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July 23, 2014

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Mormons exposed, Mormons opposed

They are all come-hither, all sexpotted out, leaning and gazing and stretching and lounging in full-gloss, $14.99 calendars; Mr. December, Mr. March, Mr. Puffed Up Pin Up, Mr. Missionary.

Mormons Exposed is a stud-lust calendar. Twelve controversial months of sculpted men who happen to be returned missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Men featured not only shirtless, oiled and vogueing, but in their knock-knock missionary attire as well: the white shirt, the tie, the name tag and - where they dared - the bike.

Men taking off their shirts because, in some way, that missionary tie binds. It makes the skeptical see Mormons as too straitlaced, according to calendar creator Chad Hardy of Las Vegas . Too stuffy. Too uptight. Soldiers from behind that "iron gate of Utah."

And Hardy, for the record, is a Mormon. A 31-year-old returned missionary aiming at some holy combination of seduction and surprise. Mormons stripped down to show us, with their unapologetic camera coyness, that they're not "these awkward, naive religion peddlers. Kind of dorky. A little backwards, or cult members."

Hardy has sold more than 1,000 calendars since September. Come Christmas, he'll have them in 500 stores throughout the country. Meanwhile, some church members have called for his excommunication.

The calendar has been disparaged on LDS Web sites, where anonymous writers have suggested Hardy is no longer worthy of his church. One commenter asked, "Did you each get 30 pieces of silver for your betrayal?" - a reference to Judas' payment for betraying Jesus. And not every writer has been so delicate in his phrasing.

The Mormon faith embraces modesty and sees sexuality as something best expressed in the marriage bed. So for many Mormons, photographing an icon of chaste spirituality doing his best to affect sexiness is utterly horrifying.

Ace Robison, stake president for the LDS in Logandale, explains that church members are expected to stay "well on the side of the line that involves things that are wholesome and lofty." The calendar photos "nibble along the margins and maybe step over across the margin into being sleazy," he says.

Mr. May served his mission in North Las Vegas. In one photo, he's suited and smiling with the Book of Mormon in hand and the Rio behind him. In the other photo, he's stone serious and shirtless, languorous on a white couch with Mandalay Bay as a backdrop. Like every other model, he is wearing black dress pants - half missionary, half beast.

Hardy had to go through seven different men for one of the months - always because the last model got cold feet.

A spokesman for the LDS church in Utah says it had "no interest in commenting" on the calendar.

But not everyone is offended.

Hardy says the Mormons he knows - with the exception of an aunt in Arizona - think the calendar will help dispel the myth of the milquetoast missionary. Moreover, they think it's hilarious. They see a calendar beef-caked to a degree that borders on parody. This view has also been expressed in Internet debates over the calendar, though seldom without swift return fire from the dissenting camp.

"This is not just a calendar ; it's a movement," Hardy says. "We want them to laugh at us. We don't care. We are comfortable enough in our faith."

Hardy sunk about $80,000 into the project, which he wanted to be perfect. So far, he says , what the calendar has really revealed, beyond the bare chests of missionaries, is the cruel morality that can parade as piety.

"Now that the calendar is becoming the sensation that it is, it's also showing some of the ugliness of our church members," Hardy says.

Being featured in Rolling Stone probably didn't help.

Going up against the church with his pin-up calendar has become so stressful that Hardy's starting to wonder whether he needs medication. He's only half-joking.

Still, Hardy says, "For every negative comment we get, we get 50 more orders."

Part of the sales proceeds will be donated to the cities where all 12 models served their two-year missions. And maybe the real payoff will be some kind of interfaith dialogue, a discussion between Mormons and the Christmas shoppers who pick up Mormons Exposed as a gag.

Maybe, Hardy hopes, Mormons will start to examine what faith means to them and whether stud missionaries giving us the shirts off their backs are really stripping away their God.

"This calendar is my contribution to society," Hardy says. "We need to get over ourselves."

And next year, Hardy promises, "it's girls."

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