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.