“I’m a Mormon” Campaign

Guest post by Taylor Kerby

I went on my mission at the high peak of the “I’m a Mormon Campaign.” We would often watch through the posted videos, ostensibly for the sake of our investigators, but also probably as a product of having no other entertainment. It was commonplace for us to play these videos during our lessons and, as a missionary assigned to a Chinese-speaking area, it was important to have something, anything, that featured a person who looked like the people I served.

Many of these videos are etched in my mind, and when I think about them, I feel a sad mix of nostalgia and longing for the sort of Mormonism they endorsed and proudly displayed in Times Square and other secular spaces. The thesis of the “I’m a Mormon Campaign” was that Mormonism represented a unified group of nevertheless very different people.

I don’t know if that thesis was actually true. I think it was. But even if it wasn’t, even if Mormonism is a great monolith of cookie-cutter personalities, it mattered that we Mormons believed it was true. It continues to matter that we do.

One video featured a stay-at-home dad. It was meant to push back against the stereotype of Mormons as relics of a 1950’s past. It was meant to say that we are more complex than that. Whether or not we actually are, it also gave us Mormons permission to be.

Another video showed a tough biker dude who confessed that he wasn’t always the best Mormon but tried his best to be. It was meant to push back against the stereotype of Mormonism as being all-consuming. Whether or not it was true, it gave us permission to have a more nuanced relationship with our religion and to more readily accept seemingly “less faithful” members as fully Mormon.

In several videos, we were introduced to people of color (and also here, here, here, here, and here) who were also faithful Mormons. It was meant to show the world that there were all sorts of people who were also Mormons. This was, and is, certainly true. But also, it mattered much more that we white members of the Church knew it. And that we knew we did not hold a monopoly on Mormonism as a heritage.

I could go on. Even now thinking back to them I feel that tender longing for that version of my faith. In the wake of President Nelson’s injunction to not use the term “Mormon” these videos have become forgotten. And I worry that the version of Mormonism they supported may also be falling away. We need to be reminded of the truths they conveyed. People outside our faith will view us however they’re going to view us. But how we view ourselves matters. In fact, I would argue it matters much, much more. And if we are serious about creating an eternal community here on earth, we must begin with accepting a version of a “Mormon us”  that is bigger, and infinitely more complex, than the “Mormon me.”

Comments

  1. Kimberly K Walsh says:

    Thank you. I am inactive. I joined the Church as an adult. I tend to think that I have to be perfect in every way. Follow every rule. Therefore I am inactive as there is no way that is happening. I am just coming to the realization it is okay to show up as I am. I have been told this before but it is finally sinking in. I read your essay this morning and felt it verify that I am on the right path again. Thank you for being part of my journey.

  2. “… a unified group of nevertheless very different people.”

    Oh, how I wish this was true. We have an ongoing caste system in the church. Look at the Stake Presidents being called… consistently reinforcing a stereotype. Any exceptions prove the rule. We have stereotypes for what successful members look like and how they behave which are far outside fidelity to a Christian life.

  3. President Hinckley was a PR man, and he likely influenced Monson and other Q15 to create the I’m a Mormon campaign. Nelson and Oaks are decidedly not PR men.

    We swapped I’m a Mormon (and proud of it) to Mormon is a bad word.

  4. I have good news. If you look at recent Church media, you’ll see the same “I’m a Mormon” aesthetic very much alive and in use.

  5. C.Keen – can you provide some examples/links? I’d like to think this is true, but my perception has been that welcoming diversity among our ranks has been downplayed while more emphasis has been placed on rigid adherence to rules (the covenant path TM), orthodoxy, and not getting carried away with loving your neighbor (bizarrely putting the first and second great commandments against each other).

  6. Southern Saint says:

    Toad,

    Not only was President Hinckley a PR man, but so was President Monson, who was formerly an advertising executive for Deseret News. He and Hinckley (who was the Church representative for publications) worked closely together before they were both in the Quorum of the Twelve. You can tell that they were close because many of President Hinckley’s actions were expanded under President Monson (“I’m a Mormon” campaign, 2-stage progression in temples, etc…).

