With Mitt Romney leaving the campaign trail, I’ve been thinking about Mormon beliefs – especially in relation to branding and identity. Having had a presidential candidate out there, a lot more people are thinking about the Mormon faith – not necessarily about converting, but asking questions about theological integrity, relationship to orthodox Christianity, and perception in the culture. This isn’t a doctrinal discussion, but a branding one, and in that light, here are a few thoughts:
1) The Wall Street Journal today did a fascinating front page analysis on the issue. Essentially, the story focused on how difficult its been for the Mormon church to be in the spotlight during this campaign. Polls have revealed that people are far more hesitant of a Mormon candidate than the mainstream media thought. An NBC poll found that 50% of Americans would be “very uncomfortable” with a Mormon president. Some in the church have positioned religion as a factor in the race, but other prominent Mormons have acknowledged that there were many other factors involved in Romney’s particular campaign as well.
2) The Mormon church did kick into high gear from an activism point of view during this race. At least 150 new websites were created to defend their faith, and church leaders hired Apco Worldwide to begin a public relations campaign last fall. The church is very familiar with the media. They created their own advertising agency years ago and have produced high quality TV commercials for years.
3) They also posted videos on YouTube – as least 22 so far trying to defend the “Are Mormons Christian?” and similar questions.
4) They’ve tried to answer allegations about the questionable history of founder Joseph Smith. A man who faced many charges in his life – including treason – but according to WSJ apparently was only found guilty of misdemeanor fraud. Either way, there are obvious questions about a man with such a troubled life founding a religion. That issue and the racism questions that have dogged the church have spurred much of the media activism.
5) It’s interesting that Mormons are going to great effort to identify themselves as “Christian.” In spite of the overwhelming number of orthodox Christian scholars who would consider Mormonism anything but “Christian,” they have launched a pretty comprehensive effort to make people think they’re “one of us.” The lesson? As I talk about in my book: “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media,” identity is one of the most powerful forces on the earth. Identity politics, gender identity, sexual identity, tribal identity, nationalism, and more and thriving. The power of association is strong, and the more we break down walls, the more we put them up. For Mormons to be associated with mainstream Christianity helps them be perceived in critic’s minds as less strange, less cultish, and more normal. They also know that most people today have very little religious knowledge, so calling themselves “Christian” is just fine with most people. Most folks couldn’t tell you what a Christian is anyway.
6) Living in Los Angeles, I have many very dear Mormon friends, and we’ve had many discussions about their faith. One of the things most people say first about Mormons is how great their family life is. I can testify that they’re certainly right about that. Mormons generally have terrific kids, and put a great priority on family life. I wish Christians could learn from that. In mainstream Christianity, research indicates that our divorce rates are about the same as the secular culture. But successful marriage relationships and great families are a powerful pull for non-believers. My wife Kathleen is an actress, and one day she met with a big time publicist in Hollywood who was baffled and blown away by the fact that we’ve been married 30 years. As a publicist to major stars, he couldn’t name a single person in the industry he knew had been married that long. It completely opened the door for Kathleen to share her faith. From that perspective, we could learn a lot from Mormons, because having successful marriage relationships and families definitely gets the attention of the non-believing culture.
7) Finally – Mormons “fit in.” Most of my Mormon friends wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. They don’t put their faith on a pedestal, or have big hair, bad suits, or gold furniture. They have normal jobs, and are constructive members of the community. Look at Mitt. He’s a successful businessman, dresses well, strong leader, fits into the community. Doesn’t seem weird. A visit to most Christian radio or TV programs will make you wish Christians we more like that. So when they do share their faith, their listeners aren’t already pre-judging them based on their lifestyles or habits.
What do you think? Mormon may be the new gay. It’s getting hip, and believe me, it’s a strategy. Could we learn from it? And should we speak up about the differences?