Seeing the Future of Mormonism

April 9, 2012 | 39 comments
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If you want to know where Mormonism going, look at Mormon missionary work.  Mormonism is nothing if not a missionary church.  Indeed, the evangelical imperative of the religion has consistently defined its teachings, theology, and culture.  For example, if one is looking to read Mormon theology in the nineteenth century, you would find little in the way of theological treatises.  Rather, you would find missionary tracts like Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology, or you could read sermons, sermons whose doctrinal content is almost always embedded in an explicit or implicit theological polemic against American Protestantism.  This is because in large part Mormon missionary work proceeded by polemic.  As a missionary, I envied the bygone days when missionary work consisted of public theological brawling with an apostate and hireling clergy, but that is clearly the missionary experience that produced much of early Mormon thought.

Likewise, the massive emphasis on families, especially the sanctified nuclear family, that one sees in post-WWII Mormonism in large part comes from the way in which the church placed an appeal to family at the heart of its incredibly successful proselytizing work in the twentieth century.  To be sure, the theological material was ready at hand to create a cosmic narrative about eternal families, but the theology of the family implicit in the Home Front ads was not the same thing as the theology of the family implicit in the sealing practices of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young.  The sharp turn toward a massive emphasis on the family came at the time when in some sense the identification of Mormonism with happy monogamy was embryonic and aspirational rather than established.  Heber J. Grant, it is worth remembering, was a polygamist and it was only a few years after his death that David O. McKay was preaching the gospel of the sanctified nuclear family.

This brings us to the “I am a Mormon” ad campaign.  It gives an image of Mormons as multicultural, hip, interesting.  It palpably and aggressively labors against the stereotype of Mormons as white Republicans locked into traditional family roles and uninteresting corporate jobs.  I know a lot of young Mormons who love the ads.  They identify – or want to identify – with the cool and interesting people in the ads.  They like the way in which they are relieved of the need to conform to a stereotype locked someplace between Spanish Fork, Utah and Alpine, Utah.  At the same time, a lot of the sophisticated wanna-be sophisticates who identify with the ads have cried foul.  “Most of the people I go to church with aren’t nearly that interesting,” they point out.  “They are a lot whiter, more Republican, and less creative than the ‘I am a Mormon’ ad people.”  Lies, lies, lies, they insist in their darker moments.

This misses the point.  There is clearly a sense in which the “I am a Mormon” ads are a PR shtick.  Like all PR shticks they do not describe reality in any kind of complete or accurate way.  Rather, they pick at reality to create an appealing vision.  The difference is that this PR shtick is embedded within the missionary program of the Mormon Church.  That missionary program will do two things.  First, it will relentless grind its way forward, searching for converts and institutional growth.  The growth will comes from people who find its message appealing.  Second, it will transform the church that it serves.  Many Mormons, especially Mormon leaders, have their sense of what it means to be a Mormon forged through missionary work.  For them Mormonism is and in some sense always will be the message that they preach as missionaries, a message that includes not simply – or even primarily – the theological content of the lessons they teach but the rhetorical tropes and emotional images in which those lessons are embedded.  Over time Mormons will push their own lives to conform to the images presented by the Church of what it means to be a good Mormon.  Those images of good Mormons, however, are always made with at least one eye on missionary work.

This means that the “I am a Mormon” ads ought to make hipster, young sophisticates hopeful.  If I am right, over the course of their life times Mormonism in its teachings and cultural practices will transform itself to look more and more like the cool Mormons in the “I am a Mormon” ads.  That will be pretty cool to watch.

 

39 Responses to Seeing the Future of Mormonism

  1. clark on April 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Nate great post. I’d note that this is primarily American-centric. How do you think the international missionary program will affect theology?

  2. Adam G. on April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Ugh.
    Having everybody try to be happy, contented family people was bad enough. Having everyone try to be hipsterish young sophisticates will be ghastly. No one, least of all hipsterish young sophisticates, should want this. Stepford skaters, anyone?

  3. CTJ on April 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    I don’t worry about this being an accurate representation Nate. I can’t think of an organization on earth that does not put its best foot forward. The profiles were real, honest people – after all.