  7. Thank you. Even with all its complexities, I also have fond memories of the campaign.
    Your emphasis on the importance of how we view ourselves really resonates with me.

    There seems to be a reluctant acknowledgement of a slow decline in people’s attitudes about the church (and to be fair about a lot of other cultural and political institutions). And even if the I’m a Mormon campaign was purely aspirational, celebrating how the church can work in such varied ways with a wide group of people feels like a good thing.

  8. jdavidtedder says:

    Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the whole “‘Mormon’ is a bad word” campaign. To me, it feels like you’re trying to priggishly cram the whole thing out there to make a point, only to have them follow up with “what’s that?” to which you sigh and say, “I’m a Mormon.” I mean, I GET the point, but after a while, saying, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” really makes me want to avoid the subject.

  9. The power of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign with members of the Church was that the subjects were real, live members. Stock photos in our Church magazines or websites don’t have the same ability to connect. (To the contrary, I suspect many members view diverse media photos as “so much P.R.” and even “pandering” to diversity culture.)

    I wish we could bring back the “I’m a Mormon” campaign (under a different name), even if it were just intended for those who are already members. “I’m a Latter-day Saint” anyone?

  10. Amen.

  11. I like the phrase “a unified group of nevertheless very different people”. I believe a lot of progress has been made. This happens as we come into the fold of God by making and keeping covenants. This is a clear message from President Nelson. Not much else matters, and I like that.

  12. The problem I have with President Nelson disliking the name “Mormon” is that you don’t get to pick your nickname. Others assign it to you. You don’t get a say. That’s how nicknames work.

    The whole point of “I’m a Mormon” was trying to put a positive spin on a nickname that the whole world chose decades ago and uses anyway.

    Telling someone to stop using a nickname rarely works. President Hinckley understood this and tried to roll with the punches. I think he set a good example. President Nelson just comes off looking like a sulky child.

    Satan didn’t pick the name, someone else did and it caught on and most people know us by that name whether we like it or not. And that’s not changing any time soon.

  13. J. Mansfield says:

    Some years back I saw an issue of National Geographic on the newsstand, and the cover story featured a name that mystified me. I tried sounding it out: “Kolkata? . . . Oh, Calcutta’s been updated.”

    The “you’re using the wrong name and that’s immoral” thing is sometimes tiresome, but it is very much part of the spirit of the age.

  14. All religions have nick names, and most are sensible enough to accept theirs, even to the point of proudly calling themselves by that identity. There is something about Nelson’s dislike of ours that resembles shame in who we are. I think Hinckley understood that trying to get rid of the nickname, instead of changing the attitudes like Nelson’s doesn’t solve the real problem. The real problem is feeling shame in who we are, and Nelson is not the only Mormon who feels this way.

    OK, Mormons are different, and instead of being proud to be a “peculiar” people, many Mormons are embarrassed. They are kind of ashamed of who we are and what we believe. And, well, we do believe some really weird things if you look at them objectively. Joseph Smith saw an angel, who told him about a buried book? I mean, most of my friends believe in Christianity, sort of, just no dead people coming back as angels, or angels, or dead people talking to anyone, let alone God talking to anyone. But, oh yeah, they believe in angels, ummmm, theoretically, but not literally. So, yeah, we are different and really kinda weird.

    And that’s not even getting into the unpopular things like gay issues, or how we treated blacks and how we currently treat women. I have to admit that I am embarrassed by my church at times, so I really do understand people who believe it is all true and perfect, but don’t really feel proud of it all.

