Commentary: Why journalists will keep using the word ‘Mormon’

This week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that it has renamed its core websites and social media accounts to reflect the full name of the institution.

Among the changes:

These adjustments follow a strongly worded admonition from President Russell M. Nelson in the church’s fall General Conference, in which he condemned the church’s own long-standing use of the word “Mormon” to describe its members.

Although several years ago the church itself was heavily promoting the use of the word “Mormon” through its “I’m a Mormon” branding campaign and the church-produced film “Meet the Mormons,” Nelson stated in October that “to remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s church is a major victory for Satan.”

As a Latter-day Saint, I’m happy to avoid using the word “Mormon” at church, at home, and in my family. I can easily try to substitute “I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” for “I’m a Mormon” in my personal conversations and church lessons.

As a columnist for Religion News Service, however, I will continue using “Mormon” in headlines, articles and columns. I will also continue using “LDS” as shorthand after using the church’s full name upon first reference to it as an institution. This is the style guide established by The Associated Press, which RNS and most other media outlets follow.

It’s not just because the AP sets the rules that RNS will continue using “Mormon.” It’s also because the AP style guide makes more sense than what the church is asking reporters to do. Here’s why.

  • Brevity is the soul of wit. “Mormon” is single word that can function beautifully as either an adjective (Mormon meetings, Mormon foodways, Mormon theology) or a noun (“I’m a Mormon”). Asking reporters who get eight to 10 words for a headline to take up more than that allotment with the full institutional name of “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is not reasonable.

  • The church wants to emphasize the name of Jesus Christ. As the Newsroom announcement put it, “the invitation to use the full name of the church is an opportunity for Latter-day Saints to refocus their lives on the living Christ.” That’s wonderful, but Mormons’ spiritual development as disciples of Christ has nothing to do with how journalists do their jobs. Media members do not have a mandate to emphasize the name of Jesus Christ in the course of doing their 9-to-5 jobs just because one denomination has told its members to do so.

  • It is not journalists’ job to adjudicate faith claims. Built into the request to use the full name of the church is a claim to theological superiority: this is “The” church of Jesus Christ. (The church’s style guide in fact requests — and AP style recommends — that the first letter of the definite article be capitalized.) But if a church’s full official name includes a theological claim, it’s not journalists’ responsibility to affirm or deny it. For example, the world’s largest denomination is officially called the Holy Roman Catholic Church, but journalists call it the Roman Catholic Church. Whether it’s headquartered in Rome is a fact journalists can verify. Whether it is holy is way beyond our pay grade.

  • The name “the Church of Jesus Christ” is too vague to be helpful. Journalists are after clarity and specificity, and there are already untold numbers of denominations that consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ. This makes “the Church of Jesus Christ” far more ambiguous than “LDS Church.”

  • “Mormon” is what our readers know. If I write a column about the historically important religious community established in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, I don’t primarily call those individuals members of “the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming,” even though that is their religion’s name. I call them the Shakers. I can certainly mention the official name in passing, but since that is not what our readers know, it does not help them — and our job is to serve them, not the Shakers.

  • “Mormon” is what our readers Google. As I noted in this column in October, for every time “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is searched on Google, “Mormon” is searched between 75 and 100 times. Journalists’ job is to give our readers accurate information when and how they need it. If the word “Mormon” is what they are using, it is what we will also use.