Why I’m So Bad at Not Using “Mormon”

Rebbie Brassfield is a copywriter living in Southern California. In 2012 she created the now-emeritus website Normons.com to try to prove how normal Mormons are (lol). Currently you’ll find her blogging here.     

It’s been almost 6 months since we were asked to ditch the term “Mormon.” I’ve been reflecting on it lately, I think because I’m anticipating some sort of follow-up at General Conference and I am keenly aware of how badly I’ve done at it.

With each reminder that “Mormon” is out, I’ve felt what I can only describe as a sense of mourning. It’s a strange reaction, given that I am fully on board with efforts to represent ours as a global, Christ-centered church.

But as I’ve gone about trying to scrub the word “Mormon” from my vocabulary, I’ve realized how deeply it is intertwined with my identity as a Latter-day Saint. I’ve attempted to simply swap out the old lingo for the new, but the correct name of the church is not a synonym for all that “Mormon” means.

It’s led me to wonder whether we are being asked to give up not just the word Mormon, but the cultural identity it represents. I find myself simultaneously ecstatic and sorrowful at this prospect. I am flummoxed, and here’s why —

Weirdly, a couple months before the “Mormon” ban, I launched a project with a friend on Instagram called @MormonsInMedia. Our goal was just as the name suggests: find every mention of Mormons, or Mormonism, in mainstream media, and see what it could tell us about how we’re represented.

What it’s told us is so far is that we show up everywhere, characterized by our cultural peculiarities.

We are shown as being adorably sober. (Friends)

 

Super nice and helpful! (Santa Clarita Diet)

 

 

We spawn hordes of children. (That 70’s Show)

 

 

That all live in Utah. (Boss Baby)

 

 

And, always and forever, we are polygamists. (The Proposal)

 

It’s been fascinating to explore the ways Mormons are depicted in mainstream media. But after President Nelson’s announcement, we experienced an awkward moment of, do we rebrand this thing? If we keep the name (& the catchy alliteration) are we disobeying the Prophet?

We decided to stick with it, if for no other reason than that @MembersOfTheChurchOfJesusChristOfLatterDaySaintsInMedia was too long for a handle. A couple more months into the project, though, we’ve realized that name would not even be accurate, because these references are not depicting followers of Christ. They’re depicting Mormons.

They are depicting the identity we embraced and promoted for so long, the identity I think we are now being asked to disappear?

It’s the Jello stuff, you know? The stuff that is not Jesus but so Mormon. The stuff that stems from doctrine but is far enough in practice to obscure it almost completely.

On one hand, these examples have made clear to me why moving away from the term might be important – because it’s made it too easy for us to be defined by cultural oddities rather than religious belief.

On the other, it’s shown me that those representing us in books or on the big screen are not interested in accuracy or nuanced depiction, even now. I am highly skeptical that any Hollywood writer will come around to this name change, when they don’t seem to be capable of Googling whether polygamy still exists in our church. (Here it feels necessary to mention that almost the only instance we’ve seen where someone uses the correct name is Eminem, in two different songs from 2017 and 2001. Thank you, Marshall!)

Now, do I think President Nelson cares much how we are represented in Hollywood? Probably not. But as a writer in the era of ‘representation matters,’ I care deeply about it. I want us represented, and I want us represented accurately, or at least by our Own Voices.

The question then becomes, is is possible? And if the likelihood of real, nuanced Latter-day Saint characters showing up in mainstream media is low, is it better to eradicate “Mormon” and the caricatures it tends to produce altogether?

Another facet of Mormons In Media has been highlighting noteworthy Mormons. Take, for example, Bryce Harper’s recent record-breaking contract with the Phillies, or Ryan Gosling’s classic performance at the Mormon talent show.

I feel perfectly fine claiming these famous strangers as Mormons. But I feel like a presumptuous jerk calling them Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I simply have no idea what their current relationship to Christ looks like, and who am I to out them for a religion they may or may not believe in?

