Picturing polygamists

There was a Slate piece I wanted to look at last week but it didn't make the cut. Then I came across this Salt Lake Tribune story that reminded me about it. Religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote about how Mormons continue to struggle with a public relations problem when it comes to a practice they officially discontinued over 100 years ago. Here's her lede:

Polygamy still clings to the LDS Church’s image — even though the Utah-based faith abandoned the practice more than a century ago.

It was the No. 1 negative quality cited by 28 percent of respondents in a national Salt Lake Tribune poll who were “uncomfortable” with voting for a Mormon for U.S. president.

She looks into why that might be:

It may simply be a problem of branding, said Kathleen Flake, who teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“Mormonism’s 19th-century brand was polygamy, and no other attribute has had the power to replace it,” Flake wrote in an email. “In similar fashion, some still think of it as ‘the American Church,’ even though today the majority of its members live outside the United States. Even in the 19th century, however, polygamy was the catch-all for a variety of things about Mormonism that Americans, religious and otherwise, did not like: new scripture, prophets, priesthood government, for example. Mormons were — and apparently still are — believed to be just too different. Not surprisingly, when asked to identify Mormon difference the old catch-all brand comes up.”

LDS public-affairs director Michael Otterson is also quoted:

“We feel we are making really good headway on the polygamy issue,” Otterson told The Tribune. “We’ve all got institutional memories where journalists [and headline writers] would frequently make reference to ‘Mormon polygamists’ when talking about the FLDS [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints].”

OK, that may be. But I just noticed an example of journalists failing in this regard.

Slate ran a story on Dec. 14 headlined "What's the Difference Between a Religion and a Cult? And where does Mormonism fit in?" It's a totally fine brief piece that explains the term, how it's been used and why. But it of course begins with an anecdote about how someone from a rival campaign staff was fired after he used the term to describe Mitt Romney's Mormonism.

And what picture illustrated this piece from Dec. 14 until the last time I checked it on Dec. 18? A nice big picture of Warren Jeffs, the most famous polygamist in the country.

And it's not like the article was discussing whether the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were a cult or anything. It didn't.

Now, as I went to write this piece, I see that they have changed the picture to one of Romney. No note accompanies the change.

Please respect our Commenting Policy