    But there is something the matter when you are ashamed of or embarrassed about who you are and what you believe. I am a retired social worker and took lots and lots of psychology classes in school, and being embarrassed or ashamed of of any aspect of who you are says there is a problem you need to examine. Even f it is just a nickname. When there is such a problem, one should examine it and see why one feels embarrassed or ashamed. Personally, I have done that and found that why I didn’t want to be known as a Mormon is some areas of disagreement. Now, I am fine to be known as Mormon, even “dyed in the wool” as one friend told me, because I know where I stand on the ways I am not so perfectly Mormon.

    But rather than embracing the nickname as if we are proud of it and what it represents, like Hinckley tried to do, Nelson wants to get rid of the nickname. I think he needs to look at why he feels the nickname is “bad”. Is it because people think we are not Christian? Well, Baptists and Methodists don’t have that problem, so maybe he needs to look closer at what he is upset about with the label “Mormon”.

    Personally, I hope the next prophet brings back the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. I liked the fact that it was trying to teach that you can be a good Mormon and have tattoos, be a working Mom, be a person with dark skin, be a stay at home Dad, have 6 earrings in each ear and a nose ring. We Mormons need to learn that lesson more than the people who are not Mormon do. I wish we would stop redoing conference talks in church meetings and start watching “I am a Mormon” videos about how a person can be any sort of person they want and still be a good Mormon.

  15. The term Mormon is more fitting for me now than ever before. It’s easier to quickly tell people where I worship, aligns my faith with my ancestors, sets me apart from evangelicals, and distinguishes me as not a TBM- all wins for me even if it is a victory for Satan.

  16. A possible explanation for rejecting the “Mormon” name is that it’s part of a project to redefine the Church to position it more favorably for long-term growth worldwide.

    The Church has evolved with every generation as some teachings gain strength and other teachings fade away. That evolution has usually been in response to the drift of the wider culture. I’m thinking here about something different: a proactive redefinition of the Church that the Q15 might undertake systematically over a relatively long period of time.

    Why would the apostles do this now? There are two reasons. First, because they recognize that the Church is at a pivot point. The Church has grown large enough to contemplate becoming a genuine worldwide presence. At the same time, the Church’s overall membership is now at zero growth and is probably contracting. It’s time to think about where the Church’s best prospects for growth will be located during the next century. Those opportunities probably will not be in the traditional growth regions of North America, South America, and Oceania. Nor is there likely to be growth in Europe. The best prospects are likely to be in Africa and Asia. In those regions, the Church’s image does not carry the cultural baggage associated with “Mormonism.” We have a relatively clean slate to redefine the Church, if we want to use it.

    Second, because $100 billion-plus creates enormous flexibility. The Church’s financial resources give it the wherewithal to withstand a long period of stagnation. The Q15 might believe that a time of stagnation can best be used to put the Church on a new path.

    Think of it as creating a new brand identity for the Church. The “I’m a Mormon” campaign was a brilliant piece of branding, right? The problem with it is that it wasn’t radical enough to meet changing cultural conditions. The Q15 might be thinking on a much bigger scale. The Church’s new brand has to be genuinely international. That means ditching many of the most distinctively American things about Mormonism. Since America is now in decline, that’s a smart move; the advantage of being associated with American cultural cachet is not going to last much longer. This is a painful aspect of the change, from the point of view of many American members of the Church. It means de-emphasizing the Mormon pioneer heritage and most of the cultural markers that we associate with that heritage—including the nickname!

    What other “Mormon” things might also be de-emphasized? When I listen to general conference talks these days, I think I’m hearing less about the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith, and other past Church leaders. I’m hearing a lot more about living prophets. I’m hearing a lot more about a more generically Christian way of understanding Jesus.

    Of course, I’m speculating. Maybe my speculation is simply wrong. Maybe, if there is a long-term plan for growth, it looks different from what I’ve described. I’m just trying to make sense of the trends that are happening right in front of us.

