormans do alot more for christ sake than the so called christians as i was fellowshipping with a women this morning and she was slandering this people what a fool .. he mouth is the curse for her weight problem for THY GOD deals with his own
It's funny how something is only seen as negative if it's "too white." Nobody ever says anything is too black or too Asian.
u are so right nobody every complains about being to black maybe our GOD will bring back the people that honor his name instead of talking about whites and how they can pimp a white girl maybe the klan will make some headlines soon
Like it or not...in America 'white' is still the majority. Just look around most mediums are predomately white. Additonally, minorities don't exclude other races...it's usually other races that don't want to participate because they are minority identified.
Minorities don't exclude people? Have you ever been a white person walking into a predominantly asian event? Or have you ever been a white person living in the deep-south backwoods Mississippi? I have. It's not pretty
The embarrassing truth about Mormonism is their origins in racism. Read the following quotation. It's an extract from Journal of Discourses, spoken by Brigham Young:
"You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. The first man that committed the odious crime of killing one of his brethren will be cursed the longest of any one of the children of Adam. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race–that they should be the "servant of servants;" and they will be, until that curse is removed." - Brigham Young – President and second 'Prophet' of the Mormon Church, 1844-1877
And the evangelicals and other religions were any better in the 1800s?
Yeah... and Catholics used to behead people. Get over it. People change. Religions grow up. I for one, am greatful to live in a free society where I can worship God as I desire. Let them all worship as they see fit. I love America!
Mormonism is docturinally incorrect and no amount of mass marketing will change that.
You want to know the truth about Mormon doctrine? Visit http://www.mormon.org for first hand information instead of second hand sources for speculation and opinion.
Wow, CNN, way to advertise for a non-Christian religion! No association with Christianity when you look at their real beliefs (they're all gods, satan is Jesus' brother, three layers of heaven...) Definitely nice, clean cut folks, family oriented, but definitely not Christians in their beliefs....
Let me take your claims one at a time. We do not believe we are all gods. We do believe we, and all of humanity, are his children. I believe that is consistent with every Christian religion of which I am aware. We believe we can become like him through the sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ and as we repent and strive to keep his commandments. I think God wants all of us to progress and become more like him and his son. I don't think any Christians would disagree with any of this.
We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I believe that is consistent with all Christian faiths. As I said above, we also believe that all of us are God's children which makes us siblings with Jesus Christ. He is our older brother. We also believe that Satan is real and not some made up character. That like us and Jesus, he was created by God, but unlike Jesus, he rebelled and chose to not follow God's plan and has been fighting against God ever since. If you believe that all things of which we are aware were created by God (including Satan), and that Jesus is God's son, then Satan is in some sense his brother. None of this seems inconsistent with Christian teachings unless you know of some other explanation for the origins of Satan. I don't know why you raise this as an issue since I know of no Christian teaching that contradicts this point.
Lastly, Jesus said, "In my fathers home, there are many mansions" – John 14:2. Jesus was referring to the places in heaven where we may go after this life. You point to the fact that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe there are different parts of heaven as evidence of the fact that we are not Christian, yet Christ himself said there were many different places in heaven.
If you really want to know what we believe, talk to a Mormon. Though I am not personally concerned that you think we are not Christian based on the examples you gave (which I tried to address above), I cannot let your assertions go unchallenged. We believe Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. We believe it is only through his sacrifice that we can obtain forgiveness of our sins and eventually return to live with him and God in Heaven. We believe the Bible is the word of God. We also believe that God has spoken to his children in other parts of the world and not just those in the old world and that those he spoke to created additional scripture which we call the Book of Mormon (named after the ancient prohet who abridged and compiled the writings of other prophets together). We believe that God still loves his children and that in addition to giving us the writings contained in the Bible and the Book of Mormon he has a prophet on earth today just as he did in times of old. The tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are as Christian as they come. Anyone undertaking a serious study of what we as members believe would know that we strive to be in every sense possible followers of Christ or Christians.
Wow, well put L&C.
According to the dictionary on my desk, the word Christian means "Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus."
As Mormons we believe in Christ and strive to live by His teachings. We believe that "there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent." – From the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3:17.
It has never made sense to me why people would say that Mormons are not Christians. The name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You may disagree with some points of doctrine but unless the definition of the word Christian changes in the English language, it is false to claim that Mormons are not Christians.
I had no problem with Mormons - until they got away with all their tax-free support of the discrimintory Proposition 8. Now I wouldn't give a hungry Mormon a crust of bread. What goes around comes around, you holier-than-thou bigots.
So good Samaritan you are not!!!
I don't agree with what they did, but come on, they're a church. Any other church would have done the same.
Couldn't agree with you more, Jodey. Having lived in Salt Lake City for a while, I can say that Mormons are very nice people. But bat sh!t crazy. And apparently not happy politically until everyone else is JUST. LIKE. THEM.
It's funny how the mormons are the scapegoats for prop 8, when they were only a small part of many churches and organizations involved. Mormons make up 2% of californians–think they really have that much influence all by themselves?
The Mormons were one of MANY churches fighting against proposition 8. Better pull out a whole quiver of arrows if you are going to start shooting.
The LDS Church definitely led the charge. They provided the most volunteers and the most money out of all the churches.
