I am a Mormon?
Shannon L. Smith
Jenna Kim Jones is living the kind of
life that would make a hip young college graduate as green with envy as the
logo on her Venti Starbucks cup. An aspiring comedian living in New York
City, she graduated from NYU and scored a coveted job with The Daily Show
with Jon Stewart, while practicing her own comedy routine on the side.
She is young, scrappy, and driven. She prides herself on being a New Yorker.
She loves making people laugh.
She is also a Mormon.
If you are surprised, that’s the point.
Jenna shares her story as part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints’ “I am a Mormon” advertising campaign, prominent on television,
billboards, and YouTube. The campaign, which features cool, exemplary
Mormons sharing their everyday stories and dreams, began to take shape in
2009 after the church hired two large advertising firms to report on
Americans’ perceptions of Mormonism.
What the ad agencies found was
overwhelmingly negative: Top words used to describe Mormons in their report
were adjectives like “secretive” and “cultish.” Mormonism has a history of
persecution and hostility from outsiders, not all of it in the past. Two
current popular television shows, Big Love and Sister Wives,
depict polygamous Mormon families, adding to the public’s confusion on
Mormonism and polygamy. (The LDS Church actually forbade plural marriage in
1890.) Meanwhile, the Tony award-winning musical The Book of Mormon
portrays its Mormon missionary main characters as naive and misguided.
In the realm of politics, Mormons have
experienced criticism from both progressives and conservatives.
Mormon-backed support of California’s Proposition 8 led some progressives to
view Mormons as “anti-gay,” while an evangelical pastor who supported Rick
Perry in the primaries proclaimed, “Mormonism is not Christianity.”
The Mormon leaders who heard out their
ad men were disappointed but not disheartened. “If you don’t recognize the
problem, you can’t solve the problem,” Missionary Department head Stephen B.
Allen told Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times on November 17,
2011. “If nobody tells you that you have spinach in your teeth, how would
To dislodge the unsightly vegetable,
Allen funded a multi-million dollar solution. The “I am a Mormon” video
clips sprinkled across the Internet and billboards around the nation aim to
combat negative imagery by presenting Mormons who defy the Mormon stereotype
in both looks and lifestyle. There are Mormons who are black, Asian,
Hispanic, and French as well as blonde. There are single working mothers,
and even an interracial couple.
Alongside Jenna the comedian, there’s Byron, a vegetarian and “green”
business owner, and Anita, an aspiring journalist and immigrant from
Trinidad. There are doctors, teachers, Olympian athletes, and pro
skateboarders. Mormon celebrities include Gabe Reid of the NFL and Brandon
Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers rock band.
According to the Washington Post,
visitors to the LDS’s website have tripled since the campaign launch. But
how much the campaign will change Americans’ perceptions of Mormons is yet
to be determined.
As soon as the ads expanded from
midsize cities to New York in the fall of 2011, media outlets speculated on
whether or not the Mormon PR campaign was associated with Romney’s
presidential campaign, something that the church quickly denied. Goodstein’s
article explained that the LDS church purposely steered clear of airing ads
in states with early primaries like New Hampshire and Nevada.
Yet the challenges faced by both Romney
and the Mormon PR campaign are similar, as are some aspects of their plan.
Both stress normalcy rather than explaining theology. “I am a Mormon” was
the church’s first ad campaign consciously designed to stress Mormons rather
“What we found was that in order for
people to have a desire to understand doctrinally what the church stands
for, it was necessary for us to overcome the stigmas that existed,” Brandon
Burton, president and general manager of an LDS-owned advertising agency,
explained to the New York Times.
Romney also avoided talking about any
particulars of Mormon doctrine in his campaign and for months seemed
reluctant to talk about his faith at all, despite frequent suggestions from
political pundits that it would be smart of him to “sell” his Mormon faith
The Romney campaign did not want to
risk alienating any more voters skeptical of Mormonism, especially the GOP’s
evangelical Protestant base, which has long regarded Mormonism as a heresy.
But strategists thought that talking about faith could “humanize” the
candidate often described as robotic.
Writing on December 11, 2011 in
Politico, Reid J. Epstein noted that that day’s presidential primary
debate was the first time Romney had talked publicly about his Mormon faith
since a notably successful speech on religion at the George H.W. Bush
Presidential Library in December of 2007.
In that December 2011 debate, however,
Romney did not define Mormonism for voters or deny accusations about its
status as a cult. Rather, he spoke about his missionary trip to France,
living in a small apartment without a shower, in an attempt to relate to the
majority of Americans who feel the sting of the Recession. I’m just like
you, was its key message.
Romney’s strategists denied using
religious anecdotes to unveil Romney’s sympathetic side, but close
supporters were glad to see him take the “I am a Mormon” tack. Larry Finder,
a Romney fundraiser in Houston, told Politico’s Epstein that he was happy
Romney was sharing some of the personal stories he had heard himself. “The
fact that he’s talking about his religious background not only humanizes
him, but the story is endearing,” Finder said.
