Faith and Fame

May 16, 2008 | 29 comments
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Faith and fame aren’t always an easy mix, but Mormons who hit the big time seem to be able to hold it together most of the time. At least that’s the thrust of “How Mormons Deal With Fame” at the LDS Newsroom, discussing, among other names we all recognize, the 17-year-old phenom David Archuleta.

Some commenters may disagree with this notion — and I’m sure there are a few counterexamples — but I’m just going to assume for the sake of argument and on the basis of anecdotal observation that Mormons do, in fact, handle celebrity better than average, and just float a few possible reasons why this might be so:

  • Family. Warm family ties and a busload of relatives help the new celebrity stay grounded despite the pressures and compromising offers that come with fame or riches.
  • Humility. Stereotypical Mormon activities like trudging one’s way through a proselyting mission, cleaning a chapel on Saturday morning, working a shift at the local LDS canning plant, or serving in the nursery on Sunday must have a cumulative effect on one’s perspective, even if simple injunctions like “be thou humble” don’t.
  • A classless church. Even if your bank account is off the charts, your Sunday (if you attend church) is just like mine and everyone else’s. You sit in the same pews, sing the same hymns, go to the same classes, and dread the same callings. On Sunday you are, to a remarkable degree, just like everyone else, which might actually be a welcome relief from the burden of public recognizability.
  • Deep roots. Could it be the fact that most Mormons are very, very Mormon — the sort of identity that doesn’t get dislodged or rearranged by fame or fortune — to a greater degree than is the case with other denominations or faiths?

As a closing thought, I’ll add that I have great respect for any believer who maintains their commitments and does not hide their faith when they are thrust into the public spotlight, whether it be for days, months, or years. But I’m especially impressed with fellow Mormons who pull it off. Not everyone out there likes us, you know, so it takes more than a little backbone to put “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on your celebrity home page.

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29 Responses to Faith and Fame

  1. Buckley's Ghost on May 16, 2008 at 2:00 am

    I remember in seminary seeing Aaron Eckhart in a temple video. He is no longer a, “practicing mormon” and says it is good for people, “who need it”. Although I think it is possible to be hollywood famous there are a larger percent who don’t make it. I am glad he is playing Harvey Dent in Dark Knight. I think about great men and women in our church who succombed to tempation and left, let alone being exposed to the lifestyle of what hollywood brings. We know that no man or woman is above tempation if they are placed in certain situations. Much like David on the rooftop certain aspects of Hollywood are probably places mormons should not tread.

  2. Sue on May 16, 2008 at 2:17 am

    I think this argument only stands up if you are very selective about which famous mormons you’re talking about.

  3. Aaron on May 16, 2008 at 8:40 am

    Being \”thrust into the public spotlight,\” as you put it, is one thing. Clawing your way into the public spotlight is another. I have a sense of unease which is linked to my perception that too many Mormons are doing the latter. I wish it were not so.

  4. Doc on May 16, 2008 at 9:11 am

    I worry about Archuleta’s Dad. I think stage parents are a big problem with young stars and can really mess their kids up. I’m not sure if the Osmond parents fit the stereotype or not. If so, I guess it’s a hopeful sign. Heck, Venus and Serena Williams have a father completely out to lunch, and still seem to have survived and thrived.

  5. StillConfused on May 16, 2008 at 10:52 am

    I wasn’t aware that Donny Osmond was much into show business (I just never hear much about him) but his website is very classy. Interesting aside: I can recall that Marie was the more famous of the two but also had marital issues. Could the two be somehow related?

  6. Adam Greenwood on May 16, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Hmm. I’m also thinking that there’s a spectrum of thought, on one end of which celebrity is superfluous and even a vanity and at the other end of which its a sort of secular apotheosis. I’m betting that in general Mormons are further towards the superfluous vanity end of the spectrum than the population as a whole, but whether thats also true of those Mormons who pursue celebrity or become celebrities I do not know.

  7. Josh on May 16, 2008 at 11:18 am

    There is something to be said for members who don’t wear their faith on their sleeves.

    It’s an introverted/extroverted type thing.

  8. Jane @ What About Mom? on May 16, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I think the selectivity argument is very valid, and also, I can think of several prominent Mormons who seem to capitalize, at least a little, on being \”recovering Mormons.\” Or, if I acquit them of \”capitalizing,\” then it is just a lucky coincidence that their \”I was Mormon, so I know what I\’m talking about, and I am here to tell you that it stinks,\” sentiment appeals to many people.

