Escaping the M-word: Trying to go back to the Latter-day Saint future
(COMMENTARY) No doubt about it, New York press lord Horace Greeley interviewing religious pioneer Brigham Young was a face-off between giants.
One of the issues they discussed in 1859 is suddenly back in the news: Should outsiders use the word "Mormon" to describe members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Greeley asked Young: "Am I to regard Mormonism (so-called) as a new religion, or as simply a new development of Christianity?"
The faith's second "prophet, seer and revelator" insisted that there is "no true Christian Church without a priesthood directly commissioned by and in immediate communication with the Son of God and Savior of mankind. Such a church is that of the Latter-day Saints, called by their enemies Mormons."
In recent decades, LDS leaders have made several attempts – prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, for example – to distance themselves from the M-word. Now, the church's president has made another appeal for journalists, and everyone else, to avoid "Mormon" when referring to members of his church. To be blunt, he said he's on a mission from God.
"The Lord has impressed upon my mind the importance of the name He has revealed for His Church, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," wrote President Russell M. Nelson, repeating a message he voiced decades before reaching the top office. "We have work before us to bring ourselves in harmony with His will."
The church's new journalism "style" guide proclaims: "Please avoid using the abbreviation 'LDS' or the nickname 'Mormon' as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in 'Mormon Church,' 'LDS Church,' or 'Church of the Latter-day Saints.' When referring to Church members, the terms 'members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' or 'Latter-day Saints' are preferred."
Writers needing a shorter name are asked to use "the Church," the "Church of Jesus Christ" or the "restored Church of Jesus Christ." The word "Mormon" will continue to appear in proper nouns such as "The Book of Mormon," the "Mormon Trail" and perhaps even "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir."
Church-media staffers have "jumped to attention," said Joel Campbell, a journalism professor at Brigham Young University. However, church leaders face the challenge of convincing scribes at the Associated Press, and elsewhere, to alter the bible used in most mainstream newsrooms.
Currently, the Associated Press Stylebook recommends: "Mormon Church – Acceptable in all references for Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but always include the full name in a story dealing primarily with church activities."
Campbell said it will be especially hard for editors to accept a capital "C" second reference to "the Church," which implies a claim of "some primacy among churches." Meanwhile, headline writers – when using big, bold, type – will find it all but impossible to use a name with eight words and one hyphen.
The "Flunking Sainthood" columnist at Religion News Service has her doubts, too. It was strange, noted Jana Riess, that a "church that invested millions in its Meet the Mormons movie and exports its Mormon Tabernacle Choir as its ambassador to the world asked us all to stop using the word 'Mormon.'
"Ahem. It seems I'm no longer a Mormon columnist. I'm a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints columnist, and isn't that just so fun to say? … I didn't realize when I was co-authoring Mormonism for Dummies years ago that the correct title should be The Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ for Dummies, Which Is Not Actually Mormonism, Because Mormonism Is Now Considered An Inaccurate Term to Describe Our Religious History and Beliefs, Despite Every Google Search You've Ever Conducted About Us."
A decade ago, said Campbell, he researched 20 years of official church "branding efforts" in digital mass media and concluded – in the age of "search engine optimization" – that "Mormon" was around forever, especially at Mormon.org and Mormonnewsroom.org. Also, LDS.org is alive and well.
"What our leaders are saying is that this is not a name change – it's a correction. We've fallen short of using the name God gave us," he said. "Then again, we copyrighted the name 'Mormon' not that long ago to keep people from abusing it. … This is complicated stuff and it will take a long time to sort it all out."