    But, if this is the future of Mormonism, someone forgot to tell the GC panel of speakers – namely the 15 men who we claim as seers. (Ironically, you seem to be making a case for Church PR as the real visionaries) What I once thought of as the clear voice of modern revelation, is looking like the most hard to peg religious tradition in the world. But forget the rest of the world even. How are these conflicting messages effecting our own ranks. The mother of 6, who dropped out of BYU to marry and have a family, looks at the celebrated high profile career woman in the PR campaign – and asks – huh?

    Pick a message people, and go with it.

  4. anon for today on April 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    “I’m a gay man, married to my husband, Bishop of my ward, and I’m a Mormon”

    One can hope. =)

  5. Dave on April 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    The difference is that this PR shtick is embedded within the missionary program of the Mormon Church.

    This context for the program rarely gets discussed, but is obviously relevant. Simply the fact that the production and editing of individual profiles is supervised and conducted by the Missionary Department raises interesting questions.

    On coolness, the line from Almost Famous comes to mind: “Is it that hard to make us look cool?”

  6. Mark D. on April 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    I think we can be quite sure that the PR department had no intention of embracing as ideals anything contrary to leading teachings of the church, but rather promoting the worthiness, the glory, and the acceptability of a broad scope of diversity beyond what appears to be prototypical along the Wasatch Front.

    The church has no intention of converting anyone to be Republican, or to abandon their national culture and heritage, their ethnicity, their pastimes, their language, their political views, nor anything else compatible with the thirteenth article of faith. Why should it?

  7. chris on April 9, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    It’s PR to correct a problem. Someone says we’re monolithic. The ads say, maybe not as much as you think.

    The point of the ads is not to say “all Mormons are like this (hip, interesting, etc)” the point is specifically to debunk the “all Mormons are like…” and instead show specific individual Mormons.

    It’s somewhat funny that we can have a campaign called “I’m a Mormon” and somehow we internalize that as “All Mormons are like this…” It’s as if there needs to be a disclaimer saying, “We are showing you individual Mormon’s so you can see what some individuals are like, so you should not assume this individual is the same as every other Mormon”.

    You made a very good point about missionary work showing the direction of the church. But Mormon.org TV ads are not missionary work that is in any way a corollary of the Key to the Science of Theology. If you want to examine missionary work comparisons, look at Preach My Gospel.

  8. Bro. Jones on April 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    #3 What CTJ said. My immediate family would likely qualify as the types that would be featured as part of the ad campaign (multiracial, educated, wife has successful career), but we’re not trying to be hip or edgy: we just are who we are. But we don’t see official recognition or celebration of our differences, we’re instead reminded that we’re outliers that do not represent the centrally-desired norm. That’s fine–I’m not asking to be held up as a symbol of anything–but as CTJ says, the Church can’t have it both ways.

  9. Andrew S. on April 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Nate,

    I don’t get your fourth paragraph…

    The difference is that this PR shtick is embedded within the missionary program of the Mormon Church. That missionary program will do two things. First, it will relentless grind its way forward, searching for converts and institutional growth. The growth will comes from people who find its message appealing. Second, it will transform the church that it serves. Many Mormons, especially Mormon leaders, have their sense of what it means to be a Mormon forged through missionary work. For them Mormonism is and in some sense always will be the message that they preach as missionaries, a message that includes not simply – or even primarily – the theological content of the lessons they teach but the rhetorical tropes and emotional images in which those lessons are embedded. Over time Mormons will push their own lives to conform to the images presented by the Church of what it means to be a good Mormon. Those images of good Mormons, however, are always made with at least one eye on missionary work.

    Missionaries are still going to be wearing stuffy white shirts and ties, and they will be so recognizable (not quite in a good way) for that. That will really challenge and undermine whatever message the I Am a Mormon campaign had.

  10. Rusty on April 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    To quote Indigo Montoya, you keep using the words “hip” and “hipster” and I do not think it means what you think it means. Go back and watch the videos. Very, very, very few of those portrayed could be considered hip or hipsters in any accurate sense of the term. Perhaps you’ve only watched the Brandon Flowers and a couple others that portray young folks from big cities, but on the whole, the quality/style of production is more hip than the subject matter.

  11. Bryan in VA on April 9, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Corporate jobs are uninteresting?

  12. Kevin Barney on April 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Working on my skateboard skillz now…

  13. wreddyornot on April 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Seeing the future of Mormonism?

    Well, I don’t think I’ll be watching the missionary program within Church culture with much optimism of seeing it, but I’ll watch what good is evolving for the better in our broader culture and society. And slowly, I believe we’ll be getting there, too.

