Sometimes when I'm watching Jeopardy, which I do every night, I like to guess what religion or denomination contestants belong to based on clues -- the college they attended, the mission trip they went on, their hometown -- from their brief introductions. So Newsweek's Sally Atkinson is a reporter after my own heart. In "America's Next Top Mormon," she wrote about a Mormon American Idol finalist and other Mormons who have been contestants on reality television:
When brothers Ryan and Craig Simmons auditioned for the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race" in 2003, they hoped the novelty of their religion would give them an edge. Their audition tape showed them outside the Mormon temple in Provo, Utah, while the narration played off those classic Mormon ads ("Family: Isn't it about time?") with a question for the casting directors: "Mormons: Isn't it about time?" It certainly is now. Since then Mormons have colonized reality TV as if they'd been assigned there by Brigham Young himself. They've won "The Biggest Loser," "The Rebel Billionaire" and "Survivor" (along with two second-place finishes on "Survivor"). These days you can't turn on "So You Think You Can Dance" or "Dancing With the Stars" without seeing at least one, and often several, members of the church. And they're closing in on the biggest reality TV prize of all: cherub-faced Mormon David Archuleta is one of four finalists left on "American Idol," and his chances just soared following the elimination last week of Brooke White. White is Mormon too, and now that she's off the show, the two of them won't have to split the faithful's vote anymore.
Wholesome, likable Mormon competitors are now so plentiful that some viewers have taken to playing Spot the Mormon. Former "Idol" contestant Carmen Rasmusen, herself a Mormon, says one of this season's early episodes set off her Mormon radar when she heard White tell the judges she'd never seen an R-rated movie. "My husband and I just looked at each other and said, 'She's totally Mormon.' I mean, who else would say something like that?"
Atkinson covers the story from different angles. She noted the cultural disconnect between Mormon virtues and reality television's conniving, back-stabbing and sexuality. She looked into the motivation of Mormon contestants themselves. She noted that LDS families form a great voting and viewing block for their fellow churchmen. She notes that Mormon contestants do well on shows without voting, too, quoting people who cited mission trips and navigating relationships in large families as contributing factors. She even got some Mormon criticism in the story:
Lauren Faber, an eighth-grader in Provo, votes for Archuleta as many times as she can each week for at least 20 minutes, "no matter what--even when he messed up that once." That will undoubtedly be music to Archuleta's ears, although last week Osmond spoke out in the church-owned Deseret News, saying that White and Archuleta should be judged based on their talent, not their religion. "I mean, you don't hear other people saying, 'One of the finalists is a Catholic' or 'One of them is a Presbyterian' or 'One of them is Jewish'."
Actually, denominational press frequently note when finalists for reality television are one of their own. Just today my church body notified us that we've got a finalist for America's Favorite Mom. Go Nora!
Atkinson even included how reality television success can come at a price for some Mormons. Julie Stoffer, a Brigham Young University student in 1999's "Real World" was suspended by the university for living with housemates of the opposite sex on the show, a violation of the school's honor code. Another Mormon contestant won "Survivor" last year although his homosexuality caused ripples in the Mormon community. Here's how she ends:
Some tension may still exist between the Mormon community and mainstream America. But considering that not too long ago Mormons were a small, persecuted band, it's remarkable that America may be poised to crown a Mormon as its new Idol.
The reader who sent the piece in praised it for not being snarky even though it would have been easy to make it so. I agree. Atkinson wrote a thoughtful and thorough article about popular culture.