Flowers Under the Big Tent

It's been another week of trending for Mormons, fueled by Romney and the latest GOP debate. Last week's Pastor Jeffress is this week's Christopher Hitchens, and Maureen Dowd pipes up too. (Jeffress, Hitchens, and Dowd would make an unlikely trio on any topic except Mormons: politics makes utterly predictable bedfellows, it turns out.) Joanna Brooks does a yeoman's work in rebutting the more fantastic of this week's chimeras. Meanwhile Mitt stayed above the fray, as did the LDS Church in the play-it-cool style of its current public affairs approach.

While the Church's response to all the negative attention has seemed muted, it may in fact have strategically deployed a cool little publicity balloon this week. Official Church responses to the Christian/cult controversy unfailingly directed the curious to mormon.org, which just this week debuted a new "I'm a Mormon" spot featuring the biggest coup yet in this attractive series: rock star Brandon Flowers of The Killers. The timing was so fortuitous, given this week's follow-on avalanche of negative press, that one wonders whether the video was held in reserve for such a time as this.

The video, like its predecessors, introduces a telegenic subject and creates a short-form narrative hook: in Flowers's case, the angle is the juxtaposition of his rock-and-roll glamour with scenes of a happily domesticated family life. Thus arrived at a personal crux, the subject reflects on the faith and values that resolve the conflict—for Flowers, it is his decision to spend less time touring and more time with his young sons—and concludes with the tag line ". . . And I'm a Mormon." Flowers makes the point with a songwriter's flair, putting hand to heart and saying "There's still a fire burning in there." For Mormons this is more than a felicitous turn of phrase: one of our oldest and most beloved hymns begins with the words "The Spirit of God like a fire is burning."

Flowers joins the Osmond family and Gladys Knight—now there's an unlikely trio—as a big-deal music star who identifies publicly with the Church and thus lends a bit of his charisma to the institution. But Flowers' music is much edgier and harder than theirs, and his image lacks their squeaky-clean wholesomeness. Flowers' personal religious life is his own business and none of ours, of course, and everything suggests that he is currently a church-going Mormon, who, like the rest of us, does his imperfect best to live up to LDS standards. But he hasn't always been a stranger to the usual trappings of rock-and-roll, and his life in the public eye has made that visible in ways that most of us sinners don't have to endure.

So I think it's significant that Flowers is being featured so prominently as a face of Mormonism. Plenty of smart observers have pointed out that the "I'm a Mormon" campaign works not only to introduce a fresher, hipper, more accessible Mormonism to the public, but also to introduce a more flexible and inclusive Mormonism to Mormons themselves. The spots have featured working mothers and stay-at-home fathers, unmarried women and men, single mothers, married-and-childless couples, and families with one or two children, all of which push gently against the Church's robust official teachings on gender roles, natality, and family structure. The non-negotiables, based on the spots that have appeared so far, are sex within marriage and heterosexual families. No gay or unmarried couples will appear, though it is not at all inconceivable to me that an out-but-celibate gay Latter-day Saint could be featured.

The Flowers spot, however, works to explore a different kind of "big tent" Mormonism. Its suggestion is not that Mormon identity can accommodate diverse family structures—he appears to have a very conventional family life—but that Mormon identity can also reside in something deeper and more diffuse than a traditional "active Mormon" status. (Again, this is not to imply that Flowers is not active currently.) During the years that he was not actively practicing, his Mormon identity presumably took the form of family connection, personal affection, or tribal affinity. Is this a culturally legible form of Mormonism? Not yet: it's still difficult for us to make sense of a "non-practicing" Mormon in the way that we instantly understand a non-practicing Catholic or Jew. We understand the hostile "disaffected" Mormon and the disengaged "less-active" Mormon, but an affectionate, invested, yet mostly-non-practicing Mormon is not a subject position we easily recognize.

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