(cross-posted at Religion in American History)
While pundits and theologians continue the seemingly endless debate over whether or not Mormonism is Christian/Mormons are Christians/a Mormon can be a Christian, over at Slate, browbeat writer David Haglund weighs in on the Mormon church’s latest advertising campaign (the “I’m a Mormon” campaign) and the recent participation of The Killers frontman and international rockstar Brandon Flowers in that effort:
The video hews closely to the campaign’s usual formula: Flowers talks about himself, then about his values, and then he connects those values to his Mormon faith. Near the end, Flowers talks a bit about his public persona. “A lot of people love to come up to me and tell me they were raised in the church,” Flowers says, “and they expect there to be this camaraderie of, oh, we’ve outgrown it now, we’re smart enough now not to be in it.” One can understand why this would happen: In 2004, Spin identified Flowers as an ex-Mormon, and he has been candid in the past about his drinking and smoking, activities forbidden for devout members of the Mormon church.
But as the existence of this video suggests, Flowers doesn’t see himself as an ex-Mormon, at least not anymore. (If he did, he could have participated in a different video campaign.) What’s interesting about this is the way Flowers frames his re-affirmed faith: “I was raised in it,” he says, “and I still… it’s…” He chuckles. “There’s still a fire burning in there.” That’s the last thing he says before the more standard send-off: “I’m a father, and I’m a husband, and I’m a Mormon.”
For those, like myself, interested in Mormon conversion narratives (as well as unexpectedly Mormon musicians), there’s a lot to unpack here; I’m especially intrigued by the centrality to his faith of his roles as husband and father. (As an aside, the entire corpus of videos available at mormon.org as part of the ad campaign presents a wealth of primary source material for researchers interested in the lives and stories of everyday Mormons today. They strike me as a 21st century equivalent to the personal narratives and life stories of committed Christians that populated the pages of denominational periodicals of yesteryear).
But Flowers’s recent offering at mormon.org is not an isolated example of him speaking out about his faith. In addition to the numerous interviews and articles in which he’s affirmed his Mormonism over the years, his music has long been heavy on religious themes—from the redemptive pleadings and catchy chorus (“I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”) of “All These Things that I’ve Done” to “When You Were Young,” which Flowers once explained was “about growing up in a religion where Jesus is considered a saviour and also realising people can be saviours, too, whether they be your wife, your best friend or your next-door neighbour. He can come in other human forms.” Perhaps the most striking nod to his Mormonism, though, comes in the music video for the second single released on his debut solo album, Flamingo—“Only the Young.” Filmed in a darkened and otherwise empty theater in Las Vegas, Flowers performs on stage, surrounded by angelic figures descending from a bright light overhead. To anyone familiar with Joseph Smith’s first vision, in which Smith recalled being visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ accompanied by “many angels,” the imagery is obvious. But just in case it was missed, Flowers then mimics the pose often portrayed in illustrations of Smith as the divine light descends upon him (all while singing about the innocence and potential of youth to “break away” and discover the Sun, which will surely “shine again”).
Flowers’s story immediately brought to my mind another Mormon rockstar—coincidentally nicknamed “Killer”—Arthur Kane, the now deceased bassist of the 1970s glam rock and proto-punk band, the New York Dolls, whose post-rockstar career, conversion to Mormonism, and brief reunion with his former bandmates was chronicled in the excellent 2005 documentary, New York Doll. Comparing the two personal narratives provides occasional contrasts—whereas Flowers explains that his renewed commitment to Mormonism means that his faith and family has “surpassed the music now, for me” in importance, Kane’s faith famously found expression in his continual prayers asking for God’s help in reuniting the estranged New York Dolls one final time. Yet in other respects, the two resemble one another, particularly in their visual invocation of Mormonism’s founding prophet. For the Dolls’ 2004 reunion show in London, Kane insisted on wearing “a white ruffly shirt and black leather pants.” While such a wardrobe might bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld before anyone else, in Kane’s mind it was intended to “convey a Joseph Smith kind of image.”
I’m not entirely sure what conclusions can be drawn from these parallel examples, but I doubt Mormonism’s musician par-excellence of the 19th century, W.W. Phelps, had anything like this in mind when he eulogized the deceased Mormon prophet by prophesying in verse that “millions shall know Brother Joseph again!”