    I also have to say that David Archuleta\’s saying during the \”David\’s Day\” hoopla that he was still interested in serving a mission \”if he wasn\’t busy with singing\” was troubling. Also, the \”I feel like I\’m on a mission right now.\” (ok, so I\’m paraphrasing, but that was the jist). I remember similar rationalizations from the 5 siblings at Juilliard who were profiled in the NYTimes a couple years ago. Serving a mission, the hard, discouraging, day-to-day slog is very different than a musical celebrity tour (I assume). I think it\’s very appropriate for Mormon celebrities to feel like they are \”being good examples\” but I\’d argue that being on American Idol is not a good substitute for actually serving a mission.

    I\’m sure a lot of you have seen Heather O.\’s MMW post about Mormon women yesterday. I think her argument would serve a discussion of Mormon celebrities very well. (Can\’t remember if you guys allow hyperlinks, so: http://www.mormonmommywars.com/?p=1264).

  9. CS Eric on May 16, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    StillConfused,

    I think I can answer part of your question. Marie’s first husband was a BYU basketball star, back when they were really, really good (the Danny Ainge years). He never made it in the NBA, and (at least according to my rommate who was also on the basketball team) he couldn’t handle being Mr Marie Osmond.

    Your idea that Marie was the more famous of the two is interesting. Since I grew up with them (I’m the same age as Donny), I can tell you that for most of their careers that wasn’t the case. However, one way that Marie was more popular was on the covers of magazines like People, US, etc. For years, her face on the cover practically guaranteed higher newsstand sales than the average. It is hard to imagine now, when that position is now taken over by Brittney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

  10. jjohnsen on May 16, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Warm family ties isn’t what I think of when I see David and his father. That guy looks like a wacko.

  11. Kari on May 16, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    What? No mention of Elisha Dushku, Katherine Heigl, or Brandon Flowers in the article? They’re just as famous, if not more so, than Stephanie Myer or Torah Bright, and just as up-front about their mormon-ness (or lack thereof).

  12. snow white on May 16, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    I think compared to their peers who aren’t raised in the Church, they probably fare better, but on the whole, I’ve mostly been disappointed by the extent to which they capitulate. Katherine Heigl being a prime example. Leave Brandon Flowers alone. I love The Killers :)

  13. Sarah on May 16, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    The Sunday of celebrities is not “just” like everyone else’s — at least, not if they’re the kind of celebrity that young people appreciate (I’m guessing this is more true for NCAA Division One basketball heroes and American Idol contestants than world-champion Irish dancers, for example.) My freshman year of college, our university’s star quarterback was LDS, and it was, amongst other things, next to impossible to get from Sacrament to Sunday School owing to the throng of admirers trying to talk to him for three seconds. It didn’t surprise me at all that he married a girl back home in Arizona. I suspect that our university’s president — at the time and again today one of the most popular men in the entire state — had an easier time just because he’s older (though his university-provided home lies in a very diverse ward, so he doesn’t necessarily benefit from a “everyone here has a PhD or MD or JD too, and we all make more money than you, so whatever” kind of attitude.) Bearing in mind that about 10% of our city’s population is either attending or employed by the university in question, and that alumni make up a disproportionate share of the remainder.

    I was impressed by the line about some people pushing their faith aside for fame, in the original article… that’s pretty close to a reference to Katherine Heigl or Brandon Flowers, for an official LDS.org publication.

    I’m more worried about how regular Mormons deal with other Mormons being famous than how those famous Mormons deal with it, to be honest: my sister reports that someone decides to play “Mr. Bright Side” about every other stake youth dance, and it’s usually half-over before anyone realizes what it’s about. Meanwhile, the name “Metallica” is enough to keep a song being played, no matter the content. That’s just silly.

  14. K. on May 16, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    “Capitulate”? I was under the impression Heigl and Dushku both stopped practicing long before they became famous. No?

  15. Ray on May 16, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    #13 – That is correct – and they both speak positively about the Church.

  16. JKS on May 16, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    K.
    Heigl was in a movie with that french actor who played her dad while still in high school. She was still “practicing” then.

  17. Macy on May 17, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Heigl was asked in a USAToday interview if she was still active in the Mormon church. Her response: “I haven’t since I was about 19 or 20, when I moved to L.A. and was working a lot. I couldn’t find a ward I was comfortable in. It kind of petered out mostly because of that. My good friends are Mormon, some of the best people I know.”

    Sadly, this seems to be a common theme among our young adults.

    Regarding David Archuleta from American Idol, his comment regarding serving a mission made me think about Donny Osmond. Osmond had wanted to serve a mission, but his parents and church leaders thought he could do more good in the public eye living church standards; so he continued with his music career just as Archuleta apparently will be doing. If Archuleta’s fame ends up lasting more than 15 minutes, it will be interesting to see what happens with his faith as he matures, and if his celebrity status will result in a positive gain for our missionary efforts.