I’ve heard people say Mormon is the new Jewish, in the sense that it’s possible to claim it as a cultural identity while not practicing its religion. I suspect some part of this name not-change is in effort to slow a trend toward cultural Mormonism. Half of me feels thrilled and relieved at this, given there are enough damaging, or simply extraneous parts of Mormon culture that get in the way of true religion. The other half of me feels my Mormon heritage so deeply I wonder, is it even possible to do away with?

Because a Mormon identity is not one you can simply shrug off. It’s not a culture many of us choose – we’re born into it, surrounded by it; a disproportionate number of us are blood descendants of its founding fathers (I told you it always comes back to polygamy).

Mormon culture is so strong, it will define you whether you believe in its God or not. Can we do away with it by taking away its name? Do we need to in order to be ‘one in Christ?’

I am flummoxed at how to implement this change because it feels like a game of chicken and egg: we have to stop talking about the culture so the culture can go away. But the culture is so behemoth and has been wholly formative of my (and I suspect others’) lives, how can we not talk about it?

I’m aware that I am likely being a giant baby and maybe even ethnocentric for mourning the loss of my specific Mormon culture. I sincerely don’t want to further our tendency to view Mormonism through a strictly American lens. But the lines seem to blur between Mormon heritage, Mormon culture, and Latter-day Saint belief. It’s splitting hairs, but feels necessary given I am a writer interested in exploring these identities.

When I use the word “Mormon,” I am talking about a sober, smiling, industrious people who build strong communities, export missionaries, and drive minivans. I am talking about Funeral Potatoes and Pinewood Derbies – warm fuzzy not-Jesus things that shape a Mormon identity.  

When I use the word “Mormon,” I am also talking about an absurd dating culture, narrow gender roles, and sometimes hurtful treatment of those who don’t fit the mold. I am talking about insular communities, homogeneity, and a perplexing tendency toward MLMs.  

Is this a culture worth defending? I’m not sure. But it is a culture worth exploring, and without being able to use the word “Mormon,” I don’t know how.

 

Comments

  1. “without being able to use the word “Mormon,” I don’t know how.”

    So use the word “Mormon”… and don’t feel bad about it!

  2. The point about cultural Mormonism is, I think, why this shift is so difficult for me: I am ethnically Mormon. I’m so far removed from my pioneer ancestors’ cultures that I don’t feel like I can claim them as my own. I can respect the shift away from ethnic Mormonism because it lessens one possible form of gatekeeping. On the other hand, without it I am unable to express the specific culture that shaped me into who I am. It’s a tricky thing to try to balance.

  3. I made the mistake of watching the first part of “The Romanoffs,” starring Aaron Eckhart. His character is describing his background to another character, and he says something along the lines of “I’m part Russian, part German, part English. And Mormon.” His character certainly isn’t a practicing member of the church, yet he saw Mormonism as an essential part of his background (perhaps Eckhart himself–an RM and BYU grad–feels the same way).

    Likewise, I still use the term to refer to myself, and I’d use it even if I were to distance myself from the modern church. I’m anywhere from 5th generation to 8th generation Mormon, depending on which line you follow. It’s in my blood. Heck, my DNA test even acknowledges it: “Mountain West Mormon Pioneers.”

  4. @jaxjensen Every time I go to my brain shouts, “Major victory for Satan!!” Deep sigh.

    @Tim: Yes! We posted that one a couple months back. It felt very meta coming from him, right?

    Here’s the link to the Romanoffs clips if you’re interested:

  5. @rebbiegroesbeck and everytime I hear someone saying “victory for Satan” I sigh and think to myself about what a shame it was that someone would think that the past several “Prophets” were all working for Satan!

  6. The Church and everything it embodies will forever be known as Mormons in popular media and common parlance among the rest of the world. There really is nothing to be done that will change that moniker after almost 200 years of solidified branding both done by us and everyone else.

    The Church and our leadership can emphasize our actual brand and spend millions of dollars overhauling our messaging – which is a good thing since it takes a step to properly positioning ourselves. But Mormon is going to stick like glue to us and we are never going to be able to stop reminding people of the actual name of our faith and that we are actually Christ centered. Not until He actually returns. That will be the only MORMON MOMENT that matters and will change the world’s mindset.

