Got faith? Hip Mormons without the religion

Oh, To Be Young, Hip and Mormon.

That was the stylish headline this week as the Old Gray Lady devoted 1,800 words to cool Mormons — as opposed to the regular, stuffy kind.

Hip Mormons, you should know, favor facial hair, tattoos and Pellegrino (mineral water that might make other partygoers “assume you are in recovery,” instead of someone, heaven forbid, who does not believe in drinking alcohol).

As you might imagine, this New York Times literally salivates over the possibility of young Mormons who find a way around “what the church says.” With all the hyperventilating, however, there’s not much in the way of actual reporting (read: journalism) on what these hip Mormons believe or practice related to their faith. (There is plenty of ink given to special underwear.)

The top of the story:

WITH his manly stubble, flannel shirt and skinny black jeans, Brandon Flowers looks every bit the hipster front man for his rock band, the Killers.

With songs about drowning one’s sorrows in bourbon or exploring the seedy underbelly of his hometown, Las Vegas, Mr. Flowers has sold more than 15 million records worldwide. In the past, he has been candid about his drinking, smoking and taste for blackjack.

But in a gauzy four-minute video, an advertisement for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that was posted online earlier this month, the singer stares at the camera and says, “I’m a father, I’m a husband, and I’m a Mormon.”

For decades, the popular image of Mormon style has been shaped by clean-cut young missionaries on bicycles in dark suits, white shirts and skinny black ties — and more recently by the sculptured coif of the presidential candidate Mitt Romney or the sporty style of the motocross-bike-riding Jon Huntsman, another Republican presidential candidate.

But the boundaries of Mormon style are expanding. The highly visible “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign (the subject of a major push on television, billboards, the subway and the Internet) seeks to quash strait-laced stereotypes by showing off a cool, diverse set of Mormons, including, besides Mr. Flowers, a leather-clad Harley aficionado, knit-cap-wearing professional skateboarder and an R & B singer with a shaved head.

With that lede, you’d expect to read more details later in the story about Flowers, right? How do the lyrics of his songs mesh with what he believes? Does he still drink, smoke and gamble? Or did he give up his vices, and if so, how did his faith play into his personal transformation? Does he make it a point to attend worship on Sundays? Does he try to skirt the edges of his church’s teachings? Why did he appear in the “I’m a Mormon? video? (For insiders, questions might include: Does he have a temple card? Is he a member in good standing who can do the required temple duties and rites?)

These are all questions that an actual journalistic report might address. The reporter would, perhaps, pick up the telephone and conduct an interview. Ask questions about Flowers’ faith. Dig below the surface of “young” and “hip.” But that does not happen in this story. Instead, Flowers makes a cameo appearance and then disappears entirely.

Interestingly, the Deseret News in Salt Lake City reported last week on the reaction to Flowers’ video:

Flowers has never denied his faith, but his official declaration of it has set off quite a reaction. In the video, Flowers discussed striving to maintain his standards in the wild world of rock music. Rachel Kaiser, a backup singer in Flowers’ solo tour, detailed what it was like working with him in a November Deseret News article.

“One of the first things he talked to me about was the fact we are both LDS,” Kaiser told the Deseret News. “I think it was a way to break the ice.”

The article continued: “Kaiser has been grateful for the high standards Flowers and others set. She has not been confronted with the partying, drugs and alcohol that often accompany musicians on tour.”

No partying, drugs or alcohol!? Flowers sounds much hipper in the Times. But I digress.

Back to the Times. How’s this for a blanket statement?:

Needless to say, countless Mormons work in fashion, design, art, music and film, and they generally dress and act just like anybody else.

At the risk of sounding petty, if they dress and act just like anybody else, what exactly makes them Mormon? Are we talking about cultural Mormons? Churchgoing Mormons? Again, the Times shows no interest in such relevant details.

But we get some salty language — courtesy of a Mormon! — at the end of the piece:

This is why many Brooklyn Mormons tended to host house parties of their own, Ms. Baker said. She recalled one party where someone brought a six-pack of O’Doul’s, which advertises itself as a non-alcoholic beer, “for shock value.” But typically, the only vice on display was sugar, in the form of a large dessert spread, the focal point of many a Mormon party, she added.

But even a table full of pies and pastries can pose a challenge, her brother, Britain, joked. “Because of all the dessert parties,” he said, “skinny jeans can be a bitch.”

Oh, To Be Young, Hip and Mormon.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Daniel

    What you seem to be saying is, this is a story without a story. In short, a piece without depth, shy on details, and words nearly without connotation. Just fluff to fill a box and meet a quota of content?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    It’s a shell of a story.

  • Eric

    As a practicing Mormon (although not a particularly hip one), I found the article shallow. I thought the writer also was trying too hard to make the LDS standards sound more restrictive than they are. While they can be somewhat limiting in some situations (especially for women in warm climates), it is possible go anywhere dressed in an LDS-appropriate way and not be noticed for being dressed unusually — which isn’t the case for some other religions, such as some branches of Islam or even some Christian sects such as the United Pentecostal Church.

    This actually could have been an interesting story — why not ask some of these young hipsters how they feel about the church standards, or find out the reason for them?

