The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, has once again launched a series of advertisements intended to improve their image. After finding that many people see the church as “secretive”, “cultish”, or “anti-gay”, or simply don’t know much about Mormonism, several commercials were produced featuring members talking about their life, their experiences, and their faith. At the end of each ad, they conclude: “And I’m a Mormon.”
In terms of their tone and presentation, these ads are positive, accessible and humanizing. They depict Mormons as friendly, everyday people who seem like they’d be really fun to hang out with. Above all, these ads are normalizing, in keeping with the goal of their creators to dispel the perception that Mormons aren’t Christian.
Relatively speaking, the beliefs of Mormonism are no more outrageous than those of the average Christian, and their acceptance is likely hindered only by the religion’s recency. It hasn’t had enough time to permeate society to the point that it’s seen as normal, and unlike faiths rooted in ancient writings, the exact details of its fraudulent origin are easily available to anyone who’s interested. In this respect, Mormonism may always be at a disadvantage. But if their aim was to show that Mormons aren’t substantially different from other Christians, and that they are not strange and awful human beings, this campaign is certainly effective.
What it fails to do is show that the Mormon faith is reasonable, humane, ethical, reality-based, or worth believing in. The tactic of showcasing lots of happy, friendly, normal people may help to induce warm fuzzy feelings, but it does nothing to explain why the shared belief they hold must therefore be acceptable. Their faith may not prevent them from being good people, but all this demonstrates is the capacity for decency to harbor darkness.
It’s entirely possible to find legions of people who are upstanding members of their community – people who care for their families, people we would probably love to be friends with – and who nevertheless believe things that are baffling, idiotic, hateful and hideous. At least one in ten Americans think it’s acceptable to torture suspected terrorists for information, and it’s unlikely that all of them happen to occupy the bottom rung of society. Almost half of Americans believe that humans were created by God within the past 10,000 years. And a third still think that gay relationships should be illegal.
Do these beliefs become any more sensible, respectable, or well-supported simply by virtue of being endorsed by nice people? This strategy is essentially the inverse of a personal attack. Rather than criticizing a certain claim by impugning the character of the claimant, it instead highlights their normalcy in order to portray their beliefs as equally inoffensive. This is not a sound argument. Nice bigotry is still bigotry. Nice idiocy is still idiocy. And nice blind faith is still blind faith. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find a number of good, congenial citizens of Saudi Arabia who think it’s appropriate to whip rape victims repeatedly for being alone with an unrelated man. But if they were to appear in a commercial and tell us their life stories before reiterating their support for such barbarity, this would rightly be seen as nightmarish bordering on comical. So why is this rhetorical sleight of hand any more persuasive when it comes to Mormonism?
Its adherents may be wonderful people, but here’s what their choice of religion reveals about them: It tells me they decided to join a church that did not accept black people as fully equal members until 1978. It tells me they follow a faith that views gay people as sinful and tirelessly works to keep them from having the legal right to marry. It tells me they regard such a church as possessing moral authority. And it tells me their beliefs are not at all affected by the overwhelming evidence that the claims of their scriptures are false, and their religion began as no more than a hoax.
Mormons might want to show us that they’re just average people, but being an average person doesn’t mean you won’t believe in preposterous, hateful and ignorant propositions. From your friendly neighbor who thinks we should nuke the Middle East, to your elderly grandmother who bakes cookies and is also a tremendous racist, evil can cloak itself in the kindest of souls. They are our family, our friends, our co-workers, our lovers. They are Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. But I’m not going to pretend that their positive qualities can make their beliefs any less wrong. I’m not willing to accept politeness as an excuse for being a bigot. And I am not a Mormon.