A 20-year-old Harvard junior from Idaho has captured the attention of Mormondom with the slow viral spread of a six-month-old video (above) in which she explains her faith to journalist Sally Quinn.
The bloggernacle, as Mormon wags call the extensive network of Mormon bloggers, is abuzz over Rachel Esplin's poised handling of a series of questions about whether she wears sacred undergarments, how she responds to allegations that Mormonism is a cult, how she views the role of women in her church, and what her relationship is with Jesus. "For more than 20 minutes, Rachel's delivery was as unstoppable as the incoming tide,'' gushed MormonTimes. "What is fascinating about this video is the aplomb with which Rachel answers the questions,'' writes Krista at Glass Half Full. "I feel very inadequate now!" blogged Chels of the McGees. And Mark Towner, who blogs as The Captains Spyglass, called the video, "Something every Latter Day Saint Member needs to watch and contemplate."
The video is not exactly a clip from the Colbert Report or the Daily Show -- it's 21 minutes long, without a joke in sight. But the video appears to have captured the attention of Mormons, who tend to be highly attentive to and concerned about how they are perceived in the broader culture. The fascination seems to be in part because of Esplin's youth, and in part because she is at Harvard, which, of course, remains a symbol of the mainstream elite.
Esplin, from Blackfoot, Idaho, is the president of the Harvard Latter-day Saint Student Association. She is also an East Asian Studies major who is planning to get married this summer and expects to graduate in December; she hopes eventually to go to law school. Earlier today I called her to ask her about the video, which is posted on the web site of Harvard Hillel, where the panel on which Esplin appeared took place. Here's a partial transcript of our conversation:
Q: What has happened since the video was posted in September?
A: It's been pretty crazy. I didn't even send it to my family members, but my mom found it by Googling my name, and it just started getting e-mailed around. Some BYU professors started showing it and forwarding it, and then a lot of people told me they watched it in seminary or at family home evening.
Q: Why do you think people are so interested in this particular video?
A: I think people latched onto the fact that I'm 20, and haven't been on mission, and haven't been to the temple yet. And I think Harvard is part of it -- there's a significant LDS presence here, with 50 undergrads, and 50 or 60 at the law school, and some at the business school -- and Mormons have a history at Harvard back to the late 1800s, and a couple of our apostles went to Harvard, so in addition to Harvard being Harvard in the world at large, in the LDS community it has a particular significance.
Q: How has this impacted you?
A: It has been a really strange feeling. I know interfaith discussions like this are happening all over, so it's strange that mine has become so popular, and it's something it didn't necessarily merit. But it's helped me realize that doing things like this, and finding ways to encourage others to do so, is significant. Last spring I organized a "Meet the Mormons" panel at Harvard, and it was a good event, and now I'm working with the LDS Association president at MIT to help other schools do similar events.
A: There are a few different goals. We believe it's just a good way to show our religion, to show we love everyone, and that we're interested in learning about other people and hope others will learn about us. And this was born out of a time when our religion was in the news a lot, with Mitt Romney and other factors -- a lot is written about us in the media, and it's not all true, so there's a desire to clarify misconceptions. And then, I guess I believe in the idea that one of the best ways to help build our church is to establish friends who are not in the church.