Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Problem with Mormon Celebrities

Steve Young. Donny Osmond. Gladys Knight. Mitt Romney. David Archuleta. Brooke White.

What do they all have in common? If you're a Mormon and don't live in a cave, you probably know the answer: They are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We know it, and are proud of our own. I'm reminded of the once popular Adam Sandler song, "Chanukah", which proudly and humorously lists famous people who are Jewish. We even have a web site devoted to famous Mormons.

Admit it. You get a sense of satisfaction when you hear about someone who is famous and Mormon, or when you hear about someone you know is Mormon becoming successful and well known. This is perfectly natural. The smaller the group you belong to, the more likely you are to have the "one-of-our-own" mentality. But why do we care so much?

Is it because if there's a Mormon who is liked by a lot people, that makes us more normal? Does it somehow validate the Mormon position? Does it show that our lifestyle is superior since we produce such great people? Of course consciously we would reject these justifications. Surely the success or failure of a few Mormons should not reflect on the entire population in general, should it? Yet, subconsciously, somehow it does.

But what's the harm? Mormons have historically been a small group, and as any small group it is understandable that we should be proud of our own who have become successful. However, the membership of the LDS church has now grown to over 13 million. Our membership is large and diverse. As the membership grows, it becomes more dangerous to allow a few members to be put up on a pedestal. To illustrate this, let's look at a few examples:

I think it's safe to say that Mormons in general were rooting for Mitt Romney. I was myself, but I tried very hard to make sure my support was because I thought he was the best candidate, not because he was Mormon. Although I think I was pretty successful at it, I can't deny that it does appear that many Mormons supported him who perhaps would not if he was not a Mormon. The fact that Utah supported him so strongly proves this, I believe. It's pretty hard to argue with the fact that he would not have gotten such a landslide victory there if he had not been Mormon. We are proud of him.

But what would happen if it came out that he had been involved in some illegal business transaction, or marital infidelity. Don't get me wrong, from what I know of him I wouldn't expect it, but really I know very little about his personal life. I'm not trying to judge. In fact, that's exactly the point: We shouldn't judge too harshly, but we also should be too quick to judge favorably about someone we don't know much about. So if it came out that he had done something unflattering, how would Mormons look, considering we supported him in such numbers?

Another example is Gladys Knight. Some Mormons love to bring her up, especially when talking about race issues within the church. Does her membership somehow prove that race is not an issue in Mormon culture and that we have put our past behind us? Of course it doesn't prove that, but sometimes we act as if it does. So what would happen if Sister Knight decided she didn't want to be a Mormon anymore? Since some have used her name as an argument that the Mormon culture accepts all races equally, would her rejecting Mormonism mean that we have a race problem? We have given her way too much power in the realm of public opinion on Mormonism.

Today, the big names are David Archuleta and Brooke White, who have made the top seven on American Idol. From what I can tell, they are good people. But I know very little about them other than that they are Mormon, sing well, and their families clap for them vigorously. Do I secretly root for them? At some level, yes. I'm not immune. But what happens if it comes out that one of them has done something that most Mormons would consider out-of-line with what we believe, or if they do something like that in the future? Do I want my church represented to the world by two people who I know very little about? Of course I'm not suggesting they should quit, but the question is how we include their Mormonism in their frame of success.

The answer goes back to what our leaders have been telling us for years: Let's be good neighbors. Let's take care of our families, be good employees, and be honest and caring of others. Of course we should do this regardless of whether others recognize it, but it also happens to be the best way to improve the image of Mormonism. Pinning our hopes on celebrities is a short cut, and as my wife will tell you, short cuts sometimes don't get us to where we intend.

8 comments:

Ardis said...

Surely the success or failure of a few Mormons should not reflect on the entire population in general, should it? Yet, subconsciously, somehow it does.

Yes, it does, in a not very different way than the success or failure of, say, my brother reflects on my family and therefore on me. My brother is like me in important ways (name, background, physical resemblance, traditions, general life philosophy, favorite meals) even though of course he is an individual and therefore unlike me in some ways. But I cheer for him because I love him and wish him well and his success reflects on our shared name; I care when he falls short for comparable reasons.

I don't wish him well only because his glory reflects palely on me, and I don't cringe when he fails merely because my own reputation is tarnished.

Those celebrities are like me in some very important ways, and my feelings toward them are like my feelings toward -- oh, not my brother, maybe, but at least like a cousin, one who shares my name and with whom I could easily spend time at a family reunion.

Anonymous said...

As the membership grows, it becomes more dangerous to allow a few members to be put up on a pedestal.

