“We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.”
― Joseph Smith
This is going to be relevant or interesting to only a small segment of the minion coterie, so feel free to skip this post if it’s not your cup o’ tea, but this news from the Mormon sphere puzzled me and I had nowhere else to really put these thoughts.
A history lesson in brief. Mormons have had a fraught history with the term “mormon” since the very beginning. It was used as a pejoritave since the earliest days of the church and as a slang term for the followers of Joseph Smith, who claimed to translate The Book of Mormon as a work of ancient scripture. Most of the early uses of the term from outside the community are obviously negative and it remained a sort of derogatory slang term for the faithful by outsiders for a long time. However, there are plenty of uses of it within the faith itself that were positive and show from an early date that the community claimed it (see the quote at the start of this post). As a child, I remember church lessons and family discussions coaching us to not use the term and gently correct usage of it wherever possible to the full title: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Then, in my youth, the LDS church came out with a frankly smart PR campaign. It was an attempt to reclaim the term, which is a tactic used by minority and marginalized people the world over for many years. Referred to as the “I’m a Mormon,” campaign, it did exactly what it says on the tin. Adverts, videos, billboards, and all kind of platforms featured individuals telling their personal faith story and sharing highlights of their lives. Schoolteachers, scientists, and even a few celebrities would share a short glimpse into their life and, mixed in with other statements about their hobbies, work, and family would include the phrase, “I’m a Mormon.”
The church must have invested millions into this campaign. And it worked! Since my youth, I have referred to myself as a Mormon when practicing and even now when I’ve left the faith, I still consider myself part of the wider and more complicated Mormon family in a weird way. A lot of ex-Mormons or unorthodox believers of my acquaintance share this idea. Mormonism is a very prescriptive faith and if you don’t walk the fairly narrow path it requires, it’s easy to feel as if there isn’t a place for you. A lot of people I know consider it something of a rebellious act to still claim a bit of identity with a group that does not necessarily claim you back–I can think of several LGBT friends or unorthodox and even excommunicated members I know who still proclaim that they are Mormon even if they don’t believe the tenants of the faith or attend services. I personally don’t say that I’m Mormon any more, but I have no issues declaring that I was raised Mormon and still have a lot of affection for and interest in the welfare of the community. In conversations about Mormonism with Mormons, I still speak in terms of “we” and “us.” I still consider them my cultural heritage and tribe in many ways.
The word “Mormon” is not only shorter and easier to say, it is frankly the easiest and most common way to reference the group in a way that will be recognizable to a wide group of people. “Mormon” feels like an authentic term to me, and I was part of a generation during which the Church made a concentrated effort to claim the term. Therefore, this style guide change feels distinctly odd.
On the one hand, this feels a lot like trying to slam the barn door closed after the horses have bolted. The twitter handle and website where I first saw this story officially? @MormonNewsroom and MormonNewsRoom.com respectively. An official church website? www.mormon.org. The massive outreach campaign to the LGBT community (with mixed feedback but I choose to believe fairly sincere in effort)? www.mormonandgay.com. One of their most effective cultural ambassador groups? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
For better or worse, this is a term that is intertwined with the community and has been since the 19th century. I think it was a smart idea to claim it fully and make the language work for the church rather than be used against it. I don’t understand this change back to trying to enforce the longer, official name of the organization, and think it’s something of a fruitless effort. I can only speculate as to the reasons for it.
I’ve noticed a common tactic withing the LDS organization is to try and try and take control of the narrative for a number of things by inventing its own language and terminology–usually for things that already exist. The best example of this is around homosexuality where the term that was in common usage when I was a teenager and young adult was “same sex/gender attraction.” The words gay and lesbian were almost never used, the justification I heard most commonly being that those terms connoted a “lifestyle” choice while the term “same gender attraction” explained the underlying issue. In other words, “same gender attracted” people weren’t “gay” unless they were physically acting on their sexuality. This is rot, but that was the explanation.