    And aren’t we past the days where it is socially required to consume alcohol? I’ve been to countless functions where alcohol is served, and I’ve never felt out of place. Something like a fourth of American adults don’t consume alcohol, sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes not — it’s just not that big of a deal.

    I do give the writer credit, though, for being respectful toward the faith. While there have been plenty of writers who have not-so-subtly ridiculed the temple garment, for example, the writer here treats it in an appropriate, matter-of-fact way. I appreciated that.

  • Stan

    In the documentary about the Mormon participation in the Proposition 8 campaign in California, “8: The Mormon Proposition,” the point is made that many of the Mormon missionaries sent into California to campaign for Proposition 8 in swing districts were told not to dress in the customary Mormon missionary attire (white shirts and ties), but to appear to look “like other young people.” Perhaps the trend toward “Mormon hip” is a church-inspired campaign technique–we may see more of it if Romney receives the Republican nomination. (LOL)

  • Scott Wiley

    One option would be to an exposé on the the thousands of people who’ve done “I’m a Mormon” profiles. But… That may be viewed by the mainstream as the lamest tabloid story of all time. I’m afraid that, while enjoy the profiles on their face, what you see is probably just about what there is – in a good way.

  • steven

    @Stan there was no covert insurgency by Mormon missionaries to push for Prop. 8. Using cloak and dagger methods was used against members of the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints was the venue of anti Mormons to harrass its members. The LDS population represents about 1% of California’s residents. The influence of the LDS church on that issue was nominal.

    While it is good to mitigate the walls of mistrust or fear, I feel the LDS church is trying too hard to be mainstream. If the point is to be like everyone else, there is no point in claiming you are unique. It is like the old joke, “you are unique just like everyone else.”

  • Murdock

    Bobby

    You are right about the unanswered, and apparently unasked, questions of the story. But, to be fair to the NYT, I note that the story appeared in the “Fashion & Style” section of the NYT which, on its face, would not include substance. You would not expect such questions to be addressed in “Vogue” would you?

    Now for a bit of nit-picking times four. “For insiders, questions might include: Does he have a temple [1] card? Is he a member in [2] good standing who can do the [3] required temple [4] duties and rites?”

    1. It is not a “temple card”, it is a “temple recommend” and, while it is in fact a card, nobody ever calls it a “card.” Don’t ask me why.

    2. One can be a member of the Church in good standing without having a temple recommend. Actually, nobody says “good standing” and the only similar terms are “active”, “less active” and “inactive” with the first term not necessarily including a temple recommend and the second and third terms referring to less-than-optimal situations to be addressed and remedied if possible.

    3. The word “required” might be a bit too strong. As I have alluded to in my second point above, it is not required to have a temple recommend, and thus it is not required to go to the temple, although it is certainly encouraged. If you do have a recommend, you should go to the temple at least once a month, or you might lose your recommend.

    4. With respect to the temple, nobody ever uses the term “duties” and I would say nearly the same thing about the term “rites.” The correct term, which is used well-nigh universally, is “ordinances” of the temple. As an aside, anyone who goes to the temple as a “duty” is missing out on most of the experience.

    You really need to get these things right or you will be . . . uncool. Yikes.

    Lastly, I suspect that, after six years of marriage and three kids, Brandon Flowers cleaned up his act, and got a recommend, and went to the temple with his wife and children to be sealed together as an eternal family. That is not too uncommon.

    Your friendly, middle-aged and not-too-cool cultist.

    Murdock

  • Dave

    I can’t fault the post, but it’s a bit petty. It’s not the kind of critique that will get outfits like the NYT to take GR seriously as a source of journalistic criticism.

  • Stan

    Steven, your account of the Mormons’ role in the Proposition 8 campaign has no basis in reality. I could supply you with citation after citation in which the Church acknowledges their participation in the campaign, including their paying a fine earlier this month for filing untruthful election reports. But I don’t think this is the place to do it, given the emphasis here on journalism.

  • R9

    this New York Times literally salivates

    People misusing the term literally should literally hit themselves around the head with a heavy object.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Murdock, thank you for the insight.

    You are right about the unanswered, and apparently unasked, questions of the story. But, to be fair to the NYT, I note that the story appeared in the “Fashion & Style” section of the NYT which, on its face, would not include substance. You would not expect such questions to be addressed in “Vogue” would you?

    I don’t read Vogue so am unfamiliar with the style/quality of journalism. But I don’t think a New York Times story gets a pass because of the section in which it appears.

    Dave, the post advocates quality journalism that asks relevant questions and provides important context and background. How is that petty?

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    “It’s not the kind of critique that will get outfits like the NYT to take GR seriously as a source of journalistic criticism.”

    I recommend continued and regular respiration while you wait for that to happen, no matter what level of professionalism GR displays or doesn’t display in its critiques.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    R9: The Council for Secular Humanism kept sending me (unsolicited) mailings in which they complained of being “literally bombarded with customs, denials and situations”. I told them that they should literally open a dictionary to find out what “literally” literally means.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    R9 and Will,

    I will literally work harder on perfection in the quality of my writing and posts.

