Jana Riess: A year later, how successful is the war on the word ‘Mormon’?

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) Left to right: President Dallin H. Oaks, President Russell M. Nelson and President Henry B. Eyring join The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, other Church leaders and the congregation and sing a hymn during the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018 in Salt Lake City.

It has now been a full year since Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began insisting that the world stop using the word “Mormon” to refer to the institution or its members.

After his August announcement last year, the denomination began systematically purging the word “Mormon” from its messaging, a process that is still ongoing.

It has renamed its famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir as “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square,” rerouted traffic from the old domain names lds.org and Mormon.org to churchofjesuschrist.org, and directed its publishing arm, Deseret Book, to embrace the new terminology, which Nelson said was divinely inspired.

After noting last August that the instruction to emphasize the full name of the church had come from the Lord, Nelson employed even stronger language at the faith’s General Conference in October 2018, saying that use of the long-standing term “Mormon” in reference to the church constituted a “major victory for Satan.”

But old habits die hard, and the move to anathematize the word “Mormon” has encountered some resistance, including from journalists.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess.

While substituting “Latter-day Saints” for “Mormons” is a relatively easy fix when writing about members of the Utah-based denomination, secular publications, including Religion News Service, have not adopted the church’s preferred style for second reference to the institution — which the group’s leaders would like to be either “the Church of Jesus Christ” or “the restored Church of Jesus Christ.”

The first is awkward because it doesn’t adequately distinguish the Utah denomination from thousands of other churches that follow Jesus Christ, and the second posits a theological claim about restoration that it is not journalists’ job to validate or invalidate.

In the past year, how successful has the effort been to get outsiders to stop using “Mormon” — not just members of the media, but regular folks?

Research from Google Trends would suggest that it hasn’t fully caught on, though there is some movement.

On the one hand, efforts to get people to use the full name of the church as an institution have not moved the needle much at all. “Mormon” is still the coin of the realm, though there is a slight change. When Nelson took office in January 2018, “Mormon” was searched 79 times for every instance of the denomination’s full name. But as of last week, “Mormon” was searched 55 times for every three for the formal, complete name of the church.

That’s not dizzying progress, but it’s notable for a year. It’s movement in what the church would see as the right direction.

On the other hand, searches in general seem to be declining; the changing ratio is less about a serious uptick in use of the full name of the church than a slippage in public interest related to Mormonism.

That is more obvious when we take a longer view, cataloging searches back to 2004, the first year for which Google has data available. (Remember way back when Google didn’t exist? Those were dark days.)

We begin by looking at two common terms for church members, comparing searches for “Mormons” to those for “Latter-day Saints.” (I’ve avoided “Mormon” because of conflation with “The Book of Mormon” musical, which shows up in definite surges for the word in 2011 and skews the data.)

There are a couple of identifiable swells in traffic for “Mormons” over time: a major one in the fall of 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, and another in the fall of 2014, when the church was heavily pushing its own “Meet the Mormons” movie.

Though this hardly offers a complete picture, we can learn a couple of valuable things from it.

First, the church’s own emphasis on the word “Mormons” five years ago seems to have been a successful branding measure that raised its profile relative to search traffic in nonelection years both before and after 2014. In a word, the “Meet the Mormons” film worked.

And second, “Latter-day Saints” are now on the rise, at least slightly. As a search term, “Latter-day Saints” has gone from nearly zero to a noticeable blip, at least in the United States. (When we run the same search parameters for the entire world, “Latter-day Saints” is a total nothingburger.)

And specifically, the change appears to be happening ... in Utah!

If we look at Utah’s Google searches from 2004 to the present, 90% were for “Mormon” over “Latter-day Saints” through those 15 years.

But if we limit the data to only the last year, we see things starting to shift since Nelson’s announcement. In that period, nearly three in 10 of the Utah searches were for “Latter-day Saints.”

What we can take away from this is that some change is happening in line with Nelson’s directive from a year ago. Although the church’s full name remains a nonstarter, the term “Latter-day Saints” is gaining ground on the nickname “Mormons,” especially in Mormon-dominated areas.

Er, Latter-day Saint-dominated areas.

Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.