“I’m a Mormon, yes I am!”

Like Rosalynde Welch, one of my early musical memories (besides my oldest brother blasting Van Halen through the walls) is of gathering around the record player listening to Janeen Brady’s annoyingly catchy song, “I’m a Mormon”:

I’m a Mormon, yes I am!
And if you want to study a Mormon I’m a living specimen.
Maybe you think I’m just like anybody else you see,
But trust in my word,
You’ll quickly observe,
I’m different as can be!

I don’t know if the creators of the much-ballyhooed “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign had Brady’s song rattling around in their brains.  If so, they apparently remembered the first couple lines — Maybe you think I’m just like anybody else — but forgot the rest of the stanza — I’m different as can be!

Elsewhere on Patheos this week, two Roman Catholic writers offered critiques of Mormonism by invoking the “I’m a Mormon” campaign:  the first, by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, less-than-subtly titled “I Am Not a Mormon”; and the second, by Mark Shea, urging his readers to ignore the Mormon ads that seem to pop up incessantly while they’re getting their daily dose of online religion at Patheos.

(Shea’s broader point regards the falsity of the Mormon historical narrative about ancient Christian apostasy, which then renders the entire religion categorically “unnecessary.”  This is a red herring:  faith in either the Roman Catholic or Latter-day Saint construction of history is ultimately subjective—one narrative is not objectively more plausible than the other, despite what apologists or detractors on either side may say.)

More interesting to me is Fr. Longenecker’s column.  He quotes a correspondent who says he is Mormon “because it bears good fruit in my life.”  This tells Longenecker that contemporary Mormonism is “all about fruit” but not about truth.  Mormonism is attractive, in other words, because it makes people nice and happy and successful.  Mormonism is thus the American religion par excellence — it is all about product, self-fulfillment, and happiness.  But by Longenecker’s calculation, it also means that Mormonism is not “a Christian religion in any sense at all.”  Why?  Because Christianity/Catholicism:

isn’t really about making me happy or healthy or successful or neat and tidy.  It’s not really about good orthodontics.  I can get all that elsewhere without belonging to a religion. . . .

I am not a Catholic because it “bears good fruit” or makes me a nice person.  Religion is not a set of table manners.

I’m a Catholic for the salvation of my soul.

Fr. Longenecker puts his finger on a very real tension for believers, a tension going back to the New Testament:  are followers of Jesus supposed to be the city on the hill, or the yeast that invisibly leavens the loaf?

The “I’m a Mormon” campaign seems to draw its inspiration from the Apostle Paul:  “I am made all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).  The standard script for the internet spots is to depict Mormons of all ages, races, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds simply living their lives — from the prosaic to the extraordinary.  They are parents, surfers, journalists, humanitarians, farmers, veterans, musicians, grandparents, firefighters, lawyers, scientists.  And they are Mormon.

From a PR perspective, the campaign is remarkable.  Launched in summer 2010 in cities across America, it really made waves when it hit Times Square in summer 2011.  The campaign now features over 100 professionally produced video profiles of individuals, plus over 95,000 user-generated profiles from Church members, which resulted in over 1 million online chats on the site last year.  (These stats were provided to me by LDS Public Affairs.)  The ads are extraordinarily well-made, thoughtful, respectful, and often quite moving.  They have made Stephen Colbert jealous.  The church clearly intends the ads to grease the wheels of its missionary effort, especially in terms of diversifying its profile and outreach.

But there is a fundamental problem with the campaign:  if Mormons are just like you, then why do you need to be Mormon?

The very tagline — “…and I’m a Mormon” — implicitly suggests that Mormonism is an incidental identity, in a “it just so happens” type of way.  Even the religious messaging of the ads — I learned to forgive, I learned to serve, I learned to love — is generically Christian, even generically ethical.  Like Fr. Longenecker says, “I can get that elsewhere.”

Still, Longenecker goes too far in suggesting the LDS Church is moving away from making serious truth claims.  One need only visit a weekly Sunday meeting, or sit in on an early morning seminary class of high school students, or have the missionaries over to your house.  Self-identifying Mormons far-and-away exhibit greater religiosity, commitment, and knowledge of their own doctrines than virtually any other group.  (See, among others, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace and the Pew Forum’s “Mormons in America” study.)

In my mind, what the “I’m a Mormon” campaign actually reveals is twofold:  first, that the LDS Church is, in pragmatic fashion, grasping at any strategy to maintain growth, particularly in the United States, where real growth has more or less flatlined (or may even be negative); second, that this is a young religion still desperately trying to gain legitimacy and validation.

If you have to keep telling everyone that you’re just like them, chances are you’re not.  And last time I checked, being different was sort of the whole point of Mormonism.

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