Thursday, February 16, 2012

The "I'm a Mormon" Campaign: Reconfiguring the myth of an American melting pot

The "I'm a Mormon" campaign appears on a billboard in Times Square in New York City. Image source.


BY HOKULANI AIKAU
Associate professor of indigenous and Native Hawaiian politics at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa


If you live in New York City, Atlanta, Minneapolis or any of the other 20 cities in which “I’m a Mormon” ads have appeared, you might be familiar with the billboards and commercials. The “I’m a Mormon” Campaign is a marketing strategy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormons) intended to disrupt the dominant image of young white male missionaries riding bikes and knocking on doors with a new, multicultural image of the church. Indeed, the multimillion-dollar campaign – and the Mormon Church – has captured national attention due in no small part to Mitt Romney’s bid for the Republican Party nomination. A Church spokesperson assured an NPR reporter that the ads have nothing to do with Romney’s bid for the White House. However, these ads have everything to do with the Church trying to forget its racist past by creating a multicultural present.

The collage of faces depicting average, everyday, modern people is striking because it presents the Church as an institution without a past. There are no “pioneers” heading bravely west to Utah, no sepia-toned images of temples or homesteads; only an insistence on the present as if the church has always been a diverse mosaic of bright, happy, multiracial faces. What these images attempt to elide is a persistent contradiction between its universal message that all people are the children of God and through accepting the gospel and baptism all can have salvation and the racial logics embedded in the theology that serve to reinforce white supremacy. Even as the campaign seeks to forget the church’s racist past, the past is fully present in these images and thus so is race.

In 1850, a group of ten white American missionaries arrived in Hawai’i to preach to the haole (white, foreign) population in Honolulu and other port towns. These men had traveled from California, where they were serving as labor missionaries. Although these were the first Mormon missionaries to Hawai’i, the missionaries were part of an effort of the church to expand its missionary efforts worldwide. Between the 1820s and 1850s, missionary efforts were focused on white, rural, poor communities in the northeastern United States and Native American nations in part because it is believed that indigenous peoples of the Americas are a lost tribe of Israel who at one time had the fullness of the gospel but rejected it and became cursed. Missionary efforts among Native Americans were seen as a way to return these fallen people to their once exalted state. Missionary efforts expanded internationally in the 1850s to England, Scandinavia, and Canada, where missionaries had much success, and to India, Thailand, and China, where they had some success among British soldiers, but next to no success sharing the gospel with native people.

But in Hawai’i, something unexpected happened. Native Hawaiians were eager to hear the message of the gospel even though, according to instructions given to them by Church leaders, the message of the gospel was not intended for them. In my book, A Chosen People, A Promised Land, I document the process by which Native Hawaiians come to be figured as a “chosen” people at a time when the racial lines between whiteness (which is a sign of salvation) and blackness (which is marked as cursed, barbaric, and fallen) came to be codified in the policy that banned black men from holding the priesthood that was in effect from 1852 until 1978. I argue that in Hawai’i, the church had to contend with the inherent contradiction between its racist policy of exclusion and the inclusion of non-white people as Chosen. I also contend that the racial logics of the church both then and now should not be read as extreme or deviant, but as an extension of American nationalist and racial discourses.

Mural above the entrance to Brigham Young
University-Hawai'i. Image from
BYU-Hawai'i archives.
As I observe the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, I am reminded of events that transpired in Hawai‘i in the 1920s and how those events are memorialized in a mural gracing the entrance to BYU-H. In 1956, the first buildings for the Church College of Hawai’i, now Brigham Young University-Hawai’i, were completed. A tile mural over the main entrance to the David O. McKay building depicts a flag ceremony that took place in 1921. McKay, who at the time of the ceremony was a high-ranking leader in the church and would become president of the church (1951-1970), holds the United States flag surrounded by a diverse array of children standing at attention. Above the horizon is a silhouette of the LDS Temple built in 1919.

This flag-raising ceremony is said to have made a profound impression on McKay. About this event, McKay wrote:

“As I looked out at the motley group of youngsters, and realized how far apart their parents are in hopes, aspirations, and ideals, and then thought of these boys and girls, the first generation of their children, all thrown into … the ‘Melting Pot’ and coming out Americans, my bosom swelled with emotion and tears came to my eyes and I felt like bowing in prayer and thanksgiving for the glorious country which is doing so much for all these nationalities” (Feb. 7th, 1921. Full text can be found in The Historical Origins of the Goals of BYU-Hawai’i Campus by Robert O. Joy, page 33).

McKay’s reference to the melting pot that takes in all nationalities and transforms them into Americans appropriates the American nationalist ideology of a nation of immigrants who, through the production of the land and labor, become true Americans. McKay draws upon this ideology and extends it to the church wherein the universal message of the gospel cooks out all differences of gender, age, and ethnicity – on Mormon.org, for example, you can choose from three categories listing gender, age, and ethnicity, but not sexuality, to search for Mormons who share your experience – to become one family, a (hetero-normative) Mormon family. This attempt to grout over difference simultaneously obscures the racial hierarchy embedded in the theology.

