There’s little doubt that the LDS Church’s “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign is making good headway when it has received attention from comedian Stephen Colbert.
His funny but, alas, sacrilegious, mock advertisement of how Catholics show how cool they are created a wonderfully favorable dynamic for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I thought.
But it is the New York Times article, titled “To Be Young, Hip and Mormon,” that really captured my attention. The article covers Brandon Flowers, front man for the band the Killers, and his new “I’m a Mormon” advertisement.
In fairness, this Style section article seemed well-intentioned, and it showed admiration for Latter-day Saints, but there’s something that troubled me about it.
The article states the LDS Church’s image is shaped by the conservative missionary look. But the reporter writes, “On college campuses, city streets and countless style blogs, a young generation of Mormons has adopted a fashion-forward urban aesthetic (geek-chic glasses, designer labels and plenty of vintage) that wouldn’t look out of place at a Bushwick party.”
The article then goes on to describe how there are limits to the LDS codes of dress, however, and such limits are a challenge for the “creative class.”
The article then describes Latter-day Saints with tattoos and facial hair and how others feel the need to work around requirements for modesty. As is the Times way, many of those who the writer quote, at least a few anyway, seem to be Latter-day Saints who have left full activity.
The article’s sidebar captures the tone: “Rebelling, if only just a little.” Then it shows a series bullet points of “What the church teaches,” followed by “How to get around it.”
My main trouble with the New York Times piece was its subtle, even subversive, message. It suggests that the LDS Church is a stodgy church that needs to adapt its standards to the modern era. (I have read coverage from the 1960s that did the same thing in Time magazine.)
It seems to imply that Latter-day Saints follow a cultural, conservative faith that meets the sociological needs of its members and is a cultural force — while ignoring its more powerful claims of truth. The people are OK, the article seems to say, but the church as an institution needs to get with the program.
The article seems just another way of not taking the church and the arguments it makes seriously.
It’s at times like this I wish I could write like Hugh Nibley. I think he would say something like, “See how this gets the Times off the hook? Articles like this allow those journalists to demonstrate: ‘Those evangelicals are a bunch of bigots — they think Mormons are cult members. We think they are very cool. We accept them, even though their religion is out of sync with the times. See some of them even run away from their church’s doctrines.'”
Then I could imagine Nibley going right at them for sophistry and for what he might call the false priesthoods and priests of the media industry.
But I am me. I am an observer. Much of the writing about the church, as generous and as favorable as it seems sometimes, becomes a kind of avoidance in the end. It all seems like so much cognitive dissonance. Reporters don’t seem to want to tackle the implications of LDS belief.
Even Colbert’s shtick seems full of this dissonance.
Colbert says, “Mormons say Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel on a hill when everybody knows that Moses got stone tablets from a burning bush on a mountain.”
The best way to read Colbert's approach is that religious people believe that Moses received revelations, so it isn’t so strange that Joseph Smith did too.
But, really, Colbert seems to be including Latter-day Saints not in a world of believed, fervent religion but including them in a world where religious belief is silly — so Latter-day Saints are silly too, but that's OK because all beliefs are silly.
It's the same argument that Broadway's “Book of Mormon" musical makes. If religion helps you get through this troubled world, that’s great; but religion is as silly as believing in the Force and the return of some Jedi knight.
Here’s the thing. We really do believe that a young boy came out of the woods with a remarkable book — and the book exists with dramatic, profound implications in its truth.
I call on reporters and readers to do what the Christian religion has always done — to come and truly see. See what it is about The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints that produces the fire within, that provides second chances so evident in this LDS advertising campaign. I call on them to really hear the underlying message at Mormon.org:
If Latter-day Saints are good people, even, somehow, strangely hip for a time, it isn’t in spite of their religious beliefs, it is because of them.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.