Back in April when Texas authorities seized children from a ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we discussed how well the media distinguished between them and the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As far as media coverage went, we thought reporters handled the distinction pretty well. We definitely took issue with how well they retained their objectivity with the story.
But the LDS church commissioned a survey of 1,000 Americans and found that 36 percent thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the "Mormon Church" based in Salt Lake City. According to the survey, six percent said the churches were partly related, 29 percent said the groups were not connected at all, and 29 percent weren't sure.
So the LDS decided to do a big public relations campaign and enlist religion reporters help in clarifying the distinction. Whereas Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune ran a rather brief story, the Associated Press' Eric Gorski used the campaign as a hook to explore the issue in greater depth:
As authorities have investigated a polygamist sect in Texas, Mormon church leaders in Salt Lake City have largely stayed on the sidelines, weighing a response.
Church officials knew the sect's similar name and practice of polygamy -- part of Mormon church life until it was banned more than a century ago -- would cause people to confuse the two.
Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church, is starting a public relations campaign that seeks a delicate balance: distinguishing itself from a small, separate group that claims some of the same history while not denigrating someone else's beliefs.
It's a sensitive issue for the Mormon church, which was persecuted in its early years. The initiative begun Thursday also details how it considers its 19th century practice of polygamy different from present-day practitioners like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren't interested in attacking someone else's beliefs," LDS church apostle Quentin Cook said in a statement. "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."
"Mormons," he said, "have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas."
I love the way that Gorski really makes the most out of each word. There is rarely an unnecessary clause in his prose. The middle of the story gives a ton of specifics -- the LDS took no stance on the April raid of the FLDS compound in Texas or subsequent battles. Gorski explains why the campaign was launched and how it centers around videos on the LDS web site that aim to demonstrate that church members are like anyone else in the community.
He also explains how the church aims to explain its former practice of polygamy relative to the FLDS' current practice of polygamy. He gives the specifics of the public relations campaign, such as an article that emphasizes that most polygamous marriages involved just two wives and that Mormon women in the 19th century could choose whether to marry and could leave their polygamous marriages. He notes a few things that were left out, such as the fact that church founder Joseph Smith had at least 28 wives, some as young as 14 and that his successor Brigham Young married at least 20 women. But he gets a response from LDS Apostle Cook about why comparisons of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs to the early Mormon church prophets are unfair. There's no "gotcha" in the reporting.
In addition to another religious scholar, Gorski speaks with historian Jan Shipps, who is a highly-regarded non-Mormon scholar of the Latter Day Saint movement:
Although the Mormon church distances itself from polygamist groups like the FLDS, the groups are not unrelated, said Jan Shipps, a historian who specializes in Mormonism. They share common roots, call themselves Mormon and recognize Joseph Smith as a prophet, she said.
"You can see why the (LDS) church is doing its best to draw a line between the two," she said. "The problem is that by drawing the line, they don't recognize the shared history both accept."
Shipps said it's accurate to call sects like the FLDS "fundamentalist Mormons" because she, and other scholars, considers Mormonism a new religious tradition with several expressions.
The LDS church, which considers itself Christian, sees it differently.
As part of the new initiative to set itself apart from polygamist groups, the church's general counsel, Lance Wickman, wrote a letter to media executives this week urging sensitivity in coverage and asking that the term "fundamentalist Mormon" not be used.
"Decades ago, the founders of that sect rejected the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were excommunicated," he wrote, "and then started their own religion."
I love how straightforward Gorski is. He doesn't come down one way or the other, even if he gives the LDS official the last word. His story from beginning to end shows the most important point: the LDS church seeks to distance itself from the FLDS. But he also shows that the church's goal of getting journalists to refrain from calling the FLDS "fundamentalist Mormons" is not universally shared. The one thing that would have been nice to have included in this story is some perspective from the FLDS themselves. What do they think of the LDS public relations campaign? It would also have been nice to find out what the LDS think the group should be called. All I could find on the LDS site was the not-so-specific "polygamist sect in Texas" and the clunky "the polygamous group in Texas that calls itself the FLDS," neither of which are probably going to catch on at copydesks.