The Jesus conundrum: Latter-day Saints welcome Nelson’s push to emphasize the Lord’s name, but the challenge will be living up to it

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The push to drop “Mormon” in favor of the faith’s full name is all about, well, Jesus.

Turns out, lots of outsiders don’t seem to know the Savior is at the center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or that it is a profoundly Christian faith.

Yet the church was founded in 1830 claiming to be the restored gospel of Jesus Christ; indeed, the only true church of Jesus Christ on Earth.

Will this recent move to use the nine-word name make members more aware of their devotion to Christ, or will it just feel awkward? Will repeatedly invoking Jesus’ name seem disrespectful, almost blasphemous, even to Latter-day Saints? And what about Saints? Does that come across as presumptuous?

Will emphasizing the church’s proper name obscure its connection to its signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, which prompted the nickname in the first place?

Will it convince other Christian churches that the Utah-based faith is one of them? If so, will Mormonism become yet another generic brand of Christianity with little distinctiveness?

No matter what the potential outcome of church President Russell M. Nelson’s directive to use the official nomenclature, doing so, in his view, is not optional.

During the faith’s 188th Semiannual General Conference last month, Nelson reiterated the mandate he had issued first in August.

His instruction is not a name change, not a rebranding, not cosmetic, not a whim and not inconsequential, Nelson told 21,000 members sitting in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, as well as millions more watching via satellite across the globe. “It is the command of the Lord.”

The church’s name “is not negotiable,” said the 94-year-old, who took the reins of the 16 million-member faith in January. “When the Savior clearly states what the name of his church should be, and even precedes his declaration with, ‘Thus shall my church be called,’ he is serious. And if we allow nicknames to be used and adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, he is offended.”

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson speaks about the name of name of the church during the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

Using common nicknames such as “Mormon church,” “LDS Church” or the “Church of the Latter-day Saints,” Nelson said, “is a major victory for Satan.”

Many members applaud the effort to highlight their attachment to Jesus, even as they struggle with what to call themselves in casual conversation rather than a “Mormon.”

And some outsiders praise the move, even as they wonder if it will change any minds.

Respect and repetition

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Christus, a statue of Jesus Christ, on display at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Temple Square on Thursday, March 7, 2013, in Salt Lake City

To believers, Jesus Christ is “a sacred title that invokes divine power, for rites and ordinances that heal, bless, sanctify, seal or protect,” says Maxine Hanks, a Salt Lake City-based independent scholar of gender studies in religion. “So the name of the church summons a spiritual power of Christ.”

Perhaps, she says, Nelson wants members to recognize that.

At the same time, adopting the moniker “Mormon” for cultural identity rather than church association, Hanks says, “avoids overuse of the sacred name of Christ.”

Latter-day Saint scriptures, for instance, declare that the adult all-male priesthood officially was titled “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.” But believers instead call it the “Melchizedek Priesthood” out of “respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being” and to avoid repeated references to the “Son of God.”

God’s name is “not to be spoken recklessly,” Jared Cook of Rochester, N.Y., writes on the blog By Common Consent, “but ‘with care’ and when moved upon by the holy spirit. … In other words, the name of Christ is not a magic spell. Saying his name does not give us any kind of spiritual power or benefit if we are saying it without doing the hard and serious spiritual work of repentance and relying on his grace to receive the spirit.”

In fact, “saying his name without being moved upon by the spirit can actually condemn us,” Cook says. “The more we draw near to him with our lips, the more we risk having a form of godliness, without the power, unless our hearts are also drawing near to him.”

Most Latter-day Saints “will be happy to engage with the new emphasis insofar as possible,” says Fiona Givens, co-author with her husband of a trilogy of books about Jesus Christ. “I know I will be happier to be known as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ rather than as a ‘Mormon.’ I'd prefer to be known to my family and friends as a Christian rather than as a member of a culture.”

On top of that, Givens adds, “every time one acknowledges oneself as a Christian the sacred name is spoken.”

Saints and sinners

April Young Bennett. Courtesy photo

The 16 million-member faith is not its buildings nor its headquarters, says April Young Bennett, an Exponent II blogger. “We are the church. … It is us.”

That means every member is responsible to make the whole “reflective of Christ,” she writes. “Are we building Zion? Or are we complacent?”

Recalling her time as a full-time proselytizing missionary, proudly donning the iconic black nametag bearing the full name of the church, Bennett says she felt “an extra responsibility to reflect Christ’s love and do his work.”

She was “literally wearing the name of Christ,” Bennett notes.

Regarding the religion as the sum of its members allows her to “understand the church’s flaws,” she says. “The church cannot be perfect because we are the church and we are not perfect.”

That’s why Bennett has a problem with using “Saints” as a replacement for “Mormons.”

“We are not saints,” she writes. “… Even if we sincerely aspire to become saints, can we expect people to call us that when we so obviously haven’t reached that goal?”

Bennett doubts she will ever be worthy of the name, she says, “but there can be joy in the attempt.”

Renewing commitment

Carolyn Homer, a Latter-day Saint lawyer in Washington, D.C., celebrates the rebooted reliance on Christ.

“There has been well-placed criticism in recent years that our services sometimes worship the family more than Christ,” Homer says. “Centering ourselves on the Savior and his grace and atonement can only be a good thing within the church.”

