Becoming Normal: LDS strategy during the "Mormon Moment"
I don't know if there'll ever be an end to black-suited Latter Day Saints bicycling their way through two-year missions, but I have noticed a new cadre of Mormon missionaries lately, sans bicycles. You may have, too, if you read lifestyle blogs, watch television, or follow U.S. politics. Mormons, the polygamist cult that fled to Mexican-owned Utah (because it was a place no one else wanted) after being expelled from a series of mid-western states, are now trying a different tactic: being normal. Or rather, just a tad bit better than normal.
There's a sense in the LDS community (and outside of it as well) that we're in the middle of another "Mormon moment" due to Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck and a cadre of reality show contestants. The organization wants to manage the moment well, and has put great effort into normalizing the religion as a valid church choice. The "becoming normal" strategy seems to have two prongs: becoming likeable, and taking focus off distasteful teachings.
Becoming likeable is, in many ways, showing an "All-American" persona that doesn't exist in most places anymore (and maybe never did.) The organization capitalizes on a certain wholesome innocence. As a group, Mormons are community-minded, volunteer many more hours than the average U.S. citizen. They're pro-family and pro-marriage, and their lives bring to mind words like sweet, industrious, clean.
The first stage started in earnest several years ago, and centers around being just a little bit better than normal. Not so much better that they're intimidating, just enough better than you wish they were your neighbors, or best friends, or you. Mormon Olympic athletes, competitors on reality TV talent shows, actors and musicians are often refreshingly wholesome and charming, standing out in the midst of catty, trashy or less-talented peers. These are the kind of people you want to root for, want to get to know, want to be like.
A major tactic for likeability is blogging. Five years ago, the organization began encouraging young people to blog as a way to witness to the world. Today, cheerful mommy blogs, DIY blogs, blogs on politics, and (of course) religion bear electronic badges professing their faith. The witty, fun, creative bloggers project a centered, often simplified life. The word "Retro" comes to mind when reading perhaps the most popular category of Mormon blogs: Hip and happy homemakers married to adoring husbands who produce sweet, well-behaved, creative children who love each other as much as they love crafting with mom. Mormons and non-Mormons read these blogs regularly to get a new recipe, be inspired to be creative, or just fantasize a while about a more orderly and joyful life. Tidbits of Mormon religion or church life are woven in, and occasionally, an essay about the religion is posted "just to answer all those questions you all have about my faith!"
The second tactic focuses on shedding the ballast of distasteful doctrines. Case in point: using the "I'm a Mormon" marketing campaign to escape it's racist reputation.
In many major cities, a rainbow of ethnically-diverse LDS members smile down from billboards, subways and taxicabs. This campaign is part of the normalizing strategy ("Look--I'm Mormon, and I'm just like you!") But the church also hopes the strategy will combat its racist label. Executive Director of the Missionary Department, Richard G. Hinckley, is quoted on mormon.org as saying “Generally, misconceptions arise as a result of inaccurate information. When people are better informed, misconceptions about us tend to diminish.”
Presumably, these misconceptions include that the organization teaches racist doctrine. Until 1979, the church denied priesthood (given to all other Mormon men) to African American men because they believed that black skin was the mark of Cain and that the ethnic group may have been "fence-sitters" in the pre-creation battle between God and Satan. This doctrine is now disavowed.
The organization's outreach website, Mormon.org, was revamped in 2010 to underscore the "We're just like you" message. Instead of focusing on alienating beliefs ( like right living can earn a man a promotion to a god of his own universe, or that members are required to wear special symbol-laden undergarments that some credit with supernatural powers), the website focuses on the friendly, normal faces of Mormons you can relate to.
The marketing is working. The LDS organization is seen less as a cult and more like a denomination of the Christian faith. Make no mistake, however. This isn't truth in advertizing. Jesus Christ, as He presented Himself (not as Satan's brother, or the son of God and God's wife, as the Book of Mormon says), is Truth.
"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world."
--1 John 4:1