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Who gets to control the word 'Mormon' anyway?

Published December 17, 2013 4:17 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Following last week's court ruling decriminalizing cohabitation and, effectively, polygamy in Utah, the LDS Church issued a statement saying its members don't practice plural marriage. That's a challenging assertion — members still practiced polygamy after officially ending it and today "seal" men to multiple women — but the statement also brings up another point of contention: control over the word "Mormon."

Here's the statement's concluding sentence: "The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term 'Mormon' — widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints — is sometimes misleadingly applied to them."

What jumped out to me after reading that statement was the fact that during every single visit I've made to Short Creek — four total in the year I've been covering this beat — I've met practicing polygamists who have said "I'm Mormon."

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That means at least some of people "applying" this term are using it to describe themselves. And they're doing so because they believe in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and many of the other doctrines shared with the mainstream LDS Church. On my last visit, I even listened to an hour-long discussion on how awesome John Taylor was.

All of which raises the question: who gets to control the definition of the word "Mormon" anyway?

The mainstream LDS Church clearly wants to answer that question with itself. A generation ago, the church was prominently displaying the word in the popular "Homefront" advertising campaign.

The church later pulled back somewhat during my lifetime — I remember sitting in meetings and being told to use "Latter-day Saint" instead — before finally launching the "I'm a Mormon" campaign in more recent years.

My point is just that the church has a history of carefully and strategically using the word, even if the strategy has evolved over time. Recent efforts are particularly effective because they flood search engines with a diverse, middle class, tech-savvy group of Mormons and, presto!, the word is defined.

But polygamists also use this term, and it's not because they're confused or misinformed. They self-identify as Mormons. And while most polygamists are not aggressively fighting for control of the word "Mormon" — there's no polygamous "I'm a Mormon" YouTube campaign — their use of it does emphasize the organic, often-uncontrollable nature of identity language.

In a Trib Talk Tuesday, University of Pennsylvania law professor Sarah Barringer Gordon touched on this point. Referring to "schismatic groups" in Mormonism — i.e. those who aren't part of the mainstream church but trace their origins to the same source — she said that the definition of who is, or is not, a Mormon is a "deep question of religious identity."

Gordon also pointed out an irony surrounding these language debates: mainstream Mormons often fight for the title of Christian, much as polygamists assert their identity as Mormons. And she noted that fundamentalists also claim to be the only "true Mormons" — something I saw firsthand on a visit to Short Creek; I asked a couple of men why they drank coffee and wine and was told, accurately I think, that there are no explicit prohibitions against these things in actual Mormon scripture. I was shocked to realize that in some regards they saw the mainstream church as more uptight, in addition to less correct.

In any case, the struggle over the word "Mormon" is unlikely to go away. The mainstream church itself is diversifying among people who would normally be left out — gay members, feminists, etc. — and polygamists continue lay claim to the phrase, "I'm a Mormon."

— Jim Dalrymple II

Twitter: @jimmycdii —

LDS Church statement on the 'Sister Wives' ruling

"This ruling will have no effect on Church doctrine or practice. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not practice polygamy, regardless of its legal or cultural acceptance. The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the term 'Mormon' — widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-day Saints — is sometimes misleadingly applied to them."