Mormon Rhetorical Analysis

Since approximately the early 20th Century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) has been examined in respects to a ban that was instituted against those of African descent from holding the Priesthood in the Church. Critics of the Church have often claimed that since African men were generally not allowed to be ordained to the Priesthood from somewhere in the late 1800s til 1978 that the Church was racist and must not be of the Judeo-Christian God since that God would never condone or allow racism. Unsurprisingly, the LDS Church and individual members have retaliated with evidence of their own as to why this is not the case at all in an attempt to legitimize the Church in the eyes of mainstream Christianity.

In March 2011, a musical called The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in New York City. It depicts various satires of the typical Mormon lifestyle. In general, the LDS population has given mixed reviews about the musical. Some claim it to be an accurate enough representation of the quirks of Mormonism with a few inappropriate areas whereas more conservative members find the entirety of the musical offensive. One of the more major effects of the musical is that it shed light on the LDS Church which has, for the most part, stayed out of the limelight for quite some time. While members have reacted in differing ways towards the musical the Church itself largely stayed away from the topic until recently.

September 2012, the LDS Church took out several ads in the Book of Mormon playbill featuring members of the Church of varying genders and ethnicities encouraging playgoers to read the Book of Mormon (hereafter un-italicized for clarity’s sake)book that the musical’s title is based off of.
Alex_Boye.jpg [1]
These advertisements have also appeared across the internet with the same message. Each of the advertisements are very similar: they feature an attractive individual with a short sentence stating that people at the musical should read the book. They are colorful, catch the eye, and seem very upbeat.

One in particular, however, speaks to a much wider audience than one would initially presume. It features a black man named Alex Boye with the caption, “You’ve seen the play…now read the book.” On a basic level this is no different from the other ads and all it would do to a casual viewer is express diversity in the LDS Church. However, to someone educated about the controversial history of the Church, this ad does a lot more than meets the eye.

Rhetorically speaking, the advertisement is very effective. The man that the ad features, Boye, is a black recently-British-but-now-American Mormon. Naturally this allows for bias in his viewpoint; given that he is Mormon he would of course want others to read the Book. His dark skin allows a unique perspective on the issue as well. Based on the fact that he is obviously black this is a very real appeal to people’s ethos; after all, if a black man doesn’t have a problem with the LDS faith then perhaps it does not have such a racist history after all. Or, failing the history being squeaky clean, it is possible that the Church has changed or adapted in such a way that allows for making up of these past injustices. Viewers are led to think that based on nothing more than knowing that Boye is black.

What is genuinely great about this advertisement is that it can appeal on a deep level to educated viewers or it can appeal effectively to passive viewers who don’t have such a detailed knowledge of the LDS history. Stephen Wilhoit emphasizes that often a rhetorical piece will not address an audience specifically but that it might have certain audiences in mind. This particular text appeals to more than one audience and could quite easily have both the informed and the passive audience in mind with its text.

One other very interesting approach the digital ad takes is how it appeals to viewer’s logos by making those who follow the path of reading the Book of Mormon are very logical whereas, by implication, anyone who doesn’t is illogical. Kenneth Burke addresses this system of inclusion and exclusion. He makes the point that “all terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principle of continuity and the principle of discontinuity."

Of course, in this case, the situation is slightly different. In most cases of terminologies such as the type Burke addresses, the terminology is very straightforward. Yet in the case of the digital ad, the terms are more or less implied. The ad’s text that simply states “you’ve seen the play…now read the book” leads readers to a position where they feel as if they are being very logical by reading the book. In this case, the term would be “logical.” By the principle of discontinuity, however, anyone who doesn’t proceed to read the book would then be placed in such a position where they feel illogical. The ad does not come right out and say this, of course, but it does strongly imply it which makes its overall rhetoric very strong.

Another article that addresses a similar audience of people has been compiled by various scholars throughout the years. It is titled “Mormonism and racial issue/Blacks and the Priesthood.”[2] Though the article is technically a wiki, it is full of information compiled by LDS scholars who are paid through donations and fundraising to research controversial issues surrounding the Church and to then present information in such a way as to defend the Church’s doctrine/history. In this case, they chose to address the fact that for a while “blacks” were kept from holding the Priesthood.

Of the two articles, the playbill ad is a much more effective approach to addressing the Church’s history on race. While the wiki does provide a wider berth of factual information and addresses specific issues with Biblical evidence the playbill ad appeals to a much greater audience and in a much more subtle way. The playbill ad also utilizes many different styles of rhetoric in a stronger way than the wiki had the potential to.

The wiki, while providing a good amount of information, does not utilize all the styles of rhetoric that it could. Nowhere on the website in question do the authors identify themselves or state that they are scholars. This omission does two things: first, it keeps readers from seeing a potential bias in that they are Mormon; and second, it also prevents readers from benefiting from the knowledge that the authors are academics who have been through years of religious study. This was a weak choice for the authors because it is strongly implied that the authors are Mormon so the bias will be there no matter what. They completely lose the benefits of ethos that could have made the article more legitimate in terms of their own academia.

However, while the digital ad definitely appealed heavily to ethos and logos, this article appeals almost entirely to logos. It includes quotes by leaders in the LDS Church who disavow racist actions of any kind and specifically mentions that not even the Church itself is sure why there was ever a ban on black men holding the Priesthood.

What makes this article particularly effective in the realm of logos has to do with its intended audience. Whereas the digital ad took on a much broader audience the article definitely is geared towards people who believe that the Bible is authentic and a source of authority—namely, other Christians. The article states that “sometimes God withholds certain blessings from certain people without explaining why He does this,” which assumes that readers are familiar with the practice in the Old Testament of only allowing the Priesthood to the tribe of Levi for a certain period. With this strong appeal to Biblical logic then Christian readers would find it difficult to find fault with the LDS Church for forbidding the Priesthood to certain men when, in the past, God had forbidden it to everyone but a small group of men. This kind of thinking leads one to believe that it is indeed possible God might have sanctioned the forbidding of the Priesthood to black men.

Unfortunately, someone who does not consider the Bible and its history to be authoritative would find this appeal to be very weak. For those who question the validity of the Bible or who see various parts of the Bible to be racist, this line of reasoning is a detriment to the LDS position. The digital ad appeals to a very wide audience and people can read into it what they see fit; the article dives into a very specific part of the issue and it really only appeals to some people.

Due to this, the digital ad becomes the more effective rhetorical text. Its appeal to ethos and slight appeal to logos is very overwhelming and produces great results on multiple levels. To a very specific audience the article might be a much better rhetorical device but the audience that would go so far as to read it would likely be predisposed to ignore its information anyway. For that reason, the ad does a much better job at conveying its intended message to a much larger audience.

Bibliography
1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Advertisement. Meridian Magazine. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 07 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. <http://www.ldsmag.com//images/Alex_Boye.jpg>.
2. "Mormonism and Racial Issues/Blacks and the Priesthood." FAIRMormon. MediaWiki, 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2012.<http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Blacks_and_the_priesthood>.

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