As confusion continues worldwide about the connection between the Salt Lake-based LDS Church and the FLDS polygamist group in Texas, LDS officials ramped up their efforts Thursday to clarify that their members have nothing to do with plural marriage.
The frustration that LDS leaders are feeling over the confusion also was detailed in a letter to more than 80 major media outlets nationwide from the church's attorney, and in a public statement from one of its apostles also an attorney about the importance of protecting the church's identity.
The two documents were part of a package of videos and statements of clarification posted on the church's Web site at www.lds.org in the "newsroom" section.
The letter reminds editors and publishers that the LDS Church has obtained legal registration, trade and service marks for the term "Mormon," among other terms, and asks journalists to refrain from calling the FLDS polygamous group "fundamentalist Mormons."
But at least one religion scholar said trying to enforce such a distinction could be problematic.
"We are confident that you are committed to avoiding misleading statements that cause unwarranted confusion and that may disparage or infringe the intellectual property rights discussed above," says the letter from Elder Lance B. Wickman, who is identified as the church's "general counsel."
He asked that the letter be given to reporters and editors "and to your legal counsel," the letter said.
Distinguishing the 13 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the few thousand members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church in both Texas and the Utah-Arizona border towns of Hildale and Colorado City has proven to be an ongoing challenge for the LDS Church, which has issued at least three other public statements distancing itself from the FLDS group in recent months.
The latest push for clarification comes after an LDS Church-commissioned survey of 1,000 U.S. adults last month, which showed 36 percent of those surveyed thought the FLDS polygamous group was part of the LDS Church, and 29 percent said they were not sure. Less than a third believe the two groups are not connected at all, and 30 percent believe polygamists belong to the LDS Church.
Of 15,000 news stories on the Texas FLDS group between the end of March and mid-June, the LDS Church said only 5 percent "accurately distinguished" the differences between the Texas group and Latter-day Saints.
The survey seeking to determine how widespread public confusion between Latter-day Saints and the FLDS Church shows, according to the LDS Church statement, that:
• More than a third of those surveyed (36 percent) erroneously thought that the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church.
• 6 percent said the two groups were partly related.
• 29 percent correctly said the two groups were not connected at all.
• 29 percent were not sure.
Still, asking media to refrain from using the term "Mormon fundamentalist" could be problematic for the church, according to Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, who has long researched the LDS Church.
"There's a difference in tradition and in legal terms," she said. "They may have a legal claim to the word 'Mormon,' but the fact is that Mormonism is a tradition, and a legal claim cannot take away from other Mormon churches of which there are many calling themselves Mormon. It simply cannot do it."
Shipps points to an active group of "restoration churches" that broke away from the main body of the LDS Church in the 19th century, including The Church of Christ Temple Lot in Independence, Mo.; The Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerites); The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites); the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; and the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in addition to the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) as groups that fall within the "Mormon" tradition.
"Mormonism is a new religious tradition, not just the LDS Church," she said. "There are lots of forms of Mormonism. The LDS Church does not own the name of the tradition. It owns the name of its church." The analogy is that no one church owns the label "Christian," she said, though many Christian churches have tried to define Latter-day Saints as non-Christians something LDS leaders have rejected.
The battle over who has the right to be called by what term has long roots within the LDS faith, she said. "All through the 19th century, the LDS Church headquartered in Salt Lake City was arguing in the press with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints headquartered in Independence, Mo.
"There were long articles in periodicals written by the prophet of the RLDS Church and by the prophet of the LDS Church arguing about who was the legitimate church to come out of the Mormon movement."
Shipps said she's sympathetic to the latest incarnation of that discussion. "The LDS Church is trying to protect itself and I understand what they're dealing with, because it's terrible that people think this (polygamy) is what's going on in the Utah church, but on the other hand, when something is a tradition, it's just a tradition."
Other efforts by the LDS Church seeking to clarify its identity include several new video interviews on the church Web site, including former Brigham Young University and Houston Oilers quarterback Gifford Nielsen, a director of community theater, an orthopedic surgeon, a justice of the peace, Texas news anchor Tracy Kennick, and a young woman with aspirations for medical school.
All of those featured live in Texas, and the young people talk about growing up there as Latter-day Saints, as another way of distinguishing LDS members from the polygamous group in Eldorado.
Elder Quentin L. Cook, an LDS apostle, said in a statement on the Web site that the results of the church's survey confirm what church leaders and members in Texas and elsewhere are seeing with respect to the confusion.
"We'd much rather be talking about who we are than who we aren't," Elder Cook said. "While many news reporters have been careful to distinguish between our church and this small Texas group, a lot of confusion still remains."
"People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren't interested in attacking someone else's beliefs," Elder Cook said. "At the same time, we have an obligation to define ourselves rather than be defined by events and incidents that have nothing to do with us. It's obvious we need to do more to help people understand the enormous differences that exist between our church, which is a global faith, and these small polygamous groups."
In San Angelo, Texas, LDS missionaries have endured struggles trying to work in the city that has been ground zero for the legal war over the hundreds of children who were seized from the Fundamentalist LDS Church's compound. In the days after the raid, missionaries endured threats of violence and cruel taunts about polygamy.
"We laugh it off. There's plenty of people that have questions and want to know if we're part of the FLDS," Elder Auro Sosi said in an interview with the Deseret News last month. "There's 50,000 other missionaries just like us throughout the world. I know they're probably going through the same thing."
Elder Nicolas Librandi said the situation has opened some doors with people curious about the LDS Church Mormon church and the differences between the two faiths.
"Some people make jokes like, 'I want to have 50 wives like you,"' he said. "We say, 'Go to Eldorado!"'
The San Angelo LDS wards actually provided copies of the Book of Mormon to FLDS children who were being sheltered at the San Angelo Coliseum. At one point, the judge in the custody case inquired if local LDS officials would be willing to monitor the prayer services of FLDS members. Local LDS leaders politely declined the request. -->The LDS Church banned the practice of polygamy in the late 19th century and excommunicates any of its members who practice it.
Contributing: Ben Winslow E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]