  • BigWaveDave

    We are talking about an article in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times. Of course it was shallow.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    BigWaveDave,

    In what sections should we expect and call for quality journalism? Just the A section? Business? Sports? Should online stories be clear about which ones are “real” news and should adhere to the standards of fair, responsible journalism?

  • http://www.churchfurniturepartner.com Church Furniture Guy

    I just drove through Fort Wayne, IN last evening on I-69 and there was a billboard that had three sections. The middle one was a great looking black motorcycle and the other two were were of an attractive young couple. The few words on the billboard were about Mormons. It was a very contemporary ad.

  • sari

    Bobby,
    I found the article to be about par for the Fashion and Style section, especially since the main topic was how fashion (clothing, facial hair, tattoos) is changing in the LDS community in response to mainstream culture, not changes in theology. Most LDS I know (including a Murdock, descendant of one of the original followers), are taught to live in the world but not be of it. Adopting dress that is less obvious to non-Mormons while still conforming to LDS expectations (dress and otherwise) is pretty typical, excepting missionaries who are required to dress a certain way.

    What I found more interesting and wish the reporter had pursued in more depth was the issue of tattoos, which are clearly forbidden. What are the consequences? Does having a tat affect one’s status, reduce one’s chances of finding a suitable partner for marriage, allow one to be sealed in the Temple?

    Lastly, the reporter failed to inquire as to the campaign’s purpose. To missionize? To bolster Romney’s campaign/rebut Jeffer’s comments?

  • Dave

    Brett @12, I’ve seen reporters whose stories have been critiqued on GR post comments and join the conversation. Don’t underestimate GR as a force in journalism. (But hold GR to the thus-implied standard of seriousness!)

  • Karen

    Bobby, I don’t think any journalistic standards were missing given that this was a piece about Mormon style. You might not be aware of it, but in circles where modest dress is expected, the desire to look hip and not frumpy is a big concern, much more than in mainstream society. I see this a lot in the Jewish Orthodox women’s press and on Muslim blogs. To some extent it strikes me that religious modesty restrictions make clothing more important than it needs to be. But for members of the religion style isn’t considered so shallow an issue.

    Sari, I’d be interested in the response to tattoos too. I know that for Jewish BTs (returnees to orthodoxy), the Lubavitcher Rebbe indicated that past tattoos were irrelevant and wouldn’t prevent Jewish burial. OTOH I read a poignant poem by a male Hassidic BT who described how no matter how great his practice and study, the weekly visit to the mikveh before Sabbath outed him as not frum from birth and took great courage.

  • sari

    Ah, Karen. I never thought I’d see BT on this blog. Perhaps someday the NYT will publish an article contrasting BT vs FFB (frum/Orthodox from birth) dress

    Yes, those were my thoughts exactly. When religion imposes no restrictions, personal taste and community standards dictate dress. Those of us whose religions address all aspects of our lives–frum (observant Jewish), Mormon, or observant Muslim–must navigate between religious strictures and mainstream mores. The article could just as easily have been written about observant Jewish girls and young women, most of whom strive for clothing that is modern but still tsnius (modest). Much has changed since I was a child.

    This presents yet another unexplored angle: a comparison between different religions which mandate dress.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    So everyone in the it’s-just-a-fashion/style-story crowd is fine with the vague cameo appearance by Flowers with absolutely no basic journalistic questions answered?

  • sari

    Yes, Bobby, because the article was about changes in Mormon fashion (or ways to get around overmodest dress and still remain Mormon), not about Brandon Flower’s journey back to the church. F&S section, yes; section A, no.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Contrary to what Stan says, no Mormon missionaries campaigned for Proposition 8. It was California Mormons, who were not serving as full time missionaries. This is a very important distiction. Full-time missionaries do not get involved in politicis in anyway.

    This is a distriction that is very, very important. I can personally attest to this distiction. I was a missionary in Nevada when the Church pused very strongly for the passage of an admendment to the constitution there to define marriage, but there was never any attempt to involve us as missionaries in this process.

    Full time missionaries are under almost no circumstances to be seen in public in other than formal clothing. Other members in public in non-formal clothing is another issue. There may be something to Stan’s comment, but it perpetrates a false image of who the Latter-day Saints advocating for Propostion 8 were. They were local California residents who were well within their rights to participate in the political process, and I am sick and tired of the insinuation that they were outsiders, especially with the ample evidence of them having included local theatre directors who were then boycotted out of their jobs.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The temple recomend is not the card, that is just the outward manifestation of it. This is why someone can get into the temple if contact if made with the right priesthood leaders even if they do not have the physical temple recomend on them.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The leaders of the Church have directly spoken against tattoos. On the other hand having facial hair has never been directly denounced by Church leaders. President Gordon B. Hinckley made multiple public statements against tattos in the fall of 2000, and no one has indicated backing down from them since.

    Thus facial hair and tattos are not similar issues.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The point with the local members in California was that they were being encoraged to dress in the way that people normally do when doing political campaigns. Also, they were being encoraged to keep in mind that although organized through the Church they were acting as political campaigners for a political issue.

    This was not an attempt to hide their affiliation with the Church, but to keep them in the mindset of the political issue they were involved in.