"I propose that we vote for the prophet," said the email. Then the writer urged us to spell his name exactly right so no vote would be wasted. "Rabin is first, Mother Teresa is 2nd and Billy Graham is 3rd."
I couldn't help but moan. How embarrassing for the Church. First of all, does anyone seriously propose that Gordon B. Hinckley is "person of the century" by any standard, let alone Time's? He is one of the more effective Church presidents, and it has been a joy to all of us to have a vigorous prophet with the common touch. But even within the Church, he has not had the transformative effect of, say, Heber J. Grant (the welfare program) or Spencer W. Kimball (the revelation on the priesthood). And outside the Church, no Mormon prophet since Joseph Smith and Brigham Young has had as much worldwide influence as Ezra Taft Benson.
So if this email campaign succeeded, and President Hinckley won, what would it prove? Only that a whole bunch of Mormons had voted, not wisely, but loyally. And when you consider that Time's standard for its person of the year has been breadth of influence, for good or evil, it's even harder to justify trying to put President Hinckley up against Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or even Milosevic or Saddam Hussein. Time's person-of-the-year, insofar as it is an honor, is an "honor of men," bestowed by the world and not by God. President Hinckley does not aspire to it, for the very good reason that it is not worth having.
I got down to the P.S. "From what I heard," wrote the campaigner, " the winner of the poll will have their picture on the front cover."
Ah. Now I understood. This wasn't about a serious evaluation of who ought to be "person of the century." It was a photo op. A chance to get the face of President Hinckley on the cover of Time.
It was about image. You know, that thing that politicians now work openly to create. Image that sells cars, computers, styles, and all the coolest sins. Image that appeals to our hungers and needs, our fears and resentments, our pride and contempt, hoping to get us to act on those impulses instead of choosing wisely and well.
Well, why not? The Mormon Church had a lousy image for a long time. Missionary work was pretty hard back when dozens of popular novels told people that those men in suits, traveling in pairs, were out to kidnap nubile women for the harems of Mormon polygamists in the remote desert mountains of Utah. And even now, when our image has been greatly improved, we have no shortage of people gleefully smearing us with whatever lies or half-truths seem convenient.
So all of us gladly cooperate in trying to improve the image of the Church. After all, since all that outsiders know of the Church is our image, isn't it our duty to help make sure it's a positive one, so when the missionaries do show up at their home, they'll be interested and let these children of ours in to teach them the gospel? What is "setting a good example" if not image-making?
What image does it create for the Mormon president to be high on the poll?
About the same image that was created when L. Ron Hubbard's posthumous novels rocketed up the bestseller lists. Since there had been no pent-up demand for his fiction for many years, most commentators assumed that the reason his books had sold so fast was not because they were really, really good, but because loyal Scientologists had been told to go out and buy the books all at once, solely to get them on the lists.
The Mormon Church already has many people who believe the image of us as robots, like the followers of Jim Jones and that suicide cult that died with their sneakers on a few years back. The last thing we need is to have our Church's president, who is an utterly obscure figure to most of the world, appear high on such a poll. No one will think for a moment that this represents the considered opinion of dispassionate people. Many will assume that the Church sent out instructions to all its web-connected members to stack the poll.
And even those who know that Mormons are just about the most stubborn and authority-resisting people on earth -- and who therefore correctly conclude that the prophet's high rating on the poll is the result of volunteer efforts -- will still have a poor image of the Church. Imagine: Those Mormons are such rubes that they actually care about popularity polls. And they think so little of their prophet that they'd put him into competition with the likes of Elvis -- who, I understand, also got a lot of votes.
Of course, the fact that I'm writing this polemic proves that I, too, care about image. I don't want my people to look like robots or rubes. Why should I care about that, and then deplore other people for also caring what the world thinks?
Because it does matter what the world thinks of us. For one thing, when they hate us enough, they do nasty things like killing our missionaries or banning us from various countries. And when they have contempt for us, they don't listen to our message, and once you get past the loonier ideas that some Mormons like to put forward as "the gospel," the fact is that everybody would be a lot happier if they did listen to our message and try to live as much of it as they can.
So when Mormons act in such a way as to create an image that interferes with our work, then I think it's worth pointing out. (Even if it means I'll probably get a lot of mail from people who really hate the image they think my books create for the Mormon Church.) Of course we all have our free agency. But when you get some mass emailing suggesting that for the gospel's sake you vote for this or that, I do hope you'll pause for just a moment and think: What will this look like to outsiders who see a bunch of Mormons acting this way?