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Mistaken Identity

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. ~USA Today

Then again, the FLDS church doesn’t just claim some of the same history, but has a direct connection with that history as a splinter group that broke away from the LDS.  Schismatics have a claim on the history of the group from which they separated, which doesn’t mean that they interpret that history or their doctrine correctly, but it’s not as if they just started up the group a few years ago and laid claim to something to which they had no connection. 

The real issue isn’t not denigrating the beliefs of people in FLDS, but avoiding the sorts of full-throated denunciations of polygamy (such as the one Romney made when he declared polygmay the “worst thing” he could imagine!) and marriage of young women to older, sometimes much older, men that have the potential to offend members of the LDS church.  These might be offensive because they could appear to be attacking or denigrating practices that their own prophets engaged in during the early history of the LDS church, which would in turn bring up exactly the kinds of difficult and unwelcome questions about their church’s past that this P.R. campaign is designed to avoid.

Even so, the effort is understandable given this information:

Cook said the church’s feeling that it had to do something was confirmed by a survey of 1,000 people it commissioned in late May that found 36% [bold mine-DL] thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the “Mormon Church” based in Salt Lake City.

Another 6% said the LDS and FLDS were partly related, 29% said the groups were not connected at all, and 29% weren’t sure, the survey found.

That’s a total of 42% who think the LDS church still has something to do with polygamy over a century after the practice was abandoned, and almost another 30% who were unsure one way or the other.  That tends to confirm my guess from last year that some significant part of anti-Mormonism in America has a lot to do with an enduring popular false belief that Mormons practice polygamy.  No doubt, some significant part is also rooted in other more basic doctrinal objections for those who pay close attention to such matters, but for a lot of people this utterly outdated perception of Mormons is probably what is responsible for the resistance to a Mormon presidential candidate and for more widespread opposition to Mormonism as such. 

It’s not as if the LDS church hasn’t already been very active in trying to change this perception.  I’m not sure that there’s going to be much Mormons can do to overcome this association when so many people still accept what is obviously not true.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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