The LDS Church has for years been employing textbook practices to update its brand image and to show why six million Americans and more than twelve million members worldwide can be committed to such a faith. In 1995, the church’s logo was redesigned to emphasize the words “Jesus Christ” in the church’s formal title. The church’s current president, 96-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley has endeared himself to a more standard public relations circuit than any of his predecessors. He’s appeared on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace, Larry King Live, and granted interviews to Newsweek.
We’ve touted our most publicly lauded members, names that roll off the average American tongue and give credibility to our lifestyle: Steve Young, Gladys Knight, Stephen Covey, J.W. Marriott, Jon Huntsman. Now Romney and Harry Reid on the political scene. Add Jim Quigley, CEO of Deloitte & Touche, Gary Crittenden, CFO of CitiGroup, and David Neelemann, founder of JetBlue. It’s a roster of people who are doing something right.
But what are we to do about our faith? We are, after all, not just an inert product to be shaped by slogans and spokesmen. We are believers, and thus ultimately outside the malleability of marketers. No matter how pristine our brand image becomes, no matter how nice or successful or even normal people think we are, they will inevitably return to what we believe.
Mormons are followers of Christ. But we have some unique doctrines. That’s a fact. We believe in an additional book of scripture, the Book of Mormon, which we believe gives the spiritual history of the “other sheep” Jesus talks about John 10:16. We believe in a living prophet—currently a fabulous old man named Gordon B. Hinckley—who we believe to have as much communication with God as Moses or Isaiah of Biblical times and who gives us guidance and counsel for our own time. We believe that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three distinct personages who are one in purpose. In this way, we will never adhere to the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325 which proclaimed the “mystery of the trinity”, and therefore we will always be considered “non-Christian” by some who wish to make discipleship of Christ exclusive.
Recent cover stories in Newsweek and Time have boiled down our most sacred beliefs into sound bites and charts, comparing our beliefs with those of other Christian denominations and suggesting the nuanced variances would determine a future president’s entire governing policy. I continue to be baffled at how our doctrines inspire animosity and prejudice in the 21st century. With everything from yoga to reincarnation to secularism dotting the spiritual landscape of our age, I don’t understand why some people still feel threatened by our varying perception of Jesus Christ.
But does a stereotype take root in a fact or a feeling? Mormons have traditionally been stereotyped by our statistics: young marriage, large families, waves of missionaries. Or else we are known by our young, dramatic history: the 3,000 mile pioneer trek to avoid persecution, the large polygamous families of the mid-19th century. These facts contribute to our identity as a people, but no bias in this liberal age should remain so myopic.
We would like to be perceived by feeling as well. We work hard to be good neighbors, responsible workers, loving parents. We sponsor vast humanitarian efforts. Between 1985 and 2006, the church donated cash of more than $201 million and goods of more than $705 million in disaster relief to 163 countries, all from the 10% tithing that members pay. We stay healthy by observing a health code, the Word of Wisdom, which prohibits the use of tobacco, alcohol and coffee. We honor the sanctity of things and believe there is worth in structures and traditions of the past. We share values with most Christians throughout the world, such as the sanctity of the family and of unborn life, the need for tolerance and charity, and the desire to be close to God in a turbulent world. We hope our people are, as Hinckley has said, “the most meaningful expression of our faith, in fact, the symbol of our worship.”
Maybe it’s too much to ask. Maybe the doctrine will always obscure the fruits of our labor. Maybe knowledgeable Americans will continue to dwell on our differences, point to our abuses, our failures, our oddities. There is a trove of them. But maybe there’s some American out there who hasn’t heard the water cooler jokes, who hasn’t seen Big Love or read Under the Banner of Heaven. Maybe that person will take a look at Mitt Romney, or at a member of the church in Ghana, or at me and say, those are the Mormons.