Becoming a Mormon: Thinking about a Brand with Elder Ballard

I am a recent convert to “Mormonism” myself. Not too many years ago you could find me vigorously arguing on Mormon-themed blogs about the importance of avoiding the word “Mormon” as a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[1] At the time, it felt like a concession to detractors of our faith to self-identify by the nickname they derisively gave to us in the nineteenth century. Ironically, however, it was precisely our nineteenth-century ancestors in the faith who had made peace with the descriptor and good-naturedly co-opted it to describe themselves, leaving us with the lasting nickname.

Latter-day Saintism

I believe my reticence about using the word “Mormon” developed organically from the push in the last quarter of the twentieth century (and possibly for at least a couple of decades before that) to drop the use of “Mormon” as an adjective referring to ourselves. True to form, despite being a Mormon through and through, I had dutifully completely eliminated “Mormon” or derivatives of it from my own vocabulary by the time I was 19 years old and ready to serve a mission. It was therefore no surprise to find a ward mission leader in my first ward on my mission (in East Berlin) who reminded the missionaries in our weekly meetings never to use the term “Mormone” or “Mormonen” and instead to refer to ourselves as “Heiligen der Letzten Tage” or simply “HLTs“. This had evidently been heavily emphasized in certain parts of Germany during the same period, and, given our correlated curriculum and policy agenda as a Church, presumably elsewhere throughout the world as well, and not just in the United States or English-speaking areas.

The policy intention was understandable and desirable: to emphasize to the world the importance of Jesus Christ to us as a Church, given our belief that Jesus Christ is the founder of the Church and that we as members place him at the center of our religious lives. From an internal perspective, calling ourselves Mormons made no sense at all — “Latter-day Saints” was perfectly descriptive to our own insider ears because we know ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ, just like those who believed in him and followed him in New Testament times, who were likewise referred to as “Saints”. Because we live almost 2,000 years after these people, we describe ourselves as Latter-day Saints to differentiate ourselves from those first disciples of Jesus Christ who were also called Saints.

President Hinckley’s comment in General Conference on October 7, 1990 reveals how hard Church leadership had been working to diminish use of the lingering word:

I suppose that regardless of our efforts, we may never convert the world to general use of the full and correct name of the Church. Because of the shortness of the word “Mormon” and the ease with which it is spoken and written, they will continue to call us the “Mormons”, the “Mormon” church, and so forth.

We may not be able to change the nickname, but we can make it shine with added luster.

All of this places upon us of this Church and this generation an incumbent and demanding responsibility to recognize that as we are spoken of as Mormons, we must so live that our example will enhance the perception that Mormon can mean in a very real way, ‘more good’.”

To put it simply, the “Mormon” nickname was highly disfavored during the time period, despite its recalcitrant usefulness around the world — it translates as a loan word into most languages, even if only phonetically — as a reference to us as a people, and to the Church. But President Hinckley’s 1990 comment was also an admission that it might not be possible to achieve our ideal position of retiring the nickname, given how easy it is to use, how descriptive it is for external use in referring to us and how long of a life it has had.

The rehabilitation of Mormonism

The end of the first decade of the twentieth century has seen a rehabilitation of the word “Mormon” among Mormons. The truth is that as early as 1994 the Church had issued press protocols allowing use of the word “Mormon” to refer to members of the Church or as an adjective relating to us as a people. But with the emergence of the Church’s “I’m a Mormon” PR campaign within the last year or so, any doubt should have completely melted away about the acceptability of using the word “Mormon” to refer to ourselves as members of the Church or for others to use in describing us. We now seem to have come full circle and are proactively and good-naturedly embracing the term as did our nineteenth-century ancestors.

My own gradual acceptance of “Mormonism” did not really occur until the last few years. I suppose it was the culmination of more exposure to neutral or positive uses of the term as I returned from my mission and became casually acquainted with “Mormon Studies”, at first through FARMS in the 1990s and then through other publications, as well as Mormon-themed blogs, in the 2000s. But to take Wilfried’s post as a snapshot, I was still trying to dissuade people from using the term “Mormon” in 2004. Nevertheless, by the time the “I’m a Mormon” campaign emerged, I realized I was finally comfortable being referred to from the outside as a Mormon, meaning that the advertisements’ use of the term did not induce the cringe it would have for me as a missionary.