After the push to rebrand the word “Mormon,” I wonder if the backlash to the church’s high profile over the past decade or so has now tarnished the “Mormon” brand and this is an attempt to pivot to a different title to gain some distance.
We had the “Mormon Moment” in the media, which most people date from the advent of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate. My longtime argument has been that this high profile attention was the first spate of media interest in the LDS church in a long time that was not explicitly antagonistic but rather genuinely inquisitive. What was this All American religious faith–what did they believe, and why?
My equally longstanding argument is also that this attention shone a spotlight on the church that it either wasn’t exactly prepared to deal with, or frankly didn’t handle well. Mormonism has an exclusive and tribal element to it. Because it is a demanding faith, it is not unusual for the congregation you attend to be your main source of social life and community engagement. If you are a devout Mormon, you probably spend a lot of your time around people who already believe and think the way that you do; you speak the same language, have the same underlying heritage and cultural assumptions. You probably have a shared persecution narrative as well as a shared testimonial language. You don’t often have to explain or scrutinized what is culturally shared with other members of the in group.
So when the world came asking questions, and not in the way that a potential convert would (after all, the LDS church has a famously well trained missionary force), but in academic or journalistic sense, I think the church was surprised when its usual, highly crafted answers to sensitive questions were not accepted at face value. In other words, I think the Church and the culture of the American Mormon community was used to be laughed at, ignored, or even sneered at by other faith groups, but the one thing it was surprisingly badly prepared for was mostly-respectful secular scrutiny.
Mormonism has a complicated history, with race and gender issues woven into its canon. “Because god said so,” is an acceptable answer to a (white) believer as to why people of color were denied full participation in the faith until 1978, but from the outside that answer is suspect. “Because god said so,” is an acceptable and even faithful response to the question of why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood and are therefore prevented for administering in almost every single ceremonial, administrative, and even fiscal aspect of church organization…but to an outsider it sounds like fairly run of the mill sexism and antiquated gender dynamics.
This scrutiny kicked off major and highly public internal debates around gender, sexuality, political, social, and doctrinal issues. These arguments sometimes played out in the public sphere. Scandals have come to light as a result of this attention that are embarrassing to the community. Pop culture in some cases did a better job of telling a historically accurate but less faith promoting version of Mormon history than Sunday school classes. Schisms within the church that would never have attracted attention before suddenly became interesting to wider audience. Policies have been enacted that don’t feel like prophetic edicts so much as clumsy bureaucratic lurches, kicking against the pricks of a changing society. Far from the tidy, united front the organized church prefers to portray to the world, the messy history of the Mormon movement (with its offshoot sects, polygamous practitioners, doctrinal argument, warts, and all) was on full display. As were some of its family feuds.
Add to this scrutiny the church’s choice to involve itself in certain (American) political issues the way it has, usually around gender and sexuality issues, and I wonder if the term “Mormon” still has more negative connotations than positive, in spite of the probable millions spent trying to rebrand it. And still, in many parts of the world, in spite of the effort put into the rebrand, the term “Mormon” is still perceived with active negativity according to many scholars.
To summarize, one of the unexpected side effects of the Mormon Moment was within the Mormon community itself. A whole generation of the faith had to deal with media scrutiny, mixed in with the triumph of the internet age and rise of social media all at once. To use my professional language, as a result of this, I think the Mormon “brand” became more confused and awkward to manage.
I have no idea if this PR reasoning is the case for this latest attempt to pivot to a “new,” preferred title, but it’s my best working theory. But I also think that as the last 250 years of history shows, attempting to enforce the full name of the church will probably not be picked up very widely outside the community itself. We–and I’m including myself here, for all the reasons I rambled about above–have always been “Mormons.” I suspect the outside world will continue to think of us/them as “Mormons.” The church itself saw value in claiming the term for years. Why the shift? If, as I suspect, a reason for the shift is because the perception of Mormonsim isn’t popular or tidy enough, there needs to be deeper conversations and introspection as to why that is because a style guide change won’t solve it.