  17. I worked in the Public Affairs Department of the Church during the “I’m A Mormon” campaign. I don’t think it was so much a “Mormonism represented a unified group of nevertheless very different people” as it was the notion that the world saw us as different, i.e., sort of “weird,” and it was a campaign that tried to show that we are, for the most part, very much like your everyday neighbors and friends. The idea was, I think, if people “got to know” a Mormon person, they’d find that we are very much like every other person you’d meet on the street. I’m not sure that it was terribly effective–I don’t remember what the evaluations showed, but while I think that that is true to some extent, it doesn’t take long for you to recognize in a new ward who’s ‘everyday’ and who’s ‘bit better than everyone else.’ Sadly.

  18. Aussie Mormon says:

    “The idea was, I think, if people “got to know” a Mormon person, they’d find that we are very much like every other person you’d meet on the street”

    That’s what I always assumed it was meant to be about.

  19. Antonio Parr says:

    Fairchild writes:

    Case in point:

    George Costanzo chose “T-Bone” and ended up with “Gammy” (with a brief interlude as “Coco”). Like governments, people ultimately end up with the nickname they deserve.

    Respectfully,

    “Apollo”

  20. Antonio Parr says:

    Fairchild writes:

    ~The problem I have with President Nelson disliking the name “Mormon” is that you don’t get to pick your nickname. Others assign it to you. You don’t get a say. That’s how nicknames work.~

    Case in point:

    George Costanza chose “T-Bone” and ended up with “Gammy” (with a brief interlude as “Coco”). Like governments, people ultimately end up with the nickname they deserve.

    Respectfully,

    Apollo

  21. bagofsand says:

    I think it’s interesting that the church’s emphasis on its real name comes at a time when the general public is growing doubtful the reality of an historical Jesus. It could very well be that over time the church will become a flagship for those who believe in a literal Jesus–and that he was who he said he was.

  22. Just thinking….of course when Jesus established His church, there was no “Mormon”–just a modern nickname. The members have always been Saints, whether early -day, latter- day or the future millennial -day Saints. In the hereafter, I imagine most of the billions of deceased who accept the gospel will identify as Saints, and Mormon is the guy the book. Mormon is there himself and probably thought it was weird when some latter-day saints start arriving and referring to themselves as Mormons. lol

  23. I still struggle with this campaign, because I felt strongly the whiplash it generated by holding up as models people whose choices (working outside the home, tattoos, etc) I was constantly warned against while a child in the church. I would have liked a church that really was that diverse, but the campaign felt like one message to outsiders and a different one to members.

  24. Natalie, that is exactly why I would like to see such a campaign marketed to insiders. We need to stop being told that there is only one righteous hair style, one righteous way to wear earrings, one righteous way to live and start being told that being kind is more important than all of us looking like clones. We need to realize that Jesus was a long haired, bearded, sandal wearing hippy and that it is OK to try to be like Him. We in the church need to start being told that one size doesn’t fit everyone and that that is alright to be different as long as it is righteous difference. Women need to be told that as long as your children are loved and properly cared for, it doesn’t matter if a mother works outside of the home, in fact the outcome for her and her children is often better.

    We were pounded so long and so hard to be and look like we were still in the 1950s, that we were all shocked when the church started saying, hey world, we are normal people. We had been taught we were a peculiar people, not “normal” and that being normal was worldly and bad. We were taught that women were mothers and wives, but not that we were also human beings. Then we saw the church rewarding all these people who were “of the world normal” and it wasn’t fair. Like you said whiplash.

    If the church wants outsiders to see us as normal, maybe it needs to let us be normal. We don’t need to be stuck in the 1950s to be righteous.

  25. it's a series of tubes says:

    We need to stop being told that there is only one righteous hair style, one righteous way to wear earrings, one righteous way to live and start being told that being kind is more important than all of us looking like clones.

    Well said, Anna.

  26. Mormonism has gone from “I am a Mormon” to “major victory for Satan” and both were supposedly from the Lord. I wonder what the next prophet will say.

  27. Mark Kleinman says:

    Taylor: You are so right on! You must have great parents and clearly the best of old(er) church leaders when you were a young man!

  28. Tania Rands Lyon says:

    Amen and amen. I loved that campaign.

