Like two wrestlers, circling each other, the one large and muscular, yet feeling attacked, and the other slight and a bit beleaguered, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Principle Voices threw press releases at each other recently (LDS, Principle Voices). Yesterday, a third party was drawn into the ring when Chad Hardy, the returned missionary creator of the “Men on a Mission” calendar was excommunicated from the Church, according to the Associated Press, for conduct unbecoming a member. Concerned with definition, more than sex, this set of releases has analytical importance for understanding contemporary Mormonism.
Following the press storm on the Texas raid on the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attempted to distinguish itself from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a set of documents posted to its web site. Once again it made the point that it is big and mainstream and does not practice polygamy. But it went further and insisted the word “Mormon” can only be misapplied to Fundamentalists who espouse polygamy since they are not part of the LDS Church and Mormon is a term which properly should only apply to Latter-day Saints. “Mormons have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas,” he said. “The fact is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890: 118 years ago. It’s a significant part of our distant past, not of our present,” the posts reported Elder Quentin Cook as saying. This statement builds on President Hinckley’s earlier assertion; “[t]here is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’ It is a contradiction to use the two words together.”
In response Principle Voices, which is an advocacy group formed by representatives of the main Fundamentalist branches of the restoration tradition–The FLDS, the Apostolic Brethren, the Davis County Cooperative Society, the Work of Jesus Christ (Centennial Park), and independent polygamists—asserted strongly that they are Fundamentalist Mormons, despite LDS attempts to preempt the word Mormon. “[W]e consider ourselves to be adherents to Mormonism (and Christianity) no less than were Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor. What distinguishes us from the modern, mainstream Church is that we have endeavored to observe the original, fundamental precepts of the restored Gospel, while the Church itself has, since the early 1900s, repudiated several of them.”
This issue—are the Fundamentalists Mormons or not—is very important to both groups. The Latter-day Saints, without modifiers significantly, see themselves as the only “true” descendent of Joseph Smith’s restoration of the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims the word Mormon as applying only to it and its members even though it is ambivalent about the term. The Church (notice no modifiers on second reference—I am following its style guide) prefers people use its full name and limit the word Mormon to proper names and “the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It not only prefers this but uses language that makes anything but incorrect and improper.
Nevertheless, the Church’s survey found that 36% of those surveyed of the general public “confused” the FLDS with Mormons, i.e. the LDS. Although unmentioned by the Church, Americans feel ambivalence about Mormons, whether the Fundamentalist or non-Fundamentalist varieties. To assuage that ambivalence the Church has developed a public relations campaign to portray Latter-day Saints as mainstream and ordinary, except for the power of their religious message. In that campaign the Church uses both the full name of the Church and the simple term “The Mormons”.
It is not surprising that the much smaller groups would insist they too are Mormons. The claim to Joseph Smith’s revelations authorizes their existence. Latter-day Saints would prefer to see Fundamentalists as people who have left the fold or as “sects,” using a diminished term of scant social legitimacy. Reducing their status makes their claims around the principle (polygamy) less important.
Polygamy may seem racy to many Americans, since it is about multiple spouses and sex within these large marriages. But the issue is less sexual than semantic. To label an issue as semantic is generally to claim its unimportance in the general scheme of things. Yet this particular semantic tussle not only makes people red faced and steaming, it has serious consequences.
The Latter-day Saints developed a public relations arm of the Church, which involves not only Church Public Affairs but also the production efforts of Bonneville International. Now we see Fundamentalists gathering together, despite the differences among the various groups and individuals, to form an advocacy group and to make their own press releases. Despite the enormous differences in scale, the LDS efforts to claim ownership of the word Mormon and to scrub it of semantic accretions and ambiguities that do not jibe with the preferred message of the Church, enable Principle Voices, the name of the advocacy effort, to be effective. Of course it must be mentioned this takes place in a much larger theatre with many others reporting on Mormonism and that has consequences for the daily life of both religious bodies.
In the LDS case the development of a public relations apparatus has had an organizational effect on the Church. It not only leads to a focused message for giving to non-Church media, but encourages consistency within and attempts to limit alternative voices whether those alternative voices are members or part of the Church’s bureaucracy and authority structure. This is part of its effort to create a brand and protect that brand (See Natalie’s July 12th post.)
