Mormons Don’t Want to Be Called ‘Mormons’ Anymore

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints wants to be referred to by its given name. Shouldn't we respect that wish?

Reading the Slate story “The Mormon Church Just Urged a 10-Day Social Media Fast for Women,” I discovered that I had missed the news back in August that the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints asked that his institution be referred to as, well, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints rather than Mormons or LDS back in August. He issued a new newsroom Style Guide setting out the new rules:

  • In the first reference, the full name of the Church is preferred: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
  • When a shortened reference is needed, the terms “the Church” or the “Church of Jesus Christ” are encouraged. The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.
  • While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use. Thus, please avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church,” or “Church of the Latter-day Saints.”
  • When referring to Church members, the terms “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” or “Latter-day Saints” are preferred. We ask that the term “Mormons” not be used.
  • “Mormon” is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon or when used as an adjective in such historical expressions as “Mormon Trail.”
  • The term “Mormonism” is inaccurate and should not be used. When describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the term “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ” is accurate and preferred.
  • When referring to people or organizations that practice polygamy, it should be stated that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with polygamous groups.

The reaction, even from the presumably Mormon-friendly Salt Lake Tribune has been something of an eye roll.  For example, the report titled “LDS Church wants everyone to stop calling it the LDS Church and drop the word ‘Mormons’ — but some members doubt it will happen.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really, truly, absolutely wants to be known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not the LDS Church. Not the Mormon church.

It made that clear Thursday — even though the last attempt to eradicate those nicknames for the Utah-based faith flopped.

[…]

Still, many believing observers are skeptical that this drive will be any more successful than a similar effort to jettison “Mormon” that launched before the 2002 Winter Olympics. That attempt ended a decade later with a return to the long-standing and, in some quarters, beloved nickname “Mormon.”

Rocky Anderson, who was Salt Lake City’s mayor from 2000 to 2008, diligently followed the dominant church’s request back then — even using “the Church of Jesus Christ” on second reference, which sometimes earned jeers even from faithful Latter-day Saints.

“It was really awkward,” Anderson said Thursday. “I did find it a mouthful.”

[…]

Blogger Steve Evans, founder of By Common Consent, sees Nelson’s effort as “fighting for the divinely revealed name of the church in the hearts and minds of the members.”

[…]

“He views it as something sacred, which I respect,” Evans said. “But the initiative won’t succeed — if success means getting everyone to stop using the terms ‘Mormon’ or ‘LDS Church.'”

Evans predicts this undertaking will only “confuse outsiders,” he said. “I don’t think it substantively alters external perspectives of the church, but I do think it makes us look a little persnickety.”

The church already has “a popular brand — why not embrace it and use it? … We should be leveraging those names instead, while simultaneously teaching the real name of the church and reinforcing why it is something holy to us.”

LDS blogger Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service, also believes the drive may fail.

“It would be extremely unlikely for the majority of journalists to adopt this new style,” she said, “in part because the church has not provided a single-word term that is as descriptive as ‘Mormon’ or ‘LDS.'”

The piece goes on to further detail how difficult the change will be, given how ingrained our habit of referring to the faith by variants of the “Mormon” label has become. And I agree. “Mormon” and “LDS” are simply easier to say and more familiar than “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

But here’s the thing. Our societal—and certainly our journalistic—sensibility has changed on these things even since the failed 2002 rebranding attempt. It has become an article of faith that it’s impolite, if not downright insulting, to refuse to call people or groups that which they prefer to be called.

“African-American” doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as easily as “black” and is actually more confusing. (Many black Americans consider themselves African and many Americans of African descent aren’t black.) “Black” itself was a preferred self-description, coined by civil rights leaders as more empowering than older, uglier terms. But as African-Americans themselves adopted the new language, most of us have tried to adapt our usage to the preferred term.

Similarly, the term “Oriental,” which was a perfectly customary term well into my twenties, used in polite conversation and journalistic and academic references, was deemed offensive and “Asian” became preferred. Most of us changed our vocabulary accordingly, even though the old term was perhaps more useful. (Asia is bigger than the Orient. “Oriental” was therefore much more precise, excluding, in particular, South Asians.) Perhaps because it’s easier to say than “African-American,” I hardly ever find myself slipping into the old verbiage in that way that I do with “black.”