    So we should settle in and get used to this reality of a dual world which is just another element of our existence as a peculiar people.

    That said, I agree with you, there is something very real lost when I can no longer talk about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Mormon Moments and other such instances. There is both the loss of a simple single name moniker and especially the loss of some identity. But more than anything it has become yet another cultural marker that those with more fundamentalist mindsets will use to “other” those who are not comfortable or consistent in avoiding the now unacceptable name.

  7. Darn it all to heck, this made me cry.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I think you pretty much answered your own question. I chaffed at the change too but something said at our recent stake conference made me see what Pres. Nelson was getting at. In the future if I need a shortened name I will call myself Christian. I am a convert and I joined the church because I gained a testimony of Christ, not of the Mormon culture.

  9. @disheartened couldn’t agree more! Especially our beloved Gordon Hinckley and his brilliant PR mind. It feels like a jarring switch.

    @alain it’s interesting – I got served an ad for ChurchOfJesusChrist.org the other day on Instagram and was like, hmm I wonder what this church is about and then realized, duh that’s my church! I have to admit the sneak attack was effective. Maybe it doesn’t matter that people will keep calling us ‘Mormon’ if we can reach them with our actual message through this ‘renaming’ effort.

  10. I don’t understand or agree with the injunction to stop using “Mormon,” however I can appreciate that separating the culture from the religion could be a very good thing.

    And yet, since we know none of the cultural quirks listed in your last couple paragraphs will disappear simply because people stop using the term “Mormon,” will those cultural quirks now become associated with “Church of Jesus Christ?” If so, that seems to make the problem worse.

    Instead of having a bag of cultural quirks that we can label “Mormon” and a bag of doctrine, policy, and practice called “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” will we now have a single bag labeled “Church of Jesus Christ” that contains all of it? What problem does that solve?

  11. you really summed up my feelings, thanks for this. I have been having a hard time dropping the word, too. Not just because all the replacements are longer but because I am describing things like community and such that being members of a church isn’t enough to describe. Members of most other churches don’t share all of the peculiarities that our tribe does. I am sometimes proud of being a Mormon and sometimes not, but it feels like who I am in my bones.

  12. What are we to do with historical terms or geographical terms, such as Mormon pioneers or the Mormon Trail? Did the Latter-day Saint pioneers travel the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint Trail? If this is the level of our revelation today, we need to rethink the whole concept of modern revelation.

  13. @Franklin I believe they specified that when dealing with historical studies or sites, Mormon can stay. I don’t think any plans exist to rename those things.

  14. Brilliantly said. I’ve been doing this wrestle myself, with the added layer of trying to write history where the term “Mormon” and cognates are a matter of record and sooo much easier to use (and arguably convey more). But in personal terms, I’ve had the same thought: to the extent that “Mormonism” is an American subculture it’s time to reorient our thinking and self-definition. But it’s not easy.

  15. SisterStacey says:

    I have to disagree. I refuse to do it. I will continue to say Mormon. I remember listening to his original talk and honestly, I was all for it until the “victory for Satan” part and my heart just stopped. The Spirit left. I’ve been struggling with accepting RMN as a prophet, seer, and revelator for over a year, (since the MTC Abuse scandal where he threw McKenna under a bus) and this did nothing to change that. So I’m being a rebel. I did not fast for 10 days (I also stopped listening to the women’s session after Dallin Oaks started on his “if you’re not married and popping out babies, you’re evil” speech.
    I’ve already been corrected by people for saying Mormon and it hurts. To me, it’s just another thing to use to judge someone you should love. Use Mormon. Use it proudly.