  29. Agree, that campaign was actually more useful inside the Church to show many ways to Mormon than it was outside the Church. I think we’re of two minds on that now, with LDS media doing a much better job at showing and showcasing diverse people and backgrounds but with General Conference retrenching all over the place.

  30. Wish I could find the clip of Colbert’s “I’m a Catholic” version. Showed he was one of the hip kids. ;)

  31. Alma, it’s still there. Look for: Yahweh or no way – Mormons & God’s poll numbers. It’s in the second half of the clip, though the first half is also very good.

  32. purple_flurp says:

    I was going to mention the Steven Colbert clip, I think the message of it was ‘If you’re making such a great effort to convince people that you are normal, you’re probably not normal”.

    I was at the end of my mission when the campaign started rolling out. I did think that the overall idea was a bit cringey at the time, but again, the videos of the diverse set of individuals who identified as mormon were quite powerful. I appreciated that aspect of it. It’s hard not to equate the image of the general membership of the church with the image of its leadership. A bunch of Howard Hamlins running around and micromanaging everything.

    That said, I can see why, from the church’s perspective, moniker aside, they might not want to do such a thing again. You can make all these nice videos about a diverse set of people calling themselves “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-Saints, or whatever moniker they prefer, but should those people later walk away from the church, it can really damage the message. It’s basically the David Archuleta situation.

    They want to avoid posterboy situations because they don’t trust the general membership anymore, we’ve seen that with the efforts to enforce ideological purity at the BYU’s.

  33. Utah Man Am I says:

    Some of the videos on the Mormon and Gay website have the same feel, even if they are white upper-class families in Utah. I’m thinking of Tonya’s Story and the Mackintoshs.

    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/topics/gay/videos/tonyas-story?lang=eng

    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/video/2016-03-0029-the-mackintoshs-story?lang=eng

  34. Here’s another recent film in the “I’m Mormon” Vein. https://youtu.be/_3ajMLIHJ2c

    The featured member doesn’t fit the stereotypical model of a Mormon belt Latter-day Saint. If I remember right, she quotes Delbert Stapley and BRM in support of her pro-choice stance. https://www.instagram.com/calyannbarnett/?hl=en

  35. Almost nobody except perhaps religious academics understand or interpret the word ‘Saints’ as we do, this is fundamental to our failure to promote our brand and alienates people from us every bit as much as claiming to be the restored version of christianity may endear us to them. They see it as presumptive. Nothing will change in our failure to communicate our message until we understand this. Sigh. And few if any want to hear us justify ourselves whilst on the back foot because people feel alienated by that seeming presumption.

  36. There’s still people around that think if you join the Church, you will have to give up motorized vehicles, since the only (LDS? insert the “correct” term for Church here) people they know of are Missionaries on bike, or, Public Transit. Or, some still think women will always have to wear dresses if they join the Church, again from the Sister Missionaries around. Insisting on a different name for the Church won’t fix this, but, the “I’m a Mormon” series seemed a good way to fight this lack of knowledge.

    I also remember when the Q15 went to Rome, and visited the Pope. It was almost presented as though this would get millions of Catholics to dive into LDS Baptism fonts. That didn’t happen.

  37. Anna wrote: “If the church wants outsiders to see us as normal, maybe it needs to let us be normal.” Chef’s kiss.

  38. I rather think the church would like the world to know that we’re rational human beings. As far as being “normal” is concerned–it is an heritage of the saints the be a peculiar people.

  39. The name of the church is one of those subjects where Nelson has NOT received revelation and is pushing a personal vendetta. His first talk about it was in the 90s, and church leadership quietly brushed it under the rug. But now he’s in charge, and Nelson’s agenda is at the forefront and this is the result.

  40. Aussie Mormon says:

    Padoogi says: “The name of the church is one of those subjects where Nelson has NOT received revelation and is pushing a personal vendetta. ”

    The revelation came in 1838. And the revealed name didn’t contain the word “Mormon”.

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