About Merlin’s Mormonism…

It was my experience growing up LDS that Mormons have always been eager to point out successful Mormon celebrities where they could. The blog Waters of Mormon explains this phenomenon well:

Having famous Church members in the news in a variety of professional fields–business, sports, singing and dancing — provides a certain comfort to Latter-Day Saints who can see fellow Saints be successful on a national stage, even beyond the simple “good PR for the Church” standpoint.

If I (or one of my kids) wants to be a successful entrepreneur (or musician, or athlete, or writer) it’s nice to be able to point to some famous person and say, “See, he or she is a faithful Church member while also being successful at career X”. Having famous and/or successful Mormons sends the message outwardly that Church members are ‘normal’ and play regular roles in regular society — we’re not all cooped up in armed compounds in southern Utah or Texas or something — but also sends the message inwardly that secular success and spiritual success can mix: that faithful Saints don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other.

Of course, in order for this to really count, those famous Mormons have to be faithful and active also. Just being a member doesn’t mean much: if those famous Mormons are not currently active and practicing — even if the reasons for not being active have nothing to do with their chosen profession — they don’t really work as ‘examples’ for other Saints who might want to believe that they can be successful in their career without being forced to compromise their beliefs somewhere along the line.

In most professions, one can find any number of active and inactive Church members. Acting, however, seems to be an outlier.

It’s true that there just aren’t that many famous Mormon actors. When I was growing up, Merlin Olsen, the former football great turned broadcaster and family-friendly TV star, was frequently identified as a prominent exception. Granted, this is an awfully subjective metric here, but I was always under the impression that he was a Mormon in good standing.

So that’s why I was so sorely disappointed in the coverage of Olsen following his recent death. Olsen’s faith wasn’t mentioned in the Los Angeles Times or USA Today obituaries. And incredibly, for one of Utah’s more famous native sons, it wasn’t noted in the The Salt Lake Tribune. Adding to the confusion, the Los Angeles Daily News does identify him as Mormon. And the The New York Times does bring up his Mormon background, but doesn’t explain much:

“I was raised in a very strict Mormon home and in a Mormon community,” The Post-Standard of Syracuse quoted him as saying when he took the role of the Amish patriarch Aaron Miller. “There are certain things I can lean back on and remember in a family situation that helped me to work as an actor.”

For a guy that was identified as Mormon for decades, isn’t this all a bit odd? It kind of set off alarm bells when even the church-owned Deseret News didn’t discuss Olsen’s faith in their obituary. So I did a little poking around the internet and I saw some claims that Olsen was a non-devout cultural Mormon. He wasn’t an active LDS member, though he was loyal to his family which was still active in the faith. He believed strongly in the Mormon values imparted in him, and as such, perhaps didn’t mind being the face of the church.

That’s an interesting explanation, and if it’s true it would probably make for a fascinating story. Regardless, somebody on the Godbeat ought to get to the bottom of why someone frequently identified as Mormon suddenly wasn’t Mormon when he died.

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  • John

    I think Donnie & Marie are a good example of why perhaps a faithful member of the Mormon church might not want to be the “face” of the church. When the church comes under attack for anything, invariably Donnie & Marie have to answer for it.
    I know that Aaron Eckhart chooses not to comment on his religious beliefs because he feels that the church shouldn’t be judged on how he lives his life.

  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    I am LDS and found Mark’s observations to be spot-on. We do like to point out faithful LDS people who happen to be in the public consciousness. It’s nice to know that they can be celebrities but also faithful to their church.

    This might be my imagination, but it seems like it’s more common for journalists to report that someone was formerly LDS, or was raised LDS but is no longer practicing. Katherine Heigl and Jewel are two off the top of my head.

    I guess an obituary isn’t the place to talk about former religious beliefs (?) but you’d think if he was a faithful Mormon they’d mention it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The former governor of our state (Mitt Romney) is a practicing Mormon. Here in Ma. (largely Catholic) it was no problem. Also, little was made of it in the news media here.
    He was considered to be just a member of one of those little Protestant sects that dot the countryside to the West and South.
    Consequently, many people here were a bit surprised at how the media obssessed over his religion to the point he had to give a JFK to the Protestant ministers like speech trying to clear the air on the issue.

  • Linda

    There are many people for whom faith is a very personal, private thing. I know it is for me, which is why I find it difficult to bring up the subject with others, as missionary opportunities. This article is correct in that others in his family are very devout, as I have met some of them. I especially got to talk at length with his sister, who’s faith just staggers me, as it was at the funeral of one of her sons. She, and the rest of the family, exuded hope and faith, and I am sure they were the same with her brother. Even if he was not devout in practicing his religion, I could tell that it did deeply affect him in a positive way.