  16. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I also confess to struggling with this, but am coming around. I don’t like how it was presented, and “victory for Satan” was over-the-top enough to leave a sour taste. At the same time, while I was raised Mormon, share that history and culture, and find it useful shorthand as a self-identifier, I’m happy to abandon that culture. Most of the cultural baggage we bring is detrimental and, while surely not President Nelson’s target, should be extinguished. I’m also sympathetic to other cultures, where “Mormon” doesn’t work well as a term, and brings with it Western U.S. stuff that shouldn’t influence their religious experience in any way. If we want to think of this as a global Church, we need to start acting like it, and ridding ourselves of the Mormon baggage is an important step. Now, I’m not convinced this influenced President Nelson’s thinking in any way, but it could be a welcome unintended consequence.

  17. Elizabeth says:

    Such a fun read Rebbie! Having grown up as a Latter-Day Saint, I’m really struggling to not say that I’m a Mormon. I think as a culture, we’re getting better, but I think it’s like a train going 100mph one direction and how difficult it is to get that train to do a 180.

  18. I do believe President Nelson is motivated by scripture and inspiration, probably without immediate attention to consequences. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it doesn’t have to. I believe he is also motivated by a desire to separate the Church and its members from the broader cultural sense of “Mormon.” That hurts, at a personal visceral level. It’s a new form of exclusion.

    Putting my feelings to the side. and acknowledging the adjective problem that nobody to my knowledge has solved, my conclusion to the culture identifier problem the OP poses is to be more precise. When I’m talking about the Church I try to use the full name or accepted shorthands or workarounds. When I’m talking about members I tend to do the same, although member itself is not well-defined and often requires explanation or qualifiers. But when I’m talking about culture or history or big-tent Mormonism or even baseball players I use “Mormon” freely. It’s the right word.

    I have even rationalized my way to thinking “Mormon” as a cultural identifier is consistent with President Nelson’s intent and purpose. In other words, it’s not the word itself that’s a problem. It is in the dictionary. There clearly is useful meaning, as the OP demonstrates. It’s more that for his version of “we” in an us-and-them conversation, “we” are not Mormon.

    I am indisputably Mormon in every cultural and historic sense. I frankly don’t know whether I am an us or a them from President Nelson’s point of view, but until told otherwise I consider myself an us—a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    P.S. I do not agree that “Mormon” is a narrowly inter-mountain west U.S. cultural designation. The Church’s diaspora includes people all over the world who might rightfully and accurately call themselves Mormon with or without any formal affiliation with the Church. The adults I knew on my mission in the 1970s are some of them survived by three generations now, all of whom might claim the name.

  19. I grew up in a small town in Utah in the in the 70’s and 80’s and was steeped in the Mormon culture. It seems we all had the same traditions and values and goals. It was a culture, and it was an insular culture. Then I left.

    I spent 20 years as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints outside of Utah. And slowly, the stink of the culture faded away and I experienced the religion without the “jello salad” Of course there was still cultural tendencies, but they weren’t as obvious and its intensity was determined by how many other Utah transplants were in the area. But I could discuss my religion without necessarily having to discuss it’s formative culture.

    Now, I find myself back in a small town in Utah that often behaves as though time stood still and the culture is ripe. And I don’t like participating in my religion here. “I’m a Mormon” made me who I was. “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints” helped me to evolve. “I’m a member of the CoJCoLdS in a Mormon town.” is difficult to wrap my head around.

  20. It hasn’t been very hard for me to avoid “Mormon” when I’m speaking to other members of the church. Everyone is in on the game, so we play it together. The omission floats among us, present but unacknowledged. We all know it’s there.

    It has been much harder to avoid “Mormon” when speaking to outsiders. They don’t know about the game, so they can’t play. When I need to say something that requires the ideas associated with “Mormon,” I find that I have to say “Mormon.” There is no substitute, unless I say something like: “We members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been asked by our prophet to stop referring to ourselves as Mormons because we want you to know that we are Christians, and we hope that eliminating the word ‘Mormon’ from our speech will help accomplish that goal. I understand that you may not know enough about us to see this as a problem, but in case you notice the occasional awkwardness in my refusal to call myself a Mormon, that’s why it’s happening.” That’s not likely to be a useful turn in most conversations with outsiders.

