I had a conversation with Ian Fowles last week about “celebrity status” in Mormonism. Mormons tend to have a fascination with other Mormons who achieve greatness in art, music, film, etc. Evidence for this would be the Famous Mormons website, of course Linescratchers, and a few other sites online with lists of well-known Mormon celebrities. Even more infamous is our tendency of “wishful thinking” rumors. These are rumors that a certain celebrity is Mormon, even when they’re not and have never been (Elvis, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, etc.), based on an exaggerated rumor, or some sort of slight interaction with the church at some point.
Why do we care so much? Actually, that’s a pretty good question. We Mormons spent the first half of our history as a very peculiar people, living in the mountains with our polygamous wives, stealing passers-by and forcing them to swear oaths of loyalty to Brigham Young in the Salt Lake Temple. Okay, well, that’s perhaps it wasn’t that, but it’s no lie that we weren’t exactly “assimilated” into American culture. Peculiarly, sometime in the last 100 years, we’ve reversed this image. Now, we’re the clean-cut, conservative representatives of traditional (some would now even say outmoded) American family values. Explaining how we managed such a reversal is beyond my abilities and the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that we are uniquely concerned with how we blend in to American society. So perhaps we like hearing about Mormon celebrities because it means we’ve “arrived” on the American scene. Not only does it mean we’ve successfully blended into American culture, it also means we have talented members of the church out there being recognized for their skills.
But do we want our celebs to fully blend in? No. As much as we like Mormons to be celebrities, if they’re not active, we tend to think that it really doesn’t count.
It is hard to be a Mormon artist. Mormon culture heavily encourages its members to grow up and prepare to go on a mission and marry in the temple and seek an education and job that will support a family with grandchildren. Taking a few years off to go on tour really runs counter to the grain, and is basically seen as a fruitless diversion or distraction. Furthermore, it is assumed that every celebrity that gains any kind of status in the world must inevitably lose their testimonies. Many parents discourage their children early from pursuing careers in the arts for this reason.
Now if we had some forerunners out there who are Mormons but also active in the church and support their families, Mormon parents might be a little more apt to encourage an artistic child to follow their hearts. How often does this happen? Very rarely. So when we have discussions with our Mormon friends about a Mormon celebrity, the inevitable question is “Are they active?”
Around half of our members aren’t active, but we seem less concerned with the average Jack Mormon (the one on our home teaching list perhaps) than the Mormon who made it into Hollywood and left their faith behind. In fact, we don’t just see them as poor souls who just went astray. These Mormons are traitors. The Lord blessed them with a promising career and they wasted the opportunity. They blew their chance to be a role model for our Mormon youths. They could have been a contender, etc. Worse yet are the self-proclaimed Mormons who are famous but don’t share our values: they break the Word of Wisdom, or sleep around, or marry outside the church, or appear in a sex scene, or whatever. And, of course, if a person achieves stardom and leaves the church, we assume that it’s because they wanted to break the rules, or that they “sold out” to fit in and get ahead. We know what they’re up to.
I think we’re actually doing more damage than we realize. When we put Mormon celebrities up on pedestals, scrutinizing their every move, the result is a lot of mental stress and pressure on an already neurotic bunch (they’re artists after all). Often, these celebrities end up leaving the church, not because they have done anything wrong, but because they just can’t handle the pressure.
I’m reminded of Kirby Heyborne, who appeared in a single Miller Lite commercial, to the outrage of Latter-day Saints all throughout Mormondom. A small but vocal minority even got him banned from playing at BYU since then. A simple decision to take a job jumping around with a beer can in his hand led to a pileup of hurtful criticism from people who didn’t even know him personally. In his words, “I’m fine if someone doesn’t like my performance, but when they start criticizing my life, it’s hard to not get hurt. They don’t know my day-to-day life. They don’t see the service that I do in my community and church. It’s unfortunate that that some of the most hurtful comments aimed at me come from church members who don’t know me.” Kirby is still active, of course, but one could easily see a person being hurt from the community they love. Now we can talk about the ethics of his appearance (I’d rather not actually), but the real question is, how do we respond when one of our own violates what we see as unwritten (or even written) rules of Mormonism? Should we respond with love and acceptance, or should we respond with judgment and ostracism? Are we trying to push that person out of the church? Should we act like being a celebrity is in itself so wonderful, with rainbows and butterflies everywhere, that they deserve whatever scrutiny, pressure, or even malice that the public scoops on them?
I suggest that our response would be to love, cherish, and do anything we can to help other members of the church in the public sphere. “Guilting” people into doing what you want is just treating them like objects. Holding people to impossible standards is a recipe for failure. Expecting more from them than we would other members of the church (again, check your home teaching list) is hypocritical. Finally, do you really know their whole story? Are you certain that you wouldn’t behave the same way in their shoes?
If we want to create a world where our children feel free to pursue their dreams, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and build it ourselves. This means supporting the small market of our artists, even if they stumble or lose their way. The alternative is a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy: we demand perfection from celebrities, they feel the pressure and heat from millions of Mormons, they either lose it or just give up, and we sit back and tsk tsk and say “I told you so.”