Just as the mural over the entrance to BYU-Hawai’i is an extension of the American nationalist myth of the melting pot, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign can be aligned with the colorblind racial logic that emerged as a backlash to the civil rights movement and affirmative action policies of the 1970s. A colorblind approach attempts to eliminate race through a process of historical amnesia that disavows the historical process where by whiteness became hegemonic and the continued significance of race in U.S. society. The multicultural mosaics on the jumbo-tron in Times Square of today and the myth of the Melting Pot from the 1920s reflect an attempt to tile over the persistent and pernicious racial ideologies embedded in Mormon theology and American nationalism.

I think to this day the LDS church is far more aligned with mainstream, middle-class white America than most people understand and the Mormon.org campaigns might be Web 2.0, but they utilize old strategies repackaged to appeal to a new audience.

The “I’m a Mormon” ads have not made it to Hawai’i, where I live, in part because of the sizable Mormon membership (about 5% of the population), and also, I suppose, because it has already been here.

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Hokulani Aikau is associate professor of indigenous and Native Hawaiian politics at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and author of A Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i.

"A Chosen People, A Promised Land is a fascinating book. Attending to fraught and revealing episodes in Hawaiian-Mormon history, Hokulani K. Aikau opens up new terrain for historical analysis in a manner that is theoretically engaged yet accessible."
—Greg Johnson, author of Sacred Claims: Repatriation and Living Tradition

"More than finding an eager audience, this pathbreaking book will add convincingly to the growing body of work inside and outside the continental United States and the Pacific Islands region that compels critical audiences in the studies of American culture and Native Pacific struggles of the absolute need to read work coming out of the other."
—Vicente M. Diaz, author of Repositioning the Missionary


This post was published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

3 comments:

  1. I'm curious about a comment you make several times here but don't seem to explain (beyond commenting on historical anti-black discrimination among Mormons). When you talk about the "racial hierarchy embedded in the theology" of Mormonism, I would like to ask how you see racism as somehow integral but occluded in LDS thought, especially in light of historical denunciations of racist logic, many of which followed the lifting of the priesthood ban in 1978, including from those who had previously defended it. The recent official denunciation of Randy Bott's comments on race in the Washington Post is another example ( http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article ).

    If you mean a sort of baseline, overlooked preference for "whiteness" and the culture of middle-class white America, I would not argue that that plays a disproportionate role in Mormon culture today. However, I do not believe that such things are "embedded" in Mormon "theology," per se. Would you clarify what you mean?

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    Replies
    1. Aloha,
      The churchʻs response to the Washington Post article is interesting and in part supports my claim that the church continues to evade issues of race and racism rather than deal with them. In doing so they perpetuate white supremacy through a color blind racial project.

      What I trace in my book is the inherent contradiction between the belief, as they state in the press release, that all people are Godʻs children and equal in the eyes of God. This universalist message is the foundation of the missionary project, however, I also argue that the universal message is always already tempered by a racial logic of lineage. My understanding of how lineage comes to be racialized such that whiteness come to be equated with salvation and the measure of worthiness came from my reading of the Pearl of Great Price. Specifically, my reading of the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses where God shares with Abraham his plan for salvation. I argue that the reference to "intelligences" is a racial logic when situated within the larger theological context of the relationship between skin color and being cursed which is evident in both the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price. In the Book of Mormon it is the Lamanites who are cursed with a skin of blackness -- which presumes that whiteness is both the norm and the ideal -- and in the Pearl of Great Price it is Africans who are cursed. When I say that there is a racial logic embedded in the theology I am referring to these passages and references to race, salvation and worthiness.

      I am not picking on the church, rather I argue in my book that the racial logic of the church both in the 19th century and today reflect dominant understandings of race. In the 19th century, anthropologists and biologists used the metaphor of the family tree of "man" to claim white racial superiority. In my book I juxtapose the dominant racial logic of the late 19th century with the racial logic of the church and they line up pretty well. But I take it a step further to show how that dominant racial logic is reiterated in the sacred texts of the church. Since these 19th century social Darwinist notions of racial hierarchy were embedded in the sacred texts they get perpetuated and reproduced generation after generation, and they become normalized, unquestioned because it is presumed these words came from God not us imperfect humans. It is this deep ideological framework that I believe the church needs to contend with if it is truly going to deal with and overcome its racist past and present.

      I hope this helps clarify my point.
      Aloha Aina

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    2. Hello again!

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. Between what you have said here and the Introduction and Chapter 1 of your book (which I just read today), your point is much, much clearer.

      I found most intriguing the distinction you draw between a policy of racial colorblindness and open recognition and confrontation of the differential treatment of different races; it is one I had not considered. In the most favorable reading, in their declaration of the irrelevance of race in a Mormon context LDS Church leaders might inadvertently provide an environment wherein racial logics can survive (e.g., with members like Randy Bott). I would not doubt that unfamiliarity with cultural (and colonial) studies - and perhaps even a distrust thereof - born of backgrounds in conservative circles outside the humanities and social sciences would contribute to the ignorance of this distinction. (That said, I would be interested to hear Jeffrey R. Holland's thoughts on the matter, as he received his PhD in American Studies...)

      Of course, this is also symptomatic of the Church's common policy of letting troublesome issues fade into the background - a venture that becomes more and more problematic.

      Thank you once more for your response!

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