I don’t know if the television ads for the Mormon church have gone national, but I suspect that they have. If so, then you know what I mean: ads that could be selling educational institutions or automobiles or some kind of cleaning product that’s going to save untold hours of household drudgery, but instead are selling the normalcy of the Mormon church and its members. One ad shows an immigrant musician, another shows a former gang member (drug addict?) and his reformed life, another shows a redhead from Texas with her family (including an autistic child). And of course, there’s Norman the Mormon.
We get these ads in Arizona with astonishing frequency. The LDS are a powerful and present minority in Arizona and their numbers and influence are growing. We’re one of the few states in which people don’t really need to be told that Mormons are just like every other religious person (except for the magic underpants, but other religions have their own special idiosyncrasies). When they first started running these ads several years ago, I wondered if they ran in Utah. Surely the citizens of Utah don’t need reminding that they’re not weird. Or maybe they need to be reminded not to act weird around non-Mormons. (Mormonism is one of the religions I have not looked into seriously. I’m sure there are some vestigial stereotypes loitering in my memory banks, but beyond the now frowned-upon polygamy of prior generations, I couldn’t tell you what they are. This is not an invitation for an education in the matter, however.)
I watch these ads, and I wonder whether television ads in which Alethea the Atheist or Edward the Agnostic or Steven the Secular Humanist were featured with similarly high production values and similarly positive messages would ever get the same kind of treatment that the Mormon ads do, and I have to conclude that we wouldn’t. If a simple billboard with a positive message has to be relocated because of complaints, and if a banner flying campaign takes place in only 26 states, god-fearing people whose religious sensibilities tremble at the very idea that non-theists exist certainly won’t tolerate ads brought into their homes that show that atheists are decent, normal people.
At least, not yet.
Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that atheist television ads are an impossibility. Fifteen years ago, I would not have expected the USA to have elected a black President, or that two Mormons would have a legitimate shot at a Presidential nomination. (Do you think it might be too much to hope for a lesbian atheist President?)
Religious privilege still reigns, at least culturally (especially in the US), but it isn’t indestructible.