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Commentary —  10 July 2008

Proportion and Perspective on Polygamy Reporting

On 26 June, Newsroom published a package of information featuring profiles of ordinary Latter-day Saints in Texas. With no other intention but to define themselves, these members provided a tangible depiction of what their faith is all about. They serve as the best distinction between the lifestyles and values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Texas-based polygamous group that has recently attracted media attention.

In an apparent misunderstanding of the aim of this Newsroom package, a coalition of polygamous groups expressed its opposition in a press release to what it described as the Salt Lake City-based Church’s “efforts to deprive us and others of the freedom to name and describe ourselves by terms of our own choosing.” The general term they prefer to be known by is “Mormon fundamentalist.”

This is perfectly understandable from the standpoint of seeking the religious legitimacy that the word “Mormon” grants. But from the organizational, doctrinal, historical and cultural standpoint of the mainstream Church, that term has long resided, in the public’s mind, within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. Distinctions matter, especially when a term like Mormon has come to mean a very specific thing to the public. Mormon is commonly used to describe a Mormon temple, Mormon missionaries or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. These images have long been ingrained in the public consciousness. But when the term Mormon is stretched out of proportion to apply to any group, however large or small, aspiring to establish a church in the tradition of Joseph Smith, only confusion ensues. Reduced to its lowest common denominator, the word Mormon loses its long-established associations among the public, rendering it unrecognizable.

The coalition’s press release takes issue with a letter sent by the Church to media organizations to clarify the distinctions between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a polygamous sect near San Angelo, Texas, calling itself the “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This is a matter of promoting accuracy and clarity in media reporting, not defining other people’s religious traditions.

The Church does not seek to diminish the religious prerogative of any of these polygamous groups. Rather, it simply urges the use of terminology that clarifies the true identity of each party involved. Ultimately these groups can define themselves any way they wish as long as they don’t distort the well-established identity of a long-standing church. As part of the necessary give and take required by the media in this world of unprecedented informational access, it behooves all organizations to follow the recognized standards of journalism and operate within the reasonable expectations of media nomenclature. In the case of the word “Mormon,” over 150 years of customary usage must not be summarily dismissed or ignored. Even the Associated Press Stylebook recognizes the confusion created by allowing groups to refer to themselves as Mormons. If any organization expects to be understood properly, their terminology must reflect it.

Perhaps what is needed most of all in this matter is a sense of proportion and perspective. Consider the following facts. According to the KSL news station, the group that now calls itself the FLDS began as simply “The Work” or “The Priesthood Work” in 1930. In 1942 it changed to “The United Effort Plan.” It wasn’t until 1991 that this group adopted the name “The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” a name almost identical to the official designation of what is commonly called the “Mormon” faith, and a full 161 years after the mainstream Church was founded. Any reporting of the worldwide Church and this smaller group must take this factor of time into account. To any average observer, it doesn’t seem fair or reasonable for a comparatively small religious group to adopt the full name of another well-established church after more than a century and a half.

Some members of polygamous groups have suggested that because they may use the Book of Mormon or revere Joseph Smith as a prophet, it entitles them to be included in a broader definition of “Mormons.” Many religions share cultural, historical and theological origins. For example, Christianity, Islam and Judaism all share the heritage of Abraham. Furthermore, all Christian denominations have some historical and theological connection to Catholicism. Nevertheless, this does not authorize them to use the word “Catholic” in their official name. Lutherans and Methodists do not call themselves “Catholic fundamentalists.” Nor did the early Christians call themselves “reformed Jews.”

Likewise, 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.

As an illustration of the lack of proportion in this situation, in a 9 July article by the AP, one scholar who objected to the Church’s efforts to define itself said that Joseph Smith, were he alive today, would be excommunicated by the Church because he practiced polygamy. Hypothetical conjectures of this sort never work in serious discussions.

Such conjectures might sound clever rhetorically, but they fail logically. According to this logic, for example, the great Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be shut out of today’s Christian churches because of their ancient practice of polygamy. One of Joseph Smith’s main contributions to the religious world is the concept of continuing revelation. Churches are not immune to change; even they are subject to the vagaries of time and mortality. All churches adapt by responding to the challenges of any particular time. Any cursory glance at history clearly shows that religions, not excepting Christianity, unfold as developing works in progress until God himself brings everything to completion. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such change is anticipated precisely by the concept of continuing revelation and the existence of councils of modern apostles and prophets.

The Church does not attack or belittle other faiths. But it will continue to better inform the public and media about its true identity and encourage its members to speak for themselves.

Style Guide Note: When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online style guide.

 
 
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