Elder M. Russell Ballard, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Consistent with the well known press protocol about how to use the word “Mormon”, Elder Ballard noted in his recent General Conference address on October 2, 2011 that “referring collectively to members as Mormons is sometimes appropriate.”[2] Pointing out the historical and descriptive nature of the nickname, Elder Ballard referred to the “I’m a Mormon” campaign and took a realistic stance on use of the term. Noting that it was “sometimes appropriate” to refer to Church members as Mormons seemed to be an understatement in light of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. But the concession also seemed to be a response to comments made by President Boyd K. Packer in the previous General Conference on April 2, 2011 that appeared to reflect the past approach suggesting that Latter-day Saints should not be satisfied to refer to themselves as Mormons.[3] But, with reference to explicit revelation on what the Church should be called,[4] Elder Ballard also reiterated the longstanding press protocol that the term “Mormon” should not be used as a nickname for the Church itself.[5] In doing so, he expressed a hope that through effective branding (essentially) we can successfully associate the term “Mormon” (the nickname that will not die) in people’s mind with the Church’s proper name when Mormon is used to describe members of the Church.

The importance of a brand

In addition to his doctrinal teaching about the revelatory source and meaning of the official name of the Church, Elder Ballard focused in his address on this concern about branding:

A recent opinion poll indicated that far too many people still do not understand correctly that Mormon refers to members of our Church. And a majority of people are still not sure that Mormons are Christian. Even when they read of our Helping Hands work throughout the world in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and famines, they do not associate our humanitarian efforts with us as a Christian organization. Surely it would be easier for them to understand that we believe in and follow the Savior if we referred to ourselves as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this way those who hear the name Mormon will come to associate that word with our revealed name and with people who follow Jesus Christ.

Elder Ballard’s address has proven timely given the subsequent controversy that arose the very next weekend at the Value Voters Summit from statements made by Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, who said that Christians should vote for a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, given the choice, and Mormons are not Christian. Dozens of responses erupted from around the country as prominent journalists and Evangelicals called foul and either stressed that a political candidate’s particular faith was irrelevant or that Mormons do indeed consider themselves Christian or asked incredulously who Jeffress thinks he is that he could judge substantively whether a particular individual is a true Christian or not. From a Mormon perspective, however, Jeffress’ statement hits at the heart of the branding problem.[6]

The Church has long worked to bring the word “Mormon” into association with the official name of the Church, and particularly with the prominent appearance of the name of Jesus Christ in the Church’s official name, so that the two become synonymous. For instance, many of us will remember TV commercials that would end noting that “This message is brought to you by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons”. In addition, the Church has always emphasized the official name of the Church as part of the larger project of making people aware of the Church’s Christ-entered existence and message. In 1995, part of this effort included redesigning the logo to highlight the prominence of the name of Jesus Christ in the name of the Church. In the redesign, the name “Jesus Christ” was centered and written in larger font on the middle of the three lines of text that convey the Church’s official name on its new logo. A simple response to accusations that Mormons are not Christians — setting aside theological quibbles about the actual creedal Christian (somewhat self-serving) definition of “Christian”, this accusation itself is seen by Church leaders and members alike as a failure of non-members to associate the “Mormon” brand with the “Church of Jesus Christ” brand — has always been to respond with reference to the presence of the name of Jesus Christ in the name of the Church, and the new logo has assisted in that approach since its introduction.[7]

All Saints' Woodford Wells

As I listened to Elder Ballard’s address, my concern was with whether such an emphasis on branding could ultimately intrude on spirituality. Elder Ballard said, “Let us develop the habit within our families and our Church activities and our daily interactions of making it clear that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the name by which the Lord Himself has directed that we be known.” Of course, I already had experience conscientiously avoiding the term “Mormon”, and this is no longer expected, even on the face of Elder Ballard’s talk. But one could argue that a seemingly mundane emphasis on branding could potentially make Church members who attend Church for spiritual uplift feel like employees of a corporation needing to adhere to a particular branding policy for marketing purposes.

