Mormonism as “Brand”?

Last week, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite blogged for the Washington Post’s On Faith that Mormonism has a “branding” problem, observing that our most famous member—Glenn Beck—may be a liability for Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney.

I’m as curious as anyone to see what role (if any) Beck will play in the Big Mo-Publican primaries of 2012.

But I can’t stop gagging on the idea that a religion is a “brand.”

Sure, I’ve read the research. I know that Mormon pollsters and big-time non-Mormon PR firms have found that we Mormons rank slightly above Muslims in public esteem. The Mormon grapevine tells me that commissioned research presented last year found that the top keywords associated with Mormons in the public mind are “family,” but also “anti-gay,” “insular,” and “polygamy.” Yikes.

And yes, I know that a crew of really smart PR guys went to work for the incorporated LDS Church last year trying to re-brand the Mormons with a coordinated multimedia campaign that projected a new image of American Mormons as young, educated, open, and progressive.

But is a religion a brand? Is my grandmother a brand? Is kinship a brand? What about the alternately thrilled and woozy feelings I get when thinking about the complexity of Mormon experience across the centuries? How do you brand that? What about a lifetime of experiences—natural, unnatural, and supernatural? Or how about the millions of lifetimes of experience that make up Mormon tradition?

There’s a great feminist slogan: This is a revolution, not a public relations campaign. Pretty much sums up how I feel about faith.

I know the corporate LDS church may think in terms of branding, and I don’t blame them. But I think religion scholars should develop a public vocabulary that better captures the power and heft of religion as a dimension of human experience.

Something of the soul of religion is lost when we talk about it as a “brand.”