Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

In the months since the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the attempt to tone down use of the word “Mormon,” I have heard two questions over and over from people outside the Latter-day Saint fold.

Yes, that sentence was somewhat long and awkward, for obvious reasons.

Question No. 1: What are they going to call The Choir.

Question No. 2: Why did Latter-day Saints leaders take this step, at this moment in time, to change their brand?

If you are interested in that first question, a long, long feature story in The New York Times — “ ‘Mormon’ No More: Faithful Reflect on Church’s Move to Scrap a Moniker” — has a fabulous anecdote that shows up at the very end. Here we go:

For many Latter-day Saints, the most important cue came from the church’s iconic musical organization, known since 1929 as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group was on tour in Los Angeles last year, singing in Disney Hall, when a bishop asked choir leaders to begin thinking about new names.

At first many performers felt “a little uptight” about the idea, said the group’s president, Ron Jarrett. … They mulled options: the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle Choir in Utah, the Tabernacle Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and finally landed on the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

Still, the group had to manage a swath of legal issues, like how to protect copyrights and recording labels all made under the former name. Products and recordings made before 2019 will maintain the previous legal name, but new ones will not.

“For me, it has been an opportunity to really evaluate who we are and what we stand for,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I was able to say, ‘I will follow a living prophet, and our music will remain the same.’”

The singers have retired their catchy nickname, the MoTabs. They are trying out a new one, Mr. Jarrett said: the TCats, or TabCats.

I think legions of headline writers would embrace that kind of short, catchy, option, should the church’s leaders come up with an unofficial official nickname. After all, you may recall that use of the “LDS” brand was also discouraged, along with the big change in the status of “Mormon.” The Times story notes the practical implications online:

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

OK, but why did this change happen?

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like it would be the most important issue in a follow-up story of this kind. Along with large chunks of material about how Latter-day Saints feel about the change (the impact on Democrats in the church, for example), there is one short section that hints at the “Why?” angle in the traditional “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How” equation.

You will not be surprised that this part of the story is related to the church’s image in mainstream America.

Oh, and there was an ongoing issue with — #WaitForIt — American evangelical Protestants. Here is that part of the Times story focusing on that angle of the story:

The move signals a top-down effort to ensure the faith is taken seriously as part of the Christian community, said Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, an assistant professor of history at Montana State University, who studies the church and is not a member.

“If you walked into any of the Christian bookstores,” she said, “Mormonism was in the cult section.”

Their place in the Christian tradition is something that many church members struggled to make clear as they shared their faith with others.

In significantly evangelical Dallas, Phylicia Rae Jimenez, a high school English teacher, said that even before the move to drop Mormon, she had usually introduced herself as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “My faith has always been rooted in being a Christian, as opposed to, ‘I’m a Mormon,’” said Ms. Jimenez, 31, who converted about 10 years ago.

Ah, the battle of the telltale c-words — “Christian” vs. “cult.

The problem, of course, is that discussing this issue requires reporting about religious doctrines and the fact that millions of people believe that some doctrines are true and that some are false. The problem is that, for two millennia, the Christian '“tradition” has been defined in terms of doctrine and lots of people don’t agree on the specifics.

This is especially true in the disagreements between “Trinitarian” Christians and the Latter-day Saints.

If readers want to see a brave attempt to handle this explosive topic, they only need to flash back to 2012, when Times editors had a pressing, legitimate need — that would be presidential politics, of course — to explain why some religious conservatives were more excited than others about GOP candidate Mitt Romney.

Let’s flash back to my post — “Gray Lady’s brave Mormon doctrine story” — praising this newsy attempt to address this difficult topic:

Mormons consider themselves Christians — as denoted in the church’s name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are so fundamental, experts in both say, that they encompass the very understanding of God and Jesus, what counts as Scripture and what happens when people die. ...

On the most fundamental issue, traditional Christians believe in the Trinity: that God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all rolled into one. Mormons reject this as a non-biblical creed that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries. They believe that God the Father and Jesus are separate physical beings, and that God has a wife whom they call Heavenly Mother.

For lots of people outside newsrooms, this whole “God” thing actually matters.

That earlier Times story did a good job of noting that many Christians in the world of mainstream liberal (even in New York City) defend this whole Trinity thing and think that it is more than nitpicking, in addition to this topic being important to, you know, conservative Republican evangelical Protestant flyover country folks.

That’s true. However, as I stressed in 2012, it also would have helped if:

The Times had noted that many of the defining elements of Mormon theology are also rejected by the two largest and oldest branches of Christianity, as in the Catholic Church (click here for a key document) and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Why not add that additional sentence to give readers the wider picture?

The bottom line: The Times was in a position to clearly state that the essential doctrinal differences behind the political scenes are between Trinitarian Christians — left and right, Catholic and Orthodox — and Mormons. 

Those divisions are still there, even after this highly symbolic attempt to tweak the Latter-day Saint brand.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Trinitarian Christians and the Latter-day Saints cannot work together on a wide range of issues in public life. They can and they do. It’s impossible to talk about the ongoing efforts to defend religious liberty and the First Amendment without noting the many partnerships on these topics among Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Latter-day Saints, evangelicals and others.

But in this case, issues linked to doctrine had to be addressed — more in depth — if readers (including editors and producers everywhere to look to the Times for guidance) were going to understand what was and is happening with this highly symbolic brand-name change.

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