I have realized, however, that questions of effective religious branding are not unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and need not necessarily contain any corporate overtones. Each day as I walk past the lovely Anglican parish church near my children’s school (pictured above), I have occasion to reflect on the similar effort made by Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians to remind people that Jesus Christ is the center of their religion, despite the popular nicknames each denomination carries that could conceivably mask this fact.

You will find this sign hanging over the entrance to All Saints’ and conspicuously posted at or near the door or other convenient, public-facing surface on most creedal Christian churches in the United Kingdom. The sign and logo look comfortingly familiar to this Mormon who belongs to The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints. I am pleased to observe that this particular creedal Christian branding campaign began in 2000-2001,[8] six years after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presciently seized an opportunity to brand itself in a way that puts Jesus Christ front and center. It has been observed that as Mormons, living our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ is the best symbol we can put forward for our faith. Yes, Elder Ballard, names (and brands) are very important!

——————-
[1] In my opinion Wilfried Decoo’s 2004 Times and Seasons post is still the authoritative blog post about this issue: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2004/10/from-mormon-to-lds-in-international-perspective/

[2] M. Russell Ballard, “The Importance of a Name”, General Conference Address, October 2, 2011 (http://lds.org/general-conference/print/2011/10/the-importance-of-a-name?lang=eng&clang=eng)

[3] “Obedient to revelation, we call ourselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than the Mormon Church. It is one thing for others to refer to the Church as the Mormon Church or to us as Mormons; it is quite another for us to do so.” Boyd K. Packer, “Guided by the Holy Spirit”, General Conference Address, April 2, 2011 (http://lds.org/general-conference/2011/04/guided-by-the-holy-spirit?lang=eng)

[4] “For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (Doctrine and Covenants 115:4)

[5] For a fascinating and important contemplation on and response to Elder Ballard’s address, see Wilfried Decoo’s October 5, 2011 blog post at Times and Seasons post titled “Mormons without the Mormon Church” (http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2011/10/mormons-without-the-mormon-church/).

[6] A number of prominent Mormon commentators have also weighed in, including the following:
- Rosalynde Welch, “I Know You Are, But What Am I?”, Patheos, October 13, 2011 (http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Know-You-Are-But-What-Am-I-Rosalynde-Welch-10-14-2011?offset=0&max=1)
– Kristine Haglund, “Stop Saying That!”, By Common Consent, October 12, 2011 (http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/10/12/stop-saying-that/)
– Michael Otterson, “How do Mormons answer ‘not Christian’ claim?”, On Faith, October 12, 2011 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/how-do-mormons-answer-not-christian-claims/2011/10/11/gIQA9ii4eL_blog.html)
– Joanna Brooks, “Why Do Southerners Call Mormonism a Cult? A Brief History of Anti-Mormonism”, Religion Dispatches, October 10, 2011 (http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/5255/why_do_southerners_call_mormonism_a_cult/)

Interestingly, a number of these Mormon responses have given Jeffress some credit in the consistency of pointing out the distinction between Mormonism and creedal Christianity. On the other hand, one commentator turned around to explain, not unconvincingly, how the Southern Baptist Convention is a “cult”. (See rameumpton, “Southern Baptist Convention Is a Cult”, Millennial Star, October 8, 2011 (http://www.millennialstar.org/southern-baptist-convention-is-a-cult/)).

[7] In her own response to the recent Mormons/Christians controversy precipitated by Jeffress, Kristine has pointed out in her By Common Consent post linked in FN6 above that this approach is less effective, perhaps even vacuous: “The name of our church shows that we think of ourselves as devoted to Jesus Christ, but it just shouldn’t be expected to do much work in terms of persuading other people who define “Christian” more specifically.” Admittedly, the practice does seem a bit tautological, and, as such, I would think Kristine’s acute observation applies mostly to raising it in response to theologians who are excluding Mormons from identification as “Christians” based on a narrow definition of their own based on their particular creedal views. But it perhaps overlooks the actual effectiveness of the branding in the logo and the argument based on the name of the Church among people who are learning about the Church and Mormons’ beliefs for the first time — arguably, these are the more important focus of the branding issue rather than creedal Christian ministers and lay members who have formed preconceptions about the narrow creedal Christian definition of the word.

[8] http://archive.catholicherald.co.uk/article/29th-september-2000/3/news-in-brief-peer-supports-sign-of-unity

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