…but are they active?

Aaron Eckhart

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.

Katherine Heigl

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.

Brandon Flowers

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.”

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…but are they active?

15 thoughts on “…but are they active?

  1. You ask whether we know the whole story, which is a good point. But before that, you mention that the reason they leave the Church is “not because they have done anything wrong, but because they just can’t handle the pressure.”

    This seems a bit presumptuous, as I don’t know of many (if any) famous or famous-ish Mormons who have gone on record as to why exactly they go inactive in or leave the Church. The idea that the only reasons for departing from the Mormon Church community are grievous sins or an inability to put up with social pressure is a widespread but false notion.

    In fact, I know far more people who have left the Church because of doctrinal disagreements or the inability to cultivate a firm testimony in their adult years. That is, on intellectual grounds rather than thin skin or unrepentant hedonism.

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  2. I bring up that possibility only because of a few musicians I have talked to, in the course of inviting musicians to be featured on Linescratchers, who are in that situation. Some who wished not to be identified as Mormons and a couple more who I’m trying to persuade to have an interview published, despite what are seen as “worthiness issues”. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell you who they are, which puts me in an awkward position of not being able to back up anything I say.

    However, I hope nobody think that’s the only reason Mormon celebrities leave the Church, or that I’m identifying Aaron Eckhart or any of the pictured celebrities as being in that position. Nor did I wish anyone to interpret this as saying those are the only reasons anyone would leave the Church. I am just hopefully shedding light on one perspective that might be overlooked: that a Mormon in the entertainment industry might not wish to identify themselves as Mormon not because Hollywood or record labels might find out, but because Mormons might find out.

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  3. Davey says:

    I didn’t get the impression you were suggesting those were the only or even necessarily the main reasons for leaving the Church (specifically artists leaving the Church). In his follow-up post after “going public” about leaving the Church, Richard Dutcher talked about how when a sheep wanders away from the flock, we often have a tendency to climb up a hill, scope it out, and shoot its brains out. I think the sometimes extreme social pressures and cultural standards coupled with this ostracism are incredibly dangerous aspects of Mormon culture, and I think you’re right to point that out. I didn’t read it as a statement on all members who leave the Church, or all artists or famous Mormons who leave the Church, or anything like that. I just read it as a criticism of the culture that does drive some people away.

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  4. Allie says:

    The pressure, whether seen or unseen, that is put on members of the church to fit the “mormon mold” is real. I think that a lot of people, especially those with a high status, have felt the pressure to be “Molly Mormon” or “Peter Priesthood” and when they sin or don’t fit perfectly in this mold, they feel like an outcast. Instead of being looked down upon, they choose to find other reasons to leave the church or go inactive. This way, their sins won’t be used against them and people will just talk about how they are “working on their testimony.” I think that we strive to have a connection with celebrities who are LDS because we want to be viewed as normal and worthwhile. A lot of people, especially those who don’t have correct knowledge of the church, think of us as inferiors or “aliens” to the rest of the world. We want someone of status and wealth to be able to show the world that we are normal and have value, but we put so much emphasis and pressure on these celebrities to do so that they would rather be “working on their testimony” than to be outcasted from a society when they miss up. Shouldn’t we be proving this on our own level and not putting so much pressure on celebrities to do it for us?

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  5. Ted says:

    Mormon artists also have to carry the cross that anything they do will be interpreted as “Mormon” unless they leave. This probably adds a lot of pressure as well. It happens on both sides – I’ve seen articles dissecting Twilight for supposed doctrines and hidden meanings, and I’ve sat in classes where members bear testimony that Edward’s love for Bella is a stellar example of how a husband should treat a wife. Being an open, active Mormon while being an artist invites that kind of bizarre, forced introspection. Sometimes it’s easier to just opt out and be appreciated for your art, not your religious affiliation.

