Commentary: The name ‘Mormon’ — Why all the fuss, and why now?

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, Mormon writer and editor.

It’s been two weeks now since Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, devoted an entire General Conference talk to the now-verboten word “Mormon,” emphasizing the importance of using the full name of the church.

This has been tried before. In fact, it was a bête noire of Nelson’s long before he assumed the religion’s top post in January.

In the April 1990 General Conference talk “Thus Shall My Church Be Called,” then-Elder Nelson made many of the same points he reiterated more forcefully at this recent conference.

The main difference between the two talks is not in their arguments, which are remarkably consistent, but their tone. President Nelson has adopted a far less conciliatory tone than Elder Nelson did 28 years ago.

Whereas once a nickname “may” have offended Jesus or his Heavenly Parents, now Christ is offended. Period.

Whereas the earlier talk offered the full name of the church in the manner of a request (one that was gently redirected by President Gordon B. Hinckley in a subsequent General Conference address six months later), now it has been elevated to the status of a commandment.

This is not a name change or a simple rebranding, says President Nelson. “Instead, it is a correction. It is the command of the Lord.”

And whenever the nickname “Mormon” is used, he suggests, Satan wins.

Latter-day Saints are being told to correct one another and anyone else who continues to use the convenient, short, time-honored, and Hinckley-approved nickname “Mormon.” It seems to be becoming a litmus test of obedience, and not just for church members. Journalists, for example, are being asked to use the nine words of the church’s full name on first reference, which major media style guides already advise. So that’s not any different. But ever after they’re asked to use “the Church of Jesus Christ” (implying that this is the only Christian church) or “the restored Church of Jesus Christ.”

This is problematic for reporters and writers. It is not the job of a religion-neutral media to adopt or validate the truth claims of whatever religions they’re writing about. Some denominational names do have truth claims already baked in — is Roman Catholic really catholic, meaning universal? Is Orthodox really orthodox, meaning doctrinally pure? Have Reformed Christians and Reform Jews actually changed from the traditions that preceded them? — but in those cases, the truth claims have been part of the religion’s name for centuries. With Mormonism, “the restored church” is a term of comparatively recent vintage.

What’s more, people outside the church don’t associate this term with Mormonism, making it virtually useless to journalists who want to serve their readers’ needs. What does serve journalists’ needs is the term Mormon. For every time “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is searched on Google, “Mormon” is searched between 75 and 100 times. (Interestingly, the term “Mormon” enjoyed a noticeable spike of search activity during and after General Conference. That’s a lot of victories for Satan that seem to have been inspired by the church’s own insistence at correcting its name.)

There are two fascinating aspects of the name correction. First, Nelson has essentially rebuked the entire church and all of the deceased presidents who preceded him, particularly Hinckley, for all those satanic victories. Hinckley’s if-we-can’t-beat-em-we’ll-join-em attitude informed the notion that while “Mormon” was an incomplete nickname, members of the church could redeem the word by doing “more good” in the world.

The idea that “Mormon means more good” informed the church’s successful “I’m a Mormon” campaign and the 2014 church-sponsored film “Meet the Mormons.”

Second, the name-change-that-is-not-a-name-change comes at exactly the same time that the church is gingerly dismantling some aspects of the hyper-systematic correlation program that has defined Latter-day Saint life for the past half-century. At the same General Conference in which Nelson hammered home the One True Name of the church, the denomination shortened its weekly church meetings from three hours to two, opened the door for small groups to meet in members’ homes, and promoted the fellowship-oriented new “ministering” program that has replaced the checklist-oriented home and visiting teaching programs.

In other words, the church is becoming more relaxed in some areas, but is holding the line in others — specifically, its right to define itself through what it views as a unique institutional relationship to Jesus Christ. Emphasizing membership in that institution (“I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) rather than the more capacious term “Mormon” (which includes individuals who are active in and no longer affiliated with the institution) means that the institution is, in the end, more important than the individual.

Nelson is right that this “Mormon” name correction is neither cosmetic nor inconsequential. Rather, it may become a defining characteristic of a religion that is eager to separate the wheat from the chaff in the pluralistic 21st century.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.