    It’s starting to feel like a weird experiment. There is a tug-of-war going on between the language and the cultural edict. When you try to blast a gaping hole in the language, what will give way? Will the language prevail because, after all, we must have a way to say what we mean? If we do manage to change the language somehow, will we lose the cultural memory that is carried by the word that we have cursed? At the moment, I’m not feeling especially hopeful about any of the alternatives. I guess that puts me right there with Rebbie.

  21. Yesterday I was an interfaith event where they were making a serious, respectful effort to call us “Latter-day Saints” instead of Mormons. But sometimes they slipped up. And then I would call ourselves “Mormons” in conversation anyway to clarify. And then the other Morm — errr, Latter-day Saints in the room would glare at me. Siggggghhhh.

  22. I am all for being more “Christian” but I don’t see us doing that. I just hear and see us trying to pull a PR shift. Have you seen church members trying to write their religion in the little box or line on a form. It doesn’t work.

    We also didn’t abandon the book with “Mormon” in it’s title. That is part of the confusion. That book is front runner. With or without the name change.

    I came from proud Mormons. It seems a slap in the face to put them as a “Victory for Satan.” Since we are not typically Christian – what is the point?

    For me, I am sticking with LDS. It combines the smoothest transition between the dual names.

  23. I AM a Mormon. I BELONG to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Those two verbs make all the difference for me.

    With that, I’ve just stopped talking about the church outside of my ward. I’m socially awkward at the best of times and the whole ‘we used to be… but now…’ sand-trap is just too much for me.

  24. Jack Hughes says:

    Just the other day I was filling out a health insurance intake questionnaire over the phone. The representative asked me what my religion was, most likely expecting an answer of no more than 2 syllables. I said “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” which confused her. Then I said “Latter-day Saints” to clarify. She was still confused. Then I said “LDS”. No response. Then in exasperation I just blurted out “MORMON!” “Oh ok, got it! Next question…”.

    Seriously, I think the “Mormon” nickname will live on long after Pres. Nelson is gone, and we will all be laughing at the absurdity of this episode in our history.

  25. Laurie C. says:

    If the name Mormon is to disappear from our speech, then what of the anti-Mormons? How can someone be anti-Mormon if there are no Mormons be anti about?? Some of my best friends are anti-Mormons.

  26. Aussie Mormon says:

    As far as the whole victory for Satan thing, the quote from President Nelson’s talk is: “To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan.”
    The way I figure, if you’re not talking about the church itself, then there is a lot more leeway in terminology, without have a “victory for Satan”.

  27. Amanda Stark says:

    I really love this because it’s made me realize that my clinging to the term “Mormonism” really is clinging to Americentric church culture.

  28. If SisterStacey had bothered to listen to Pres Oaks’s talk, instead of jumping to her hasty conclusion, she might have heard one of the two main pieces of counsel he gave to the young women was to be kind. She might have profited from that advice.

  29. Kristine A says:

    “mormonism” is only american-centric as long as you define it that way. others have a more expansive vision of it.

  30. I guess Pres. Nelson’s talk from the early 90’s stuck with me, and so I’ve been prefering the phrase LDS over Mormon most of my life. I don’t find it difficult at all.

  31. The erasure of the word “Mormon” is an issue that’s really stuck in my craw. And trust me, I have a number of issues with the LDS Church, big issues, so big that this one seems kind of small and petty in comparison. But I think that the reason why it frustrates me so much is because it does seem like a move to excise all of our weirdness. Yes we’re Christians, we’re absolutely Christians, but we’re also Mormons. There are real and concrete doctrinal differences that separate us from mainstream Protestantism. And that’s a good thing. I love a lot of our weirdness. Our weirdness is why I’m still a Mormon, even with all of those big issues I mentioned above.

    My fear is that this is a step toward moving the Church toward a more Evangelical setting. In the US the Church is already so tightly associated with Evangelicals politically that I’m afraid that the goal is to make us just like one of the guys. And if I wanted to be an Evangelical I’d be one, you know? But I’m a Mormon because I want to be one, I chose this weirdness and I don’t want it to be filed away.