    I’ve also witnessed that sense of betrayal when an artist leaves or even complains about the extreme social pressure put on Mormon artists. I mentioned off-handedly to a friend that it’s hard to be a Mormon artist, to which he blustered, quite offended, why anyone would be “ashamed” of their religion and that Mormon artists should proudly profess their religion through their art from the rooftops.

    “What if they don’t want to make art about being Mormon? What if they just want to make art about something else?” I asked. He responded with a blank, puzzled expression. Never mind that many Mormons go throughout their day tapping into other facets of their personalities or interests besides being a Mormon. Why would any Mormon artist want to talk about anything but the Church?

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  6. We’re gonna have to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. Agreed, Arthur. Handing out hellfire and damnation never brought anyone one measly moment of happiness. At the same time, as an emerging artist, I do long for integrity. I want to share my music with people in a way that enshrines good principles, and I do believe it’s possible. Possible and valuable. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick. And it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

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  7. If a Mormon doesn’t want to be criticized then they shouldn’t become artists or famous ( . . . to gain the whole world and lose your soul). Those who have become role models and then state they don’t want to be role models don’t have a choice. They got what they have that most people are lucky to dream about. Live with it or go off the grid. They are the public face, and not me or most other members.

    You are what your publicity, talents, and contracts make you. Its really that simple and logical, especially in today’s world of Internet blogging and unrepentant paparazzi. Two out of the three picture examples above I don’t recognize as Mormon; at least not anymore. To be a Mormon means something and is not just a label. What I like about Brandon Flowers, that I don’t like about the other two, is that he is an unapologetic Mormon who never claims to be perfect. He does say he tries where he can to be better. The others don’t even try and are proud of that fact.

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  8. Allie says:

    If we bring this down to a “normal” level, how many people go inactive due to the criticism and pressure that is put on them by their Young Men/Young Women/Priesthood/and Relief Society leaders?? I think criticism exists, regardless if you are famous or not. Some people are placed on a pedestal, therefore becoming a role model, because of the way they are… their example and the light they radiate. They may or may not have the choice. I would like to have enough Faith that celebrities, whether inactive or active in the church, make their own decisions based on how they want to be seen. We truly need to try not to judge the decisions they make and see them as normal people, just like you and me, and hope that the decisions they are making are what the Lord is asking of them.

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  9. de Pizan says:

    “I’ve seen articles dissecting Twilight for supposed doctrines and hidden meanings, and I’ve sat in classes where members bear testimony that Edward’s love for Bella is a stellar example of how a husband should treat a wife.”

    You just made my head explode Ted. I know there are hardcore Twilight fans out there. But an obsessive manipulative stalker who breaks into Bella’s bedroom to watch her sleep before they’re ever together (not that even after that would ever be ok), who breaks her car to stop her from seeing her friends, who bashes her body up during sex….this is how a husband should treat his wife??? I’m going to have to lie down for a while.

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  10. DavidH says:

    We Mormons often love to identify with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Why can’t we be more like Adam Sandler is for Jewish people, and celebrate all our brothers and sisters who are Mormon, by birth, by culture, by history or by aspiration? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vrd9p47MPHg

    I suppose it comes from the all or nothing, black or white, true or fraud, for or against us, teaching often encouraged in Mormonism. Which makes what Richard Dutcher says true in many cases–when a lost sheep wanders, first we lovebomb and then figuratively shoot them. (Others have made similar comments about Mormons often perfering to shoot our wounded.)

    I don’t think that is a phenomenon related to orthodox Mormonism. Other strict religions react similarly when someone appears to deviate from the fold, including ultra orthodox Jews, many of whom do not acknowledge the Jewishness of non-orthodox Jews.

    I for one still count Dutcher and LaBute, for example, as Mormon, if not by practice or belief, then by origin, culture, or history (and, who know, perhaps future). If Adam Sandler were to sing a “Pioneer Day” song celebrating famous Mormons, I think he would include them (even if they themselves may be uncomfortable with that identification).

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