Last week saw another round of back and forth between the LDS Church’s public relations department and the Principle Voices Coalition, an inter-denominational group advocating the awareness and rights of “fundamentalist Mormons.” It should be noted that Principle Voices is made up of independent fundamentalists and has associations with the Apostolic United Brethren (the Allred organization), the Work of Jesus Christ (the Centennial Park organization), and the Davis County Cooperative Society (the Kingston organization), but has no ties with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Colorado City/Hildale organization).
The LDS PR folks are again arguing that the word “Mormon” can only be properly applied to the LDS Church and its members, while Principle Voices maintains that the term applies to everyone whose faith derives from the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.
The problem, according to the LDS Church, is confusion among the media and the general non-Mormon public. (An LDS-commissioned poll showed that more than a third of respondents believed that fundamentalists in Eldorado, Texas, were members of the LDS Church.) If we take the LDS PR folks at their word, they want to promote “accuracy and clarity in media reporting” and, at the same time, they do not wish “to diminish the religious prerogative of any of these polygamous groups.”
Knowing the goals allows us to evaluate the success of their PR strategy.
Among the goals, let’s consider the issue of disparaging the faith of others first. By consistently referring to the FLDS Church, the AUB, and other churches as “these polygamous groups” and by insisting these believers cannot call themselves fundamentalist Mormons, the PR folks seem to me to be failing at the goal of not diminishing the fundamentalists’ “religious prerogatives” right out of the gate. What prerogative is more central than one’s identity? The problem with refering to fundamentalist Mormons as “polygamists” are that not all fundamentalists practice polygamy (those who do not are technically not polygamists, even if they believe in the principle). Also, while the doctrine is the most salacious from a media standpoint, fundamentalists differ from the LDS Church on other major points of doctrine and they do not want to be known only for polygamy any more than any Mormons have ever wanted to be known only for polygamy.
What about the goal of accuracy? In their press release last Friday, the LDS PR folks have several arguments behind their assertion that fundamentalists cannot be called Mormons.
(1) Their first point is that LDS Church is bigger than any other faith group that reveres Joseph Smith as a prophet and therefore applying the word Mormon to anyone else stretches the term “out of proportion.” There is no question that the LDS Church is by far the biggest organization that resulted from Joseph’s 1830 Church of Christ. Does that matter? Let’s take the example of bananas. Everyone around the world is familiar with the bananas they buy in their grocery store. They are more or less all the same and, as a result, they are what “bananas” mean to the general public. It turns out that the familiar banana is only one particular variety of banana: specifically, the Cavendish banana. Cavendish bananas account for the overwhelming majority of bananas exported from the tropics because they have properties that allow them to travel well. However, just because 95%+ of all the bananas in the world are Cavendish, does this mean the other bananas are no longer bananas at all? Having one dominant (or even super-dominant) group within a category does not invalidate the identity of the minority groups within that category.
(2) The LDS PR folks point out that AP Stylebook says it’s wrong to refer to non-LDS members as Mormons. This AP guideline was most likely written to explain to writers that members of the Community of Christ do not refer to themselves as Mormons. (When the LDS Church practiced polygamy in the late 19th century, the term Mormon was reviled in America. Reorganized Latter Day Saints had no desire to be confused with LDS Mormons, and so they generally stopped applying the term Mormon to themselves and added the word “Reorganized” to the legal name of their church.) Now that fundamentalists have caught the media’s attention, this guideline will likely be corrected to point out that while members of the Community of Christ do not call themselves Mormons, members of the FLDS Church and others do. Until that time we can point out a number of other outside authorities that already apply the term Mormon to all the groups. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines the term:
“Mormon. Member of any of several denominations that trace their origins to a religion founded by Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805–1844), in the United States in 1830. The term Mormon, often used to refer to members of these churches, comes from the Book of Mormon, which was published by Smith in 1830.”
(3) The LDS PR folks next point out that the FLDS Church organization has changed its legal name several times. I find this argument bizarre. Again, it should be noted that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not related to Principle Voices, the advocacy group that the LDS PR department is explicitly responding to. Also, the FLDS Church does not have the word “Mormon” in its name any more than the LDS Church does. It could be mentioned that Joseph Smith’s organization changed its legal name twice from “Church of Christ” to “Church of the Latter Day Saints” to “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” It’s unclear to me what the legal name of the FLDS Church has to do with usage of the term Mormon.
(4) Finally, the PR folks make the analogies that Christians do not call themselves “reformed Jews” and Lutherans do not call themselves “Catholic fundamentalists.” In light of this, they assert:
It just doesn’t seem right that the FLDS can overturn more than a century and a half of common usage simply by virtue of the fact that it established itself a century and a half after the Mormon faith was born, and adopted many of its early principles. By declaring that any group professing Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon can rightly be called Mormon is akin to declaring that any Christian group that professes the Bible can rightly call itself Catholic.
Leaving aside the fact that the FLDS Church (admittedly under a different name) emerged as a distinct organization not more than 150 years after Mormonism was founded but less than 100 years after, the reality is that there have continuously been non-LDS Mormons since Brigham Young reorganized his First Presidency in 1847. Many of these, including the Strangite Mormons, have never rejected the term Mormon.
The offered analogies hold up no better than the PR folks’ history. Christians chose not to call themselves reformed Jews, but they surely would have been justified in doing so, had they wished to. Lutherans did not call themselves “Catholic fundamentalists,” but they did call themselves “Christians,” even though the term “Christian” in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages generally referred to baptized members of an organization whose nominal head was the Bishop of Rome. Although the terms “Catholic” and “Orthodox” are today applied to distinct successor organizations, they were originally applied as synonyms for the one holy, catholic, orthodox, Christian Church. People started calling Christians in communion with Rome “Catholics” (instead of simply “Christians”) in reaction to the fact that there began to be multiple Christian churches. In other words, this is a bad analogy. To make this analogy properly, one must argue that the only people who can legitimately call themselves “Christians” are the Catholics. (This last argument would also be supported by the size argument above.)
Since accuracy doesn’t seem to result from the PR folks’ current talking points, that leaves one stated goal left. Are the PR folks at least achieving their goal of avoiding confusion?
We have a scenario where fundamentalist Mormons are going to continue to call themselves “fundamentalist Mormons” every time they make the headlines. The LDS response is to reiterate the statement, “there is no such thing as a fundamentalist Mormon.” I can’t see how this is anything other than a recipe for confusion. The public at large will only ever be able to devote so much attention to Mormonism. How can we expect them to be anything other than confused?
If the LDS PR department is actually interested in its stated goals, a change of strategy is clearly in order. I suggest that they adopt the new talking point: “there’s more than one kind of Mormon.” This new talking point would avoid denigrating the faith of non-LDS Mormons. It is also manifestly accurate. Finally, I think it is a model that would be easy for the general publica to grasp and thus would avoid confusion. (The public understands there’s more than one kind of Muslim; why shouldn’t there be more than one kind of Mormon?)
The only reasons I can imagine that the LDS PR folks would not change its strategy are (1) they are incorrigibly incompetent at public relations, or (2) they have goals other than the ones they have stated.