  18. mlu on May 17, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I’m not famous but I’ve arranged events involving somewhat famous people and I always was a little surprised at how seriously some people take the honors and awards of men, including vast wealth and fame. Watching how governors fawn and dissemble in the presence of vast amounts of money seemed quite creepy, and the world of fame seemed stapled together of crepe paper and tinsel, a world of “decoys,” as Brigham Young sometimes put it.

    When truly great people become famous they often handle it quite well, sometimes as simply another burden. I think lots of Mormons are truly great, though not in ways that matter to the glitterati.

    I rather assumed that my religious training somewhat inoculated me from taking such trifles seriously. I could never imagine Christ lobbying for an invitation to Caesar’s ball.

  19. Jaymie on May 17, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    In defense of the question of serving a mission or being a famous Mormon singer, it was because of the Osmonds that I came to know of and convert to the Church. I know plenty of people that this is true for also. They reached millions of people and who knows how many converts because of their fame. I have been thinking that many more millions can be reached because of not only David Archuleta, but Brooke White, Mitt Romney and the Survivor winner (can\’t recall the name right now), etc, etc. Have you noticed how many Latter-day Saints are now in the spotlight? We are in the last days folks, and I feel the Lord is using these people to lead more people to the truth.

  20. Debbie on May 17, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Addressing Comment by Kari — 5/16/2008 @ 3:04 pm

    The actors/singers that you mentioned are not \”active\” LDS members, except for Brandon Flowers. This is probably why they are not mentioned. == They are speaking of those who are being examples of which the church can be used as a missionary experience. Katherine Heigl doesn\’t exactly personify that in the roles that she choses to participate in. Sorry, we need those that stand strong to the gospel principles & strive to be an example of what Christ needs in this world. I know that Heigl just got married a few months ago and didn\’t chose to marry a member – she also smokes. It is sad, because the example that they could be could be a great missionary tool for them. It is important to know who we are, why we are here & let the world know the truth of the gospel & the joy that it can bring to lives. Oh well, Satan at his best!

  21. Dennis on May 17, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    I think the issue of whether someone like David Archuleta or Donny Osmond (or Steve Young, to use another who gave a similar reason) goes on a mission is an interesting one. For me, this is the crucial question: Is the reason (I can best “preach” the gospel doing x,y,z…) simply a way to justify — the person really doesn’t want to serve a mission and really does want to continue enjoying their stardom (for non-gospel reasons). This same question can be posed, outside of the mission dilemma, for the pursuer of wealth. I would never say that a certain individual is justifying … but I am familiar enough with the subtle foibles and self-deceptions of humanity to suspect that it does happen.

    The LDS star who I admire the most is Dale Murphy (former baseball player for the Atlanta Braves). Murphy was already on the path to stardom when he joined the Church (which brings up another dimension of this discussion — what about those who are ALREADY stars, i.e., the Gladys Knight category? Are there different trends between this group and those who were essentially raised in the Church?) In reading Murphy’s autobiography, you can tell that serving a mission was something that he really wanted to do, but ultimately decided not to because (if I remember correctly) it would have really upset his team’s owner who had invested in him without knowing about the possibility of this 2-year hiatus. In other words, it was a very different thing for Murphy not to serve a mission because it wasn’t an expectation for him before he entered the ballgame business. (Interestingly, Murphy later became the Boston mission president.) But beyond the mission issue, I have been impressed at Murphy’s low-key personality and humility. Perhaps this is easier in sports … (maybe less so today)?

    Concerning whether someone like Archuleta does serve a mission — I wonder whether his stardom would play a major issue in the assignment of his call. Would he be more likely to go to somewhere Africa or Mongolia? Or would he be more likely to go to a place where he would be somewhat well known?

  22. Daniel on May 17, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    The most important thing anyone can do, whether famous or not, is remember why they are here. Each individual must assess his position within his own heart as it is between them and the Lord only if they do the right thing. Perhaps we would all be better off if we did not judge another but only took care of our own lives.

  23. Mark Hansen on May 18, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Another very important thing to keep in mind is that all are human, with human failings. We want our celebs to present us in a great way, but when they fall, they fall hard. And that is largely due to us rejecting them and the world eating them alive. It makes me sad.