    I’m probably being paranoid, only time will tell where the Church goes from here. I’m a Mormon AND I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and that’s just the way it goes.

  32. pamelaweste says:

    I understand the desire to emphasize the correct name of the church. But me being a “Mormon” is not a victory for Satan, and not disregarding the Atonement or everything Jesus did for me. Quite the opposite. I’m a Mormon -always have been, always will be.

    To me this has seemed to be a solution in search of a problem.

  33. @jader3rd okay I didn’t know until someone pointed it out that this had been a longstanding thing for President Nelson! Someone sent me this talk where President Hinckley sort of addresses Nelson’s stance and tries to move past it. Sighing deeper than ever.

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/10/mormon-should-mean-more-good?lang=eng&fbclid=IwAR2AdxJZr2l8jnQxsiQK5YgurLTuu7trgybKOTpQCpfRBfR2_vPyx9Ff-PQ

  34. Marcella says:

    For me, when I talk with friends from my ward/stake/etc the term “Mormon” is never used. They always say “The Church”. I’m not a fan of that term, but it seems it’s acceptable for people to use even after conference. Seems like that removes Jesus Christ just as effectively as the forbidden term yet that’s apparently not a victory for Satan.

  35. Mark B. 8:02 – That is such a nice thing to say to someone who is hurting. Like a warm hug. It must be nice to go through life and never have something hit you darkly. Blessings of greatness be with you always.

  36. Universal Interest says:

    I belong to several choirs, and have occasionally corrected the use of “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” to its new moniker. Crickets, and then a “Huh? Why?” are consistent responses. So I explain the “victory for Satan” part. It does not get better.

  37. I think God had said something about this name change. In Nebraska during that last big storm and flood the “Mormon Bridge” was washed away. I wonder when it is rebuilt if they will keep the name or be nudge by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to rename it.

  38. Why not use The Restored Church of Jesus Christ?

    The Restored Church of Jesus Christ believes in the Christianity of the New Testament era. Catholics and Protestants believe in Fourth Century Creedal Christianity. Here are the beliefs of Christians of the New Testament era:
    1. Baptism by immersion by the father (who has the authority) of the family
    2. Lay, married clergy 1st Timothy 3:2
    3. Baptism by proxy for deceased ancestors 1 Corinthians 15:29
    4. God and Jesus organized the world, rather than creatio ex nihilo.
    5. Belief in a tripartite anthropomorphic Godhead, as witnessed by the Apostle Stephen. Acts 7: 55-56
    6. Belief in theosis (that faithful Christians can acquire god-like attributes). All early Christian leaders believed in theosis.
    7. Belief in God’s Plan of Salvation, given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles during the 40 days after His Resurrection. (Sophia Jesu Christi)
    8. Belief in sacred esoteric ordinances which allow faithful Christians to ascend to the highest heaven. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, administered these ordinances until 350 AD. (Catechetical Lectures 20 and 23).
    9. Belief in Eternal Marriage, as recorded in the Book of the Apostle Philip. 70:20
    Temples teach of 3), 4), 5), 6), 7), 8), and 9)

  39. The Nelsonian distinction may not matter much in the future – WSJ has an article today – “Religions Use Robots to Connect to the Public.”

  40. I really don’t know how to drop the name Mormon either. It might work when you talk to other church members, but it really doesn’t work elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Evangelicals who say they are “Christian,” and then refuse to elaborate when you ask about denomination.

    I’m not from Utah. I have no pioneer ancestry, not one. My first exposure to funeral potatoes was in my 20s. And yet, I’m a Mormon. There is still a cultural identity there, whether it’s on distilled to Utah levels or the extreme-minority-religion I was a part of in central PA.

  41. I can follow you: I feel Mormon too but as European convert I don’t have anything with the funeral potatoes etc… So after reading your text I feel once again excluded. Each time I visit Utah I feel immediately both included and excluded. That’s why my wife and me created “a latter-day in Europe” to say “hey, we are LDS too”.

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