    In fact, I’ll posit that’s how the “I Am a Mormon” campaign got started, not as something unique to the LDS Church but as an adaptation to something some group outside our culture tried. I wouldn’t deny that the Spirit was involved in the adaptation, but it seems we’ve got things a tad backwards.

    I realize this is a pessimistic view in a revelatory theology, but I’m anxious to hear contrary views.

  14. Jeremiah on April 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    I feel like the diversity in this campaign comes off as insincere, simply because when someone like the people in many of the videos go to church, many wards in America will reject them for not conforming to the white-bread norm. And they won’t stay in the church. In that respect, the videos seem less aspirational and more disingenuous.

  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    The difference is that this PR shtick is embedded within the missionary program of the Mormon Church. That missionary program will do two things. First, it will relentless grind its way forward, searching for converts and institutional growth. The growth will comes from people who find its message appealing. Second, it will transform the church that it serves.

    Nicely said Nate, nicely said.

  16. Mark Brown on April 9, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Nate, I think you are correct to think of the I’m a Mormon campaign as aspirational rather than descriptive, and you are also correct to look to the missionary program for clues about how the church will look in the future.

    But if we don’t look outside North America we’re missing the big picture. Based on the success of the missions and demographic trends, we can assume that twenty-five years from now our church will be browner, younger, and poorer than it is now. And those will all be good things.

  17. jax on April 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    The church has no intention of converting anyone to be Republican, or to abandon their national culture and heritage, their ethnicity, their pastimes, their language, their political views, nor anything else compatible with the thirteenth article of faith. Why should it?

    True, it doesn’t want to change anything not covered in the 13th AoF, but there are many things about being a Republican, in National Cultures, in pasttimes, and in political views that is contrary with the 13th AoF and many other prophetic teachings. we DO want to get rid of those things. We don’t want to make anyone an American/Mexican/Asian/or anything else. We want to make people Saints and we should want to get rid of everything (including much of US culture) needed to do it.

  18. Bob on April 9, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    @ Nate’s Opening post,
    “If you want to know where Mormonism going, look at Mormon missionary work”. IMO, it’s not too good.
    There were what 200,000 convents last year? I would guess 100,000 were without ‘missionaries’(?) There are what 50,000-60,000 missionaries? We know most of their convert will leave the Church. Where’s the happy story?

  19. Bonnie on April 9, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I really don’t see this transforming the church much. In reality, the gospel does “require the sacrifice of all things” at some point or another, and that’s not going to appeal to the bulk of people no matter how they were initially introduced to it. Pass-along cards, free Books of Mormon, hipster social sharing, in my day it was pamphlets. It’s just a tool to get people’s attention. No matter what the tool, eventually it will be the same people joining and the same people falling out. His sheep hear his voice. I think it’s brilliant just because it gets more people listening, and there’s a better chance of the right sheep hearing.

  20. unknown on April 9, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    The problem with this analysis is that the “I am a Mormon” campaign is a PR initiative — not the message that the missionaries are taking door to door in their proselyting efforts. Not being allowed to view television or surf the internet, most missionaries only have marginal contact with the campaign. I don’t know any missionaries that are “preaching” the “I am a Mormon” shtick or holding Brandon Flowers up to those that they contact. Thus, I don’t think that this campaign will have the effect on those serving as missionaries as Nate thinks it might.

    If Nate’s thesis holds true, a clearer indication of where the Church is headed in the future would be in Preach My Gospel, which most missionaries relentlessly study every day. That manual is much more traditional in its outlook than the hipster “I am a Mormon” campaign. It is also what forms the basis of the missionaries’ day-to-day message.

  21. unknown on April 9, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    By the way, the Brethren are not unaware of the trend that Nate is trying to point out. They have long recognized that one of the major roles of the missionary program is the training and indoctrination of the missionaries themselves. Elder Packer gave a compelling address on this subject during the leadership session of General Conference in the late 70′s or early 80′s, stating that the Church needed more missionaries — not for the proselyting benefits but for the benefits to the church in the form of future crops of educated, capable returned missionary leaders.

  22. Bradley on April 9, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    I think the PR arm of the Church is doing its job, so I don’t have to answer stupid questions from people I meet. Such as:

    Aren’t the Mormons like the Amish?
    No.
    Don’t they have multiple wives?
    No.
    Etc.

