Why journalists will keep using the word “Mormon”

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

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:

  • The church’s official website, which has been lds.org, has been changed to ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
  • The Mormon.org website, which is geared for visitors rather than members, will be changing as well, though it’s a bit unclear how; the Newsroom announcement says that Mormon.org will eventually be merged “with the Church member-focused ChurchofJesusChrist.org,” while the First Presidency letter to church leaders says it will be “changed to ComeUntoChrist.org.”
  • The church’s various social media accounts will be altered to reflect the institution’s full name and “emphasize the name of the Savior’s church.”

These adjustments follow a strongly worded admonition from President Russell M. Nelson in the church’s October General Conference, in which he anathematized the church’s own longstanding 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.”

To read: The name “Mormon”: Why all the fuss, and why now? (Oct. 2018)

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 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.

  1. 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 ten 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.
  2. 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. Members of the media 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.
  3. 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 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. “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.
  6. “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.

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