But not all Mormons were pleased about
the prospect of that sort of bland bridge building, nor about the perennial
Mormon struggle to win acceptance among Christians. David V. Mason, a
practicing Mormon and theater professor at Rhodes College in Memphis,
created a ripple within the Mormon community when the New York Times
published his June 12 op-ed, titled “I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian.”
After an exasperated review of typical
Christian and Mormon theological talking points, Mason urged his fellow
Mormons to “grow up” and realize that they don’t need Christianity’s
“approval.” On his idea of a “Mormon Moment” he wrote, “Maybe a Mormon in
the White House will hasten that moment when Mormonism will no longer plead
through billboards and sappy radio ads to be liked.”
If one looks for signs of mainstream
Mormon acceptance, a good place to start is with the demographic of 18-29
year old trend setters, dubbed the “Millennials,” whose opinions often
indicate changing viewpoints, as well as what may be the dominant future
Unfortunately, Mormonism does not fare
well with young voters. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research
Institute found that while 40 percent of respondents are “at least somewhat
uncomfortable” with a Mormon president, 56 percent of respondents ages 19-29
said the same. What gives this statistic a particular sting is the fact that
only 50 percent of Millennials expressed discomfort with a possible Muslim
These figures led PRRI Robert P. Jones
to identify Romney’s obstacle not as a “Mormon problem” but as a “Millennial
problem.” Posting on his Washington Post blog on November 11, 2011,
he explained that not only are Millennials more liberal than older folk,
they are also much more likely to be strong supporters of gay rights.
Prominent Mormon blogger Joanna Brooks
agreed that Mormon opposition to same-sex marriage and the Church’s
“perceived social conservatism” was likely the deal breaker for Millennial
voters. “That’s an image problem even the much celebrated ‘I am a Mormon’ ad
by Killers frontman Brandon Flowers may not be able to fix,” she noted in
her Religion Dispatches blog on November 10, 2011.
Maybe not quickly. But after examining
the “I am a Mormon” campaign closely, it is hard not to conclude that it
does reflect a yearning to attract trendy Millennials to the faith.
John Dehlin, in an August 9, 2010 post
on the blog Mormon Matters, expressed his delight at the diverse faces in
the ads, but also some reservations about how well the Mormons in the ads
represent the church as a whole.
“Let’s say that a young, hip,
progressive, yuppy, affluent, intellectual, artistic, and most likely
pro-gay couple decides to join the church in an average LDS ward. Will their
experience in the church, today, reflect the open, progressive, liberal,
almost artsy sentiments and values reflected in this marketing campaign?
Will they stay?” Dehlin concluded, hopefully, that the ads were aspirational,
representing a “vision for what our culture and curriculum someday might
And yet the New York Times
discovered enough genuine urbane and “artsy” Mormons in Brooklyn last fall
to merit their own article: “To Be Young, Hip and Mormon.” The October 26,
2011 article, by Alex Williams, featured various tips and tricks young
Mormons use to express their personal styles, while still staying within
Church guidelines for modest dressing.
“It’s not just in ads sponsored by the
church,” Williams wrote. “On college campuses, city streets and countless
style blogs, a young generation of Mormons has adopted a fashion-forward
urban aesthetic (geek-chic glasses, designer labels and plenty of vintage)
that wouldn’t look out of place at a Bushwick party.”
The touchstone may be the Great
Recession and its influence on American culture. As young Americans try to
save, thrift shopping is at an all time peak. Suddenly the vintage secretary
blouses and pencil skirts that many young Mormon women don are considered
chic. Also on the rise is the do-it-yourself trend of thrifty sewing
projects, from-scratch recipes, and homemade gifts—which the so-called
“Mormon mommy bloggers” have been all over for years.
Another zone of overlap with mainstream
culture may be in the growing Millennial search for closer commitment to
family and loved ones. Again, this may be a result of the recession. As more
and more recent graduates are moving back in with mom and dad, family
becomes an important part of Millennials’ life structure. It could also be
that without high-paying or high-status jobs, Millennials have begun to look
towards social gratification as a means of self-worth.
Whatever the reason, a testament to
this New Familism is the lifestyle magazine Kinfolk that made its
debut in the popular clothing and home store Anthropologie this year.
Kinfolk, which bears the tagline “A Guide for Small Gatherings,”
features essays and photos on the joys of family, friendships, and marriage
that amount to a manifesto for happiness through monogamy and matrimony.
In one essay, Austin Sailsbury, days
from his wedding, reflects on the moments he first shared with his
soon-to-be wife: “Our simple shared meal, the unremarkably casual thing, had
opened the door to a new idea—that the two of us could become friends…the
kind of friends who find the many unremarkable casual things of life
transfigured into deep moments of joy, simply because they are shared with
While Kinfolk is not a
Mormon-sponsored production, an examination of the personal blog of its
founder and editor, Nathan Williams, confirms that he is LDS. His magazine,
though, is a collaborative effort by those drawn together for their
“appreciation for art and design and [their] love for spending time with
family and friends”—both Mormon and non-Mormon alike.