    In an organization where one kook has the PR value of a hundred normal people, some counterbalancing needs to be done.

  23. unknown on April 9, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    #16 – Mark, why are being “browner” and “poorer” good things? The color of church members’ skins should not matter in the least. Nor is being “poorer” a good thing. It would be better if the standard of living of church members across the world, increased — not declined.

  24. Jack on April 9, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Does this mean I get to keep my ponytail?

  25. Adam G. on April 9, 2012 at 11:31 pm

    Browner, poorer, more fundamentalist, less tolerant.

    Unless they’re totally unlike the brown, poor people that join the other denominations. In which case we can twit the Episcopalians that our poor, brown people are better than their poor, brown people.

  26. Adam G. on April 10, 2012 at 1:42 am

    I watched a slew of I’m a Mormons this PM. Have to admit that my first comment in this thread wasn’t fair. Funny but unfair.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNNRSG10Fn4&feature=relmfu

    Whatever is on display in these ads isn’t callow diversity and it isn’t reflexive trend-chasing either. It’s more like love.

    The one common thread is the massive emphasis on families.

  27. Last Lemming on April 10, 2012 at 9:06 am

    why are being “browner” and “poorer” good things?

    Because the universe of nonmembers is browner and poorer than the universe of members. In order for the church to grow and not become browner and poorer, we would have to deliberately avoid proselytizing those groups. That would be a bad thing.

    It would certainly be desirable if the standard of living improved for all members. But it is still almost certain that the average future convert will be poorer than the average member at the time they join, even if they are all less poor than the average member in 2012.

    As for Adam’s assertion that the browner and poorer will also be more fundamentalist, I think he has a legitimate point. This is what correlation was designed to combat.

  28. Bob on April 10, 2012 at 9:51 am

    @Last Lemming:
    The world is getting bigger, “Bowrner”, “Yellower”(China), and richer.
    Mormonism is going to get smaller, “Browner” and poorer.

  29. Clean Cut on April 10, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    “If I am right, over the course of their life times Mormonism in its teachings and cultural practices will transform itself to look more and more like the cool Mormons in the ‘I am a Mormon’ ads. That will be pretty cool to watch.”

    Agreed.

  30. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 10, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Jeremiah (14): I sincerely don’t worry about the ability of atypical Mormons to find acceptance in Mormon wards and branches. The old fogies of today are Baby Boomers, the children of rock and roll. Accepting differences in appearance and speech is part of our growing up. I have lived in California, Maryland, Virginia, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington, and I don’t think any of the wards I lived in would have a problem with welcoming any brother or sister in the Church.

    After all, a lot of us are stranger looking than we realize, yet we have been accepted. Aren’t too many people who look stranger than a Japanese Swede. ;-)

  31. Sonny on April 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Raymond,

    If you are a Japanese Swede that wears a white shirt weekly with traditionally conservative grooming, you will fit right in about any ward I can think of. I think the fitting in is a little more difficult if the Japanese Swede has a ponytail and wears a stripped shirt weekly. I’m not suggesting it is obvious ‘shunning’, but it will be noticeable.

    But having said that, someone that is a little unorthodox in appearance, I have found, can overcome the fitting in problem by being completely orthodox in service in the church. That tends to erase some people’s doubts and preconceived notions.

  32. Dave on April 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Mark D, comment 6, is spot on. Comment 17 also good. People too often assume that being a good mormon equates with being well-matched to Wasatch front culture. The Church has been small enough for long enough, and concentrated enough for long enough, that too many fail to separate the religion from the geo-historico-cultural group around temple square. In reality the Church doesn’t want to or intend to export that culture or lifestyle, beyond the basics embodied in temple recommend interviews (which can be incorporated into a diverse array of lifestyles, as the video spots try to show).

    The unity and family feel of the church has perhaps been increased by the unintentional export of wasatch front culture via the bulk of the missionary force, who are usually too young to understand cultural mechanisms. It has been at the expense of many potential converts and disaffiliated believers who can’t seem to see their lifestyle changing to match Utah, even though they could certainly change enough to live the commandments, and would benefit form the gospel. I’m a Mormon is of course PR propaganda like anything other ad you see, but it should be praised for how effectively it shows Mormon values, vaguely, while also blatantly showing that Mormons aren’t “supposed to” all be the same.