Branding, though, is not simply about public relations and the use of language by people, it is about fixing the brand and making it property. That is to say it takes words and other signs and makes them things. Not only are the words used in communication, but they have an additional reality as pieces of property. Words no longer simply take their meaning in communication when millions of people use them in sentences, when they take sound or script and connect it to a meaning. Rather the words are owned.
Making a connection between a word and what it means is always insecure. However when words are made property, the property consists in using social means to attempt to seal, make secure, the connection between signifiers and signifieds, between signs and objects. The property is that signifier joined with signified. But since that joining can never be completely sealed, it must be maintained by the owner of the property, the brand, to keep the millions of tongues and keyboards using it in the way they want to have taken for granted.
Branding, in this sense, is making a social act—the joining of sign and object—a matter of apparently uncontestable reality. Of course this is contradictory. Brand owners must constantly work to maintain the brand, even when doing so shows that the ostensible reality is not so real as the owner would wish.
As a result, brand owners will resort to legal means to create their property and defend it. In both the LDS and Principle Voices press releases these legal issues are central. Elder Lance Wickman, who is both a General Authority as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and as an attorney is General Counsel to the Church, stated in the letter released to the media “Over the years, in a careful effort to distinguish itself, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has gone to significant lengths to protect its rights in the name of the church and related matters. Specifically, we have obtained registrations for the name “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” “Mormon,” “Book of Mormon” and related trade and service marks from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and corresponding agencies in a significant number of foreign countries.”
It may be significant that Elder Wickman does not mention registration of “Mormon” in the United States. Principle Voices states that “the term “Fundamentalist Mormon” (not Mormon Fundamentalist)–1. describes our true identity and religious position
2. does not apply to an established church, but is rather a descriptive generic term
3. can be compared to the fundamentalist segment of numerous world religions
(See Fundamentalisms and Society, 2 vols., published by the University of Chicago Press, 1993) 4. has not been registered by the LDS Church for usage in this context.” (Bold mine).
The attempts to create realities of the conflicting claims, and thereby give a body blow to their opponents, goes beyond uses of the law. It also draws in academics and other authorities. We see the Church relying on its research arm to create and administer a survey while Principle Voices appeals to the University of Chicago Press and its magisterial Fundmanentalism project. The LDS, in the their kit for the media, claim a different authority. They cite the Associated Press. “As reflected in the AP Style Guide, we ask that you and your organization refrain from referring to members of that polygamous sect as “fundamentalist Mormons” or “fundamentalist” members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “
Not only does the claim to property and ownership of the brand rely on law and other authorities, it also depends on internal discipline to present a consistent brand. Fundamentalists have not yet developed the apparatus to discipline the disparate groups and individuals that together form it, despite the strong authoritarianism within some groups, but the Latter-day Saints have. We see this exemplified in the disciplining of Chad Hardy. The creator of the popular calendar “Men on a Mission” which shows returned missionaries in various states of dress was excommunicated yesterday in Las Vegas. While the disciplinary council was convened by Hardy’s stake president with the “primary concern” of the calendar showing conduct unbecoming a member, one of the calendar’s models Jonathan Martin was reportedly called in by his Stake President “after a letter was sent to his church leader by higher-ups in Salt Lake City” (Deseret News).
Arguably, the calendar with its pictures of shirtless returned missionaries, juxtaposed to photos of them in missionary garb, plays to stereotypes and fantasies of missionaries as sex objects and does not fit with the preferred image of Mormons held by the Church. I obviously was not at the council and do not know this for a fact. But it seems contextually fair to state. Nonetheless I can write securely that protecting its brand, through internal discipline, is an important Church action motivated by the public relations emphasis and by notions of words as property, as part of brands.
The wrestling match here, no matter how many parties involved, is fascinating for a social science of religion. The development of a public relations apparatus has implications not solely for the external life of a group, but for its internal organization as well because signs are simply not stable. They require the expenditure of lots of work to keep meanings constant and this involves religion in other instances of society, such as the legal system and other systems of authority. Religion then can no longer be just itself.
Chad Hardy will go on to make money from his latest calendar. The publicity, including the releasing by his stake of his summons to the disciplinary council can only help sales. And, Latter-day Saints and Fundamentalists are locked in a sibling struggle that despite the disparities that will go on. And there will be more to comment on another time.