Religion reporters have had some time to reflect on the raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas.
A few stories look at how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have responded to the news about the FLDS. Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune had a typically thoughtful piece about the matter. She spoke with LDS members, especially those with polygamist ancestors, about how it feels to see a group on the wrong side of popular opinion and the law:
They hear echoes of 19th-century salacious – and false – rumors about their Mormon forefathers seducing women and having sex on temple altars. And they worry about government officials having power to decide what’s best for children.
“As the FLDS are, we once were,” says Guy Murray, a lawyer in Southern California who has been blogging daily in defense of the FLDS community’s civil rights. “Back then, we were the ones in the compound. We’ve all seen the photos of our brethren who went to prison rather than give up their wives.”
The story also made sure to point out that a poll of a small group of Latter-day Saints found that over three-fifths felt the raid was justified.
Nancy Perkins and Amy Joi O’Donoghue of the Deseret News, which is owned by the Latter-day Saints, provided a detailed look at the raid from the perspective of those inside the YFZ ranch. I’ll note that they make sure not to use the word compound:
Texas authorities entered the YFZ ranch last week armed with a search warrant, automatic weapons, SWAT teams, helicopters, dozens of law enforcement vehicles — including an armored personnel carrier — and were met with no resistance from the more than 600 residents of the polygamous community.
“They first got under the gate under false pretenses,” said Isaac, a 33-year-old FLDS man who did not want to be identified because he has several children who are now under state custody. “They had police cars box in the whole property.”
One of the more interesting things I’ve been looking at is how the media describe members of the FLDS. Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch included in his Saturday column an interesting tidbit about who gets to be called Mormon:
“It is frustrating at times,” said David Sylvester, a 46-year-old from Herculaneum who serves as the president of one of four Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints territories (called stakes) in the St. Louis area. “The nickname given the church — Mormon — seems to be tagged to every one of the splinter groups that’s left the church, so people believe we’re one religion, and such is not the case. I don’t know how many times I’ve addressed this question. It’s an interesting challenge every time it happens.”
Polygamy is another reason non-Mormons sometimes confuse the mainstream church with breakaway groups. The church was founded by 1830 and by 1890 it had officially discontinued polygamy. But more than a century later, members still have trouble shaking that part of their church’s history.
“This is 100 years ago and kids go to school and they get asked, ‘How many moms do you have,’” said Jim Hendricks, a 48-year-old from St. Charles who works for the church’s religious education program. “There’s a little bit of ignorance out there about our doctrine and belief, but then again, I’m not an expert on other people’s religion.”
Terry Slezak, a 44-year-old O’Fallon software consultant and president of the church’s north St. Louis County and St. Charles stake, said the media are partly to blame for the confusion for applying the term Mormon — which only applies to the 13 million members of the mainstream church — to the fundamentalist sect.
I was very surprised to see that last bit. Should the word “Mormon” only be used to describe members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Here’s what the LDS says on its Web site:
In the public mind, the word Mormon has come to mean something very specific. It conjures up images of Mormon missionaries on bikes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Mormon temples. It has become a synonym for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Consequently, when Mormon is used to describe polygamist groups, it causes great confusion about our beliefs among the general public and frustration to our members, which number over 12 million worldwide.
The Associated Press Stylebook has recognized this difficulty and specified that the term Mormon is a nickname that should be applied exclusively to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that it is not accurately applied to any other person or organization (see entries on “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The” and “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”).
The AP Stylebook — or the 2003 Stylebook I have handy, at least — says that the term Mormon should not be applied to those Latter Day Saints churches that “resulted from the split after Smith’s death.” I think this could be worded much better. “The” split after Smith’s death was the one that separated the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as Community of Christ) from the LDS. Their division was mainly over authority and, specifically, over who should become president. But the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints emerged in the 1930s over the issue of polygamy. Officially the LDS had abandoned polygamy in 1890, but the fundamentalists left when the LDS hierarchy really began cracking down on polygamists, rooting them out and excommunicating them. That didn’t happen until the early 20th century. So that’s also a split, but it’s not “the” split after Smith’s death.
I think that reporters should go to great pains to make sure that the LDS church and any other Latter Day Saints groups are carefully delineated, but it is interesting that the AP Stylebook recommends against the use of the word Mormon to describe people who believe the Book of Mormon is sacred scripture. It is particularly interesting in light of LDS efforts to be described as Christian. I think it is incumbent on reporters not to use the phrase “Mormon church” to describe these offshoots, since that could cause confusion, but I think the way reporters have used “offshoot” or “fundamentalist” as modifiers is helpful. It is so tricky to respect the beliefs of both groups and not game stories by using flash words.
The Dallas Morning News‘ Jeffrey Weiss ran a helpful, brief Q&A that deftly handled these issues:
Is the FLDS Mormon?
Members say they represent the only true Mormon church — a claim otherwise rejected by people who consider themselves Mormon. As Mormon historian Martha Sontag Bradley of the University of Utah puts it: “The FLDS is as foreign to contemporary Mormons as they are to outsiders.”
It takes more words to put the various “Mormon” claims in context, but Weiss was still quite efficient about it. He also answers what the shared history and major differences between the FLDS and the mainstream Mormon church are.
It’s important for reporters to explain how the LDS church and various Latter Day Saints offshoots are different. Just saying that they are separate isn’t enough and can give the impression that there are more similarities than there are. Those reporters that have engaged the issue, seem to have done a good job with it.