    I also appreciate the author’s recognition that PR aimed at the outside is also meant for the inside- I’ll bet more than half of the videos’ views on youtube are from Mormons. Most of the people who would criticize something the Church does generally criticize stiffness, repetition, vanilla-style things; I would think they would like the “I’m a Mormon” ads.

  33. Mark N. on April 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    I can hardly wait for the day when the President of the Church is one of those who, in his younger days, was one of the hipster Mormons to be found at Mormon.org, touting all his cool hobbies. Then someone will dig it up and post it on the inside front cover of the Ensign magazine (will there even be a print version of The Ensign at that point?) as a “remember when…?” kind of thing.

  34. Meldrum the Less on April 10, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Bob #18:

    Happy News: The first convert a missionary makes is himself. And these days that will be about the last. Considering some of the converts I have known go through our revolving-door church, this is not a bad thing. A good time was had by all.

    I generally agree that the missionary effort is disconnected from the future of the church in fundamental ways and that the future of the church is not so much tied up with it any more. if you want to see the future of the LDS church, I suggest a look at the singles ward problems; too few getting married, and too many making poor selections resulting in divorce or unhappiness at home.

    What I pray for is the day when we stop trying to advertise our way to respect and actually start earning it. One crazy idea; Integrate the 50,000 strong LDS missionary force into the <10,000 weak US Peace Corp and related organizations in other countries. We would earn the kind of respect where more decent people might seek us out instead expending so much effort running it the other way around. Of course, Sargent Shriver and Ezra Taft Benson would both roll over in their graves.

  35. Bob on April 10, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    @Meldrum the Less,
    ” Happy News: The first convert a missionary makes is himself”.
    No! I was a missionary and I know of no other missionary that needed to convert himself. This is just a throw-away line in the Church.
    The purpose of being a missionary should be to share what you already believe. Your MISSION is not about you.

  36. Adam G. on April 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

    The one area where I could see a change is the implicit message that having smaller families and dual-income families is fine. But this is an area where I suspect the PR is a lagging indicator, not a leading one.

  37. Meldrum the Less on April 11, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Reply to Bob #35:

    If we refine the definition of “convert” from a black or white, believe or disbelieve definition and think of it more as a spectrum of levels of belief and commitment, will you then agree that the Mormon missionary experience tends to increase believe and commitment to the ideals of the LDS church? Or does the efforts of full-time missionary service tend to drive the young Mormon men more rapidly into the ranks of the inactive and disbelievers? In this sense the missionary does become his first and most important convert.

    The second little problem for me is that I see our missionaries (4 to 8 in my ward alone) engaged in intense traditional efforts over decades and I see little to virtually no long-term result. I look back over my own service decades ago and what happened to the converts and native companions I staying in contact with coupled to the enormous long-term inactivity rate and realize I did so very little. The converts roll in one door and the inactives roll out the other door at about the same rate. How can we justify this effort if the mission is about other people?

    Incidentally, I see objective results from Peace Corps efforts and I (without objective proof) believe that the number of committed and contributing converts would not fall, even if we shifted all 50,000 of our full-time missionaries into that kind of more obvious “real” service. Two or three service hours a week does not cut it. Mormon missionaries actually serving people is the real throw away line in the church today, in my ever humble opinion.

  38. Meldrum the Less on April 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    My main point:

    What I pray for is the day when we stop trying to advertise our way to respect and actually start earning it.

  39. DKL on April 23, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Isn’t anyone going to stick up for the boring Mormons with cookie-cutter families and uninteresting jobs? The real problem with the ads is that they suggest that run-of-the-mill Mormons aren’t good enough. It’s like a schoolyard taunt: Come on, get baptized; you want people to think you’re cool, don’t you?

    Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not one of those cool or sophisticated Mormons. I’m not trying to schedule something interesting to do with every spare moment of my time. And the books I read are so boring that when I talk to people about them, they say, “seriously?” I’m not living or working to fulfill my dreams or to stand out. My job so boring that my wife is at a loss to describe it, but I love my work, because it’s what I do for a living.

    My name is DKL. I work for a living. My wife is one hot babe, and I have a family of girls who are angelic beauties and a 4-year old boy who is an aspiring super hero. I’m proud to be boring, and it fuels my vanity to think I fit the mold. And I’m a Mormon.

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