Whenever I hear non-LDS people talking about Mormon stuff, my ears always prick up.

I was listening to a recent “Gist” podcast episode in which the host Mike Pesca was talking with Ben Smith, author of the book Traffic which is about the rise (and fall) of digital media sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed. Smith made the funny remark that if you look at religions like digital media companies, the Book of Mormon is like Buzzfeed. Both of them then briefly riffed on this idea. They compared the swift rise in “traffic” or perhaps popularity of the Book of Mormon to the endurance of the Torah. In terms of “traffic,” the Torah is going to look like a loser compared to the Book of Mormon, but (without saying this exactly), by contrast, the Book of Mormon looks cool, popular, (briefly) more relevant, but…kind of a flash in the pan. After all, Buzzfeed is no more. It was cool, but one day soon will be used as a way for people to demark their “digital” generation to friends.[1]

What made Buzzfeed so special and so successful was that it tapped into the burgeoning power of social media in ways that more established platforms had a harder time changing to do. Buzzfeed also produced engaging, listicle-style articles, quizzes and videos that its audience enjoyed enough to share with friends and family. Their content was easy to consume and discuss, and unlike other platforms at the time it was geared toward communities with specific shared interests, including pop culture, humor, lifestyle, and entertainment.

So what led to the demise of these once-popular sites? According to Smith, Gawker steered too hard into controversial content which resulted in lawsuits it couldn’t afford and led to a loss of credibility among its readers. Buzzfeed suffered a slightly different downfall. Their reliance on social media plaforms for traffic and revenue fell off as algorithms changed, and they couldn’t keep up with the changes. Additionally, Buzzfeed got a little too big for their britches when they attempted to provide more hard news coverage, but lacked the credibility afforded to more established journalists.

This creates an interesting parallel to Mormonism. Both Pesca and Smith briefly referred to the Romney campaign as a sort of high point in interest in Mormonism. I would place that back a little farther to the “I’m a Mormon campaign,” although the popularity started by Hinckley’s brainchild continued somewhat through the Romney campaign. For a brief moment, the Church was showing that it could appeal to diverse people with diverse interests and backgrounds.

There were those in the Church who decried the diversity that was showcased in this campaign. I specifically recall backlash against “career women” who had put up profiles; some felt that the Church’s media focus was undermining the stay-at-home mother narrative that they bought into. The prodigal son’s brother is always a problem in any Church, but especially in one that has a long history of conservative leadership. Any deviation can be seen as a betrayal of the personal sacrifices of those who “followed the prophet” against their own interests. There were even a few upset that celebrity Mormons like Brandon Flowers were profiled when they didn’t always live the standards (and talked openly about it). Another successful tactic of this era was placing ads in the Book of Mormon Musical playbills encouraging theater patrons to read the book now that they’ve seen the show. This type of winking at critics can be enormously appealing to those who don’t know much about the Church. It seems like we have self-confidence and a sense of humor.\

Only in the retrenchment of the Nelson campaign (including the new anti-LGBT policies, BYU’s anti-academic stance, highly publicized sex abuse scandals, the publishing of the Church’s unfathomably large nest egg, the SEC violations which predate him, but came to light during his regime, the affiliation with extreme right wing politics, shows like Under the Banner of Heaven and Mormon No More that show some of the worst sides of the faith, and of course Nelson’s decision to drop the nickname “Mormon” to name a few) are we seeing a huge drop in reputation and interest. Mormons were never truly popular, but we had done some effective things to distance ourselves from the Scientology / Jehovah’s Witness comparison. The most recent polling is very bad in terms of public perception of Mormons. Additionally, our lack of growth is pretty well known, both inside and outside the Church. The Mormon moment has passed.

One of the things this conversation made me think of is something I read about maybe a year ago that described the attractiveness of playing against stereotypes. It’s a psychological phenomenon that many people are drawn to those we expect to behave or look one way, but instead they do the unexpected; they surprise us. While there are individuals who are inordinately attracted to the strongest version of stereotype you can imagine (e.g. men who only find 20 year olds with double D bra sizes attractive), the opposite can be quite alluring.

One of the reasons this is particularly salient in how the Church creates interest is that people who are attracted to the stereotype of what they expect Mormons to be like are already interested. Showcasing the unexpected is the only way to subvert the narrative for those who find that stereotype unappealing, thereby piquing the curiosity of those who don’t like the stereotypical Mormon persona. To non-LDS people, we can appeal to additional populations the less we look like what people expect us to look like. If we have a sense of humor about ourselves when they expect us to be easily offended, that’s attractive. When they think we will be uptight, boring tee-totalers, and instead we are the life of the party (albeit sober), that’s attractive. When they assume (as one of my bosses did) that “Mormon women aren’t allowed to work,” I turned her assumption on its head, changing her negative opinion of Mormons to an extent.

Why do people find stereotype-breaking attractive? Here are a few reasons:

Individuality & confidence. It shows that as an organization, we accept people as they are, allowing them the freedom of individuality. We appear more confident as an organization, showing that we have broader appeal.

Unconventionality. It surprises people when we behave differently than they expect and this draws their attention and interest in ways that uniformity do not.

Perception of Strength & Courage. The willingness to challenge social norms is seen as a personal strength. Swimming against the tide of expectations makes one appear stronger than the herd.

Intellectual & Emotional Depth. Going with the flow, adhering to group norms, implies a more superficial approach to social situations. It requires less intentionality and forethought than breaking the norms.

Obviously, being “different” just for the sake of it doesn’t really cut it. People can sniff out inauthenticity. But the more a group contains diverse people, the stronger that group is seen to be, and the more appealing to outsiders who may not fit (or even understand) the mold.

Back to the Buzzfeed analogy, the question Ben Smith posed in the interview was whether the Book of Mormon (not the religion in general) was like Buzzfeed vs. the Torah which was like more established journalistic sources, and I have to say, there are elements of that comparison that make a lot of sense. The Book of Mormon takes a fairly archane text (the Bible) and makes it a little more modern, recasting some familiar stories in a new context with clear themes. It’s more readable than the Old Testament, despite all the “And it came to pass”es that make it nearly impossible for me to get through personally. But if you stack it up against the Torah, well, here we start to see some shortcomings. For one thing, the Torah’s stood the test of time. The Book of Mormon has been around for less than 200 years. The Torah has been the foundational text for Judaism longer than Christianity has been around. The Jewish tradition involved rich debates of the text rather than relying on one authoritative interpretation, so rather than growing smaller over time, it expands theologically.

Most scholarly approaches to the Book of Mormon are focused on apologetics designed to prove it is based on actual history. The Torah is debated for its content, not whether Moses really parted the red sea; that’s the purview of literalist Evangelical religions. It’s hard to argue that the Torah isn’t seen as “cool” or having much social cachet right now; Judaism isn’t going gangbusters with new converts. But it does have a gravitas that the Book of Mormon has not yet earned, and doesn’t seem poised to earn anytime soon.

  • Do you think the Book of Mormon has “Torah-like” potential if scholars gave up on the historicity and instead focused on the content, or do you feel the content is an intellectually limited rehash of Biblical concepts mixed with early frontier ideas?
  • Do you agree that the Church would win more converts if it were more comfortable with diversity?
  • Was the Church cool? If so, when do you think it had its top moment in popularity? If that time is past, what caused its rise and fall?


[1]”Oh, I remember when Gawker ran a story on such-and-such” and the younger person they are talking to will say something like “Gawker? What’s Gawker??” and they will feel like they are from that cooler generation that read the now defunct Gawker.