In one of Glenn Beck's talking about his conversion to the LDS Church he mentioned when he was Baptized. In the sacrament meeting when it came to sustaining him a member of the church someone actually opposed.

The reason given was that since Glenn Beck was a nationally broadcast conservative radio talk show host the opposer was afraid that people would think that Glenn Beck spoke for all LDS members and that shouldn't be allowed.

Well needless to say the opposition was denied and Glenn became a member of the church. I have heard he is now his Ward's mission leader.

Indirectly it was Glenn's testimony of the church (find the video interview about it, good stuff) and mine of course, that helped in my wife's conversion (I was already a member).

Mike said...

Ardis,

Thanks for your comment. You're position is valid, of course, but I think the main issue we differ on is how we view Mormons as a group. You view them us as a family, but I think that we are a very large and diverse group (the bloggernacle has taught me that). I think I'm less willing to make the jump that just because someone is Mormon, we share the same values.

Another way to look at it is: If you're family had 13 million members of varying commitment to the family, and with varying values in some cases, would you be as fast to cheer for your cousin if you didn't know him, at the expense of other competitors?

Mike said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. It is interesting that you bring up Glenn Beck because he was actually in my parent's ward for a time, and I had the pleasure of sitting in on a sunday school lesson he taught. I thought he was a good teacher, and didn't even find out until later that he was famous (his radio show did not reach where I was living at the time). This was before he moved to NY to do his TV show.

But anyway, clearly I don't think it's appropriate to oppose someone's membership just because he or she is famous, and neither do I think someone should not be famous if he is a member. I don't have a problem with Mormon celebrities (maybe my title was misleading), I have a problem with the way regular Mormons sometimes present them as examples of Mormonism to the world. I'm glad Glenn Beck was able to have such a good influence on your wife, but I stand by my point. Surely a Mormon celebrity's successes or failures will reflect somewhat on the Church, but we don't need to amplify that by pastering the name "Mormon" all over the pedestal they have put themselves up on.

Again, to both you and Ardis, thanks for sharing your views.

Clean Cut said...

I enjoyed this really well thought-out post. I too get excited when people such as those listed get noticed nationally because I think it's nice to point to them and say, in effect, like President Hinckley said to Larry King: See, "We're not a weird people". We're really more mainstream than most people realize. Because old perceptions die hard, I think it's exciting when people like David Archuletta and Brooke White do this on a pop culture show like American Idol to a national audience to reinforce this "mainstream" image along with the rest of us living good lives more quietly. You make a great point about really just living good lives and being good neighbors/good people as being the best way to have this accumulative effect. Thanks for the post.

Mike said...

As a follow-up to my post, I thought I'd mention that the church recently posted this story regarding LDS celebrities. I found this quote particularly interesting to this discussion:

"Some Mormons, seeing a fellow member of their church reach celebrity status, are often excited to see ”one of their own” counter a perception that Mormons are different or even a little strange. This kind of validation does more than just place a Mormon (and by association, Mormonism) in the mainstream: the success and popular acceptance of another Latter-day Saint somehow compensates for what some see as generations of misunderstanding."

The story doesn't seem to offer any suggestion as to whether this is good or bad though. Although there are good and bad things about it, my argument is that overall, it is not a good thing for us to pin so much of our reputation on a small group of people. Of course they've done nothing wrong by being famous, but we should be careful putting them up on pedestals.

Mike said...

Thanks to Mo' Boy Blog for pointing me to it.

rmoat said...

I'm glad I stumbled across this blog, and even found the article written by the church on how LDS Members deal with fame.
Those who are LDS and are in the spotlight, definitely have many eyes watching them.

It is a hard industry for those who are LDS, and I can relate. I love acting, and I am a member. This past summer I got my big debut in a film here in Utah, which will be released theatrically in 2009. But I must admit, I'm just a little bit nervous as to see how my character is portrayed--or changed (Hollywood's portrayal) in the movie.

I think it is cool that the LDS people are getting out there though. I just hope that, by what they do in the media, or what they're "forced" to do.. that the LDS church isn't reflected badly.

Take Kirby Heybourne for example, and the recent Beer Commercial he was in. I don't think of him differently, because I know what the industry is like. It is tough. And many people are disappointed in him because that commercial it is contrary to his beliefs and the church's teachings.

All I can say, is that I think it is awesome that the LDS people are getting out there. And even though they might make mistakes in the spotlight, it shouldn't be reflected on the church. But getting many of the millions of people to understand that.. is another story. :)