    MRKH

  24. Bill MacKinnon on May 18, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Dave has raised an interesting question. What’s the thinking about whether such a question is apt to arise on a blog focusing on some Protestant denomination, Roman Catholicism, or another religion? If the same question is apt to arise there, are the answers apt to be any different than those above? If it isn’t apt to arise, what does that say about this discussion? Personally, based on anecdotal evidence and a strong case of gut feel, I’m of the persuasion that doesn’t think that the incidence of celebrity (whatever that is) and the ability to handle it well (whatever that is) runs to one’s religion (whatever that may be). The quest for celebrity and its importance may run to individual persecution, feelings of disrespect, and a need to prove something. The handling of it runs to personal values, upbringing, and matters of style/manners — all of which can be shaped by matters of religion and/or other wholly unrelated factors. Why does one former president write thank-you notes, bend overe backwards not to brag (as his mother taught him), and keep matters of religion to himself while his son’s style is quite different? Sigh, I wonder if those Presbyterians mind not being celebrities, and whether, if they were, how they’d handle it. Wonder how Bill Buckley acquitted himself and why…

  25. Raymond Takashi Swenson on May 19, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Where does the life of the late Arthur “Killer” Kane of the glam rock New York Dolls fit in this cartesian landscape of LDS faithfulness, on one axis, and fame and fortune, on the other axis?

    When my Dad was a missionary in Japan around 1950, the mission had a missionary quartet tour the country to perform at variousd venues in order to get people to walk in the door and get a little better acquainted with Mormons. That idea was revived when I was on my own mission in Japan in 1969.

    So what if David Archuletta actually got a part time missionary calling (as many people do, mostly adults) which involved him actually being set apart to perform free concerts in some of the newer mission fields for the Church? He wouldn’t be competing with his commercial career in the English-speaking, developed world. With the right kind of program, could his celebrity help build the image of the Church where the Mormons are so scarce they have a hard time getting government cooperation for church building, etc.?

    I would think he would be a natural for a couple of weeks in the Philippines, and other areas like Polynesia, Mongolia and Africa, sort of a one man version of the BYU Young Ambassadors or the USO tours that many celebrities get involved in, visiting troops on the front lines.

  26. Anneke Majors on May 19, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Interesting that you should bring up Japan, Raymond – I returned from a mission there a year ago and had some interesting experiences with celebrity and its impact on missionary work. There are several prominent LDS celebrities in Japan, and the church has used their fame for missionary purposes in the past. There were several videos in the church libraries (though, tellingly, they were dated and no one is bothering to transfer them to DVD) starring Kent Derricott – a notable gaijintarento TV star and former Mormon missionary, and Yuki Saito, a 2nd-generation Japanese Mormon who was famous in the 80s as a pop singer. She was also, coincidentally, my stake mission leader’s wife. The videos were nice enough for their time period, and there was always the added benefit of name recognition, but I sense that the Brethren are moving away from fame-based missionary tools.

    President Eyring spoke pointedly to this effect in 2003:

    A few years ago I spoke to the missionaries in the training center in Japan. I promised them then that a great day would dawn in that nation. I said that there would be a great increase in the members speaking eagerly to those they met of their testimony of the restored gospel. My thought then was that the courage to speak would come from an increased admiration for the Church in that land. [Elder Eyring had spoken in 1998 at the JMTC specifically of the possibility that increased admiration would come from famous LDS entertainers, similar to the Osmonds] I know now that the great miracle, a mighty change, will come inside the members, not in the world around them.

    They and members across the earth will love and listen and talk and testify out of changed hearts. Bishops and branch presidents will lead them by example. The harvest of souls will be great, and it will be safe in the Lord’s hands
    -A Child and a Disciple, Henry B. Eyring, April 2003 General Conference

    So, in my opinion, whatever role celebrity can play in the work of the Lord (and who am I to limit the Lord in His means?) it is secondary to the current emphasis on missionary work at the individual level. I think the Church, at least as a whole, is more convinced of the efficacy of the preaching of the word itself than whatever kind of publicity and attention that worldly acclaim can bring.

  27. SingleSpeed on May 20, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    Why no mention of Steve Young in the LDS Newsroom article? Interesting.

  28. snow white on May 20, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Michael McLean (or however he spells his name) had a son who served a mission in our area, and he took part in some musical open houses. Of course he wasn’t famous the way David Archuleta is, so he probably didn’t have as much of a temptation to just focus on his singing career.

  29. dramagurl on May 23, 2008 at 2:14 am

    I think another way to look at the David Archuleta mission thing is that, although being on American Idol certainly doesn\’t replace a mission, serving a mission after you\’re kinda famous could potentially create some issues. I\’m no expert, but I could see him being able to do more good singing than just tracting? Not sure, just a personal opinion- and I think something like that\’s happened before, where they\’ve actually been asked not to?