Today in Slate, Christopher Hitchens writes about the “weird and sinister belief system” of Mormonism; among the religion’s troubling attributes, Hitchens claims, is that its followers “can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding.” William Saletan, meanwhile, argues that the church’s adherents are a more diverse bunch than Hitchens gives them credit for, citing the differences between Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Harry Reid—as well as a New York Times story from yesterday about Romney’s past as a church leader. Not “all Mormons are alike,” Saletan writes.
Depending on where you live, you may have immediately thought of an ad campaign the Mormon church rolled out in nine cities in 2010—and in 12 more this year. In each spot, an ordinary American tells you about his or her life—her family, job, quirky habits and so on—and then, as a kind of kicker, says, “And I’m a Mormon.” The ads, far slicker than the church’s 1980s efforts (which seemed corny even then), were hailed as “savvy,” and received a good deal of media attention. The church was credited for highlighting Mormons who don’t fit the usual stereotype: a “black musician in an interracial marriage,” for instance, and “a mother and artist who says she doesn’t believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” to quote an ABC News story from last year.
Last week the campaign released a video from someone a little better known: Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers, a Las Vegas-based rock band that has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide:
The video hews closely to the campaign’s usual formula: Flowers talks about himself, then about his values, and then he connects those values to his Mormon faith. Near the end, Flowers talks a bit about his public persona: “A lot of people love to come up to me and tell me they were raised in the church,” Flowers says, “and they expect there to be this camaraderie of, oh, we’ve outgrown it now, we’re smart enough now to not be in it.” One can understand why this would happen: In 2004, Spin identified Flowers as an ex-Mormon, and he has been candid in the past about his drinking and smoking, activities forbidden for devout members of the Mormon church.
But as the existence of this video suggests, Flowers doesn’t see himself as an ex-Mormon, at least not anymore. (If he did, he could have participated in a different video campaign.) What’s interesting about this is the way Flowers frames his re-affirmed faith: “I was raised in it,” he says, “and I still... it’s...” He chuckles. “There’s still a fire burning in there.” That’s the last thing he says before the more standard send-off: “I’m a father, and I’m a husband, and I’m a Mormon.”
Coverage of the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign has generally focused on the new way the Mormon church was presenting itself to the outside world. But as someone who grew up Mormon and left the church in college, I am more intrigued by how the campaign presents Mormons to themselves. John Dehlin, a progressive Mormon who runs a podcast called Mormon Stories, suggested to ABC News that the videos in many ways present a more tolerant and inclusive picture of the church than many Mormons experience; that seems right to me. And some may see that as duplicitous—perhaps fairly so. But by allowing individuals to claim the identity of Mormons for themselves, and tell their own stories, the campaign could, one imagines, actually begin to alter ideas within the church about what it means to be Mormon. Among the hundreds of personal narratives that have been uploaded to mormon.org are several written by gay Mormons, and at least one by someone who is black, bisexual, and Mormon.
Now, given the church’s history on the subject of race and its policies regarding gay marriage, why would anyone who is both black and bisexual choose to be Mormon? I have no idea. But, thanks to this ad campaign, you can, on a website owned and operated by the Mormon church, read someone else’s explanation.