To Eric, the author of this story:
I think it's a bit naive to believe the Mormon church when they say that this advertising campaign is not political. The church has come under scrutiny for it's financial backing of campaigns promoting anti-gay marriage legislation. And I don't think it's any coincidence that the Mormon church is running these ads now when one of the most popular Republican presidential candidates is a Mormon. They saw what happened in the last presidential primaries and that there was a somewhat negative perception of Romney's faith.
I personally am very accepting of all religions including Mormonism. I would have no problem voting for a Mormon, Catholic, Christian or Muslim based on their faith. However, I do have family that live in Utah where there is a high percentage of Mormons. My family members have been discriminated against because they are not Mormon. The Mormon families have told their children not to play with my nieces and nephew. My sister and brother-in-law, working for separate companies, have been denied promotions at work because they are not Mormon (all the leadership positions are held by Mormons and the only people who are promoted in are Mormon).
While I think the Mormon faith is pure, this group of people has a clear track record of giving "favors" to their fellow church members while discriminating against people of other faiths. I don't know that this is something that Romney would do, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned that if he were President that he would disproportionately favor Mormons in his cabinet and provide favors that would benefit the Mormon church.
"I don't know that this is something that Romney would do, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned that if he were President that he would disproportionately favor Mormons in his cabinet and provide favors that would benefit the Mormon church."
Who? Harry Reid? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!
Joseph Smith was a drunken outlaw.. How he was able to convince so many people he was a messenger of God is a Steve Jobs like achievement.
Have you ever studied anything besides hearsay about Joseph Smith? Obviously not.
If anyone is really interested in learning about who Joseph Smith was and what the Mormon Church is about visit http://www.mormon.org for accurate information that isn't opinion and speculation.
You probably should research Joseph Smith a little more. He lived a faithful, sincere and Christ-like life. He was murdered by drunken outlaws. To this day, his character is equally assasinated by the ignorant as it is honored by the faithful. Man can only serve 1 master. He chose to honor the trust bestowed upon him by the Lord in bringing forth His work. It cost him comfort, happiness, freedom and ultimately his life. Joseph's "works" were good and decent. The proof of his goodness is found in the decent Mormon people everywhere who are blessed today because of his courage so many years ago
Joseph Smith was definitely an interesting person. However, most LDS people realize that the story given by Mormon.org omits details of Joseph's life. Joseph Smith used peep-stones, drank alcohol, practiced polygamy, and lied to Emma about it. Books by Mormon scholars address these aspects of him, but they are blaringly absent from Mormon.org.
Mormons as well as Muslims follow 2 "divine books", Mormons have a science-fiction novel "The Book of Mormon" and Muslims follow a poetry book "The Quran". Both had questionable founders who were polygamist, violent, cruel, discriminatory, intolerant and autocratic with lack of basic ethical and moral standards. Although, nowadays Mormons are really good people, their religion is without historical foundations, contradictions and common sense. I wish the majority of Catholics have the same conduct as Mormons and Mormons have the same theology as Catholics.
I would like to point out that The Book of Mormon is not science fiction, and Joseph Smith was not violent or cruel, but thank you for saying that Mormons are good people.
"the church wants to steer clear of politics"
After 20+ years living in Utah, are they serious?? That's all the LDS church does is meddle in politics. What a farce!
I'm sure this has something to do with Mitt Romney running for President and it's fine if they want to try to show everyone how "normal" they are. But they just better stay off my dang porch.
Let's not forget that the Mormons UP UNTIL 1978, over a decade after the civil rights amendment believed that African Americans were "cursed" to have black skin and couldn't go into the highest heaven Morms believe in. There is even a Mormon story of a black man beling "healed" of his dark skinned curse. Don't believe me....look it up. I live in Salt Lake....believe me....its Vanilla Land!!!!
Not true. There's also lots of Hispanics.
Vanilla Land? Obviously you are ignoring the very large hispanic, latino, south american, polynesian, asian, black, afro-carribean, african, communities in SLC- maybe you have never traveled outside of your "white" neighborhood. Statistically, the LDS church cannot be defined as a "white church" anymore, since the majority of the church is outside of the "white" countries of N.America, Europe. etc... Like every other church it is subject to demographic shifts.
I am repulsed, but not surprised, by most of the comments I have read on this post. It makes sense that you don't agree with the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints if you aren't a member of it, whether a member of some other Christian faith, an ex-member, or an atheist, etc. Arguing for any side of this on this posting is beyond pointless. The diversity of the Church today cannot be denied, nor can the misconceptions most people hold of what the Church believes & why, nor those things which are unique to the LDS Church. Some of people's issues are actually cultural arguments rather than doctrinal, some or based on doctrinal misconceptions, & some are aimed at religion in general rather than the Mormons specifically. Name-calling doesn't contribute to this discussion, nor does touting yourself as some sort of final answer on the subject. The world is changing, the Church is changing, people's views on the Church are changing for better or worse; being hateful in this discussion only makes you look like a bigot or an idiot, which doesn't help you in defending your views either. This post wasn't about right or wrong, truth or lies; it was about the unbiased reality of the Church in the world today.
Thats alot of talk Andy; yet when a religion such as LDS tells a dark skin person that you are curse and now they have a magical way of removing the curse for dark skin person seem to me a way to bring more revenue into the church. And the advertising directed to dark skin people is backwards from the LDS rules of inclusion because there was a time dark skin people could not be member or event enter into that fancy church building in Salt Lake. This is not name calling or finger pointing just facts.