Some may worry that “overemphasizing Christ could lead to vain repetition that deprives his name of meaning,” she says. “But, in my view, it’s impossible to overemphasize the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Taking Christ’s name in vain doesn’t come from “mere repetition,” she says, “it comes from twisting his words to the opposite of what he actually taught. We take Christ’s name in vain when we claim Christianity supports punishing the poor or shunning asylum-seekers and refugees.”

She hopes Nelson’s edict means her church will “be more reflective and cognizant of aligning our opinions and politics with what [Christ] taught in the New Testament and [the Book of Mormon].”

It also may, she says, erase confusion.

Once in the late 1990s, after a major tornado leveled a Midwestern neighborhood, local news reports thanked the top organizations that had offered disaster relief: “The Red Cross, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church."

Clearly, no one told the newscasters that the last two entities were the same.

“As a kid growing up in Indiana, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I had to explain to my friends that Mormons were Christians,” Homer says. “No joke, I had hourslong passionate theological debates about my religious identity on the playground in fifth grade. I would tell them our full name is ‘The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints.’ They either wouldn’t believe me, or would respond with, ‘Yeah, but your Jesus isn’t the same as my Jesus.’”

That is part of the church’s image problem.

Which Jesus?

| Courtesy Janan Graham-Russell Latter-day Saint scholar Janan Graham-Russell

Among themselves, Latter-day Saints have always connected their faith with Christ, says Janan Graham-Russell, a doctoral student at Harvard University. “I don’t know how much more President Nelson’s push will do.”

Looking at the Doctrine and Covenants scripture revealing the church’s full name, Graham-Russell says, it points to the days of founder Joseph Smith and his belief that his nascent religion was living in the last days.

Nelson is echoing Smith, even as the current prophet is wrestling with modernity, she says, asking what it means to be a Latter-day Saint in the 21st century, preparing the faithful for the return of Jesus Christ.

For Nelson and other members, Graham-Russell says, Jesus is typically associated with the act of sacrificing himself to save the human race.

When members “discard the Savior’s name,” Nelson said in his conference address, “we are subtly disregarding all that Jesus Christ did for us — even his atonement.”

In this, she says, Latter-day Saints focus more on his death than on his life, and on his divinity rather than his humanity. It affects how the church engages — or mostly doesn’t — on questions of racial justice, immigration and poverty.

Even Nelson’s call, Graham-Russell says, dwells on Christ’s atonement, not his life.

Losing distinctiveness

Part of what irks Michael Haycock, a scholar living in Arlington, Va., about trying to shelve the word “Mormon” in favor of Jesus Christ is that “we’re concurrently doubling down on theological ideas that are only tenuously, if at all, Christocentric.”

How does Christ enable eternal families? How is Christ perfect without being married (as far as anyone knows)? he asks. “Until we do theological work to marry together Jesus Christ and the family, the gap will yawn wider and wider, and they’ll threaten to spin apart.”

Haycock further worries that stripping “Mormon” from the famous Tabernacle Choir and the Helping Hands volunteer laborers will make his church “look more generically Christian [and] will only cause curious parties to wonder why they would bother joining.”

It also might relegate “what makes Latter-day Saint Mormonism uniquely beautiful — sealing, Zion, temples, divinization, etc. — to inward-facing conversations,” Haycock writes in an email, “where fewer curious parties will have a chance to see and learn from them.”

View from the outside

Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., has been engaged in Mormon/evangelical dialogue for nearly two decades.

He has seen Latter-day Saint scholars moving closer to their evangelical peers when it comes to an understanding of Jesus Christ and welcomes Nelson’s effort on the name.

“When we talk about Jesus [with Latter-day Saints], they are genuinely trying to be more Christlike,” says Mouw, author of “Talking With Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals.” How the respective faiths look to Jesus as their “identifying feature” can boost understanding in the larger religious world “and that can be a good thing.”

Still, Mouw says, there will be those of his colleagues in the evangelical world — many of whom chastised him for apologizing to Latter-day Saints for how they were treated by conservative Christians — who continue to see Mormonism as a “deceptive cult.”

Such folks will see this campaign as an attempt to “hide who they are,” Mouw says. “If you say you are from the church of Jesus Christ and don’t let them know that means you are a Mormon or a Latter-day Saint, they’ll think you are being deceptive.”

Living and loving

In the end, will ditching the term “Mormon” bring more of Christ into Latter-day Saint faith?

Not necessarily, Homer says.

"Mormon" is, after all, a “shorthand reference to our single most distinguishing characteristic: our belief in the Book of Mormon as another testament of Jesus Christ, and as evidence of the restoration,“ she says. “Using the term ‘Mormon’ often invites deeper conversation about what that means and what we believe.”

Leading with “the Church of Jesus Christ” may not invite the same sort of follow-up conversations, Homer says. “Maybe that’s a good thing, to emphasize our unity with fellow Christians. But as someone who loves the Book of Mormon, I’m not sure it is.”

As a First Amendment lawyer, Homer says, she has “an almost allergic reaction to word-policing, particularly when it’s imposed from the top down. That sort of heavy-handed edict — and labeling use of the word ‘Mormon’ a ‘victory for Satan’ is heavy-handed — strikes me as out of touch.”

Banning “Mormon” makes the headline about censorship, she says, not about Christ.

More important than emphasizing Christ as a word in the church’s name, Homer adds, is to emphasize Christ “in everything we do.”

Members need “to talk of Christ, rejoice in Christ, preach of Christ, prophesy of Christ,” she says, and, finally, “love like Christ.”