At the individual level, it has long been seen as insulting to refer to people who change their name, especially for religious reasons, by their birth name. Most notably, when athletic superstars Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor became Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, most of polite society accommodated their new identities. When Lloyd Bernard Free decided he wanted to be World B. Free, Chad Johnson became Chad Ochocinco, and Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace the journalistic community more-or-less went along with them, even though most considered the changes silly, if not a form of trolling.

Many of us have struggled more with the conventions of the LGBTQ movement, partly because they’re changing so quickly and partly because they’re alien to us. I haven’t fully learned, much embraced, the nuanced nomenclature of nonbinary gender or even the intricacies of evolving pronoun rules. Even so, many of us have adapted to the understanding that people have strong feelings about these things and that calling people by their preferred names and pronouns is the decent thing to do.

The #MeToo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh controversy also highlighted that people we used to refer to as “victims” or even “accusers” are now politely referred to as “survivors.” This is particularly problematic for me in the case of mere allegation, as it essentially assumes the allegation true and shifts the presumption of guilt to the accused. Regardless, major media outlets seem to have quickly embraced that new convention.

Why, then, doesn’t the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints deserve the same respect for its wishes? Yes, it’s an incredibly awkward string of words. And their preferred second reference convention, Church of Jesus Christ, seems to suggest that other Christian denominations are illegitimate. But many of the above-mentioned cases of linguistic change have similar issues.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that the more effective Church strategy would be to argue that “Mormons” is a slur. It certainly has that as its origin.

FILED UNDER: Religion, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. This seems like an odd thing considering that their website URL is “http://www.mormon.org

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yes, some of the pieces noted that: their own branding includes a lot of “Mormon” references. But it’s certainly an easier URL.

  3. @James Joyner:

    And of course there’s also the fact that the book containing the writings of Joseph Smith is called
    “The Book Of Mormon.”

    Like you I’m generally okay with going along with whatever people or organizations want to call themselves, although the changes do take some getting used to. In this case, though, I think they’re going to have difficulty getting this one to stick.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    I agree that, for the most part, we should call people what they want to be called. And I have no problem with the Mormons wanting to change the name of the church. But as noted in the article, it is unlikely that people are going to use the mouthful they are requesting.

  5. Kathy says:

    Overall, the tendency in most societies is to shorten words and terms. There are exceptions, natch, but they are few. Going from a short word like “Mormons” to a mouthful like “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” is asking too much.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: Sure. But “African-American” is longer and harder to say than “black.” Ditto “Kareem Abdul Jabbar” for “Lew Alcindor” and “Metta World Peace” for “Ron Artest.”

    What if they were making more explicit what seems to be the implicit argument: that they consider “Mormon” a slur?

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  7. steve says:

    James- Most of us didn’t say “Kareem Abdul Jabbar”. We just talked about Kareem or Jabbbar having a good night or bad game. They just happen to have a really long name. Also, I think that other faith members may be unwilling to refer to them as “The Church of Jesus Christ”. Almost every other Christian church would contend that they are the church of Jesus Christ. (I am sure you must heard the old joke about the Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans (pick your faith) discovering they are not the only ones in heaven.) They need to come up with a shortened name that they find acceptable and everyone else finds usable. Or grow thicker skin.

    Steve

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @steve:

    They need to come up with a shortened name that they find acceptable and everyone else finds usable. Or grow thicker skin.

    But the same argument could be made for “African-American” or many of the other examples I’ve cited. Or, say, those offended by “Washington Redskins.”

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ve given up pointing out the futility of insisting on name changes. People think changing a title will change the substance and they have that exactly backward. Change the reality and the word meaning changes. We’ve been through numerous changes in describing black people and has any of it solved the race issue? Of course not.

    My daughter was born in China to Chinese birth parents. Does it affect her life in any way if she’s described as Asian-American vs. Chinese-American? No. Either way there’s a 50/50 chance she’ll ditch history class.

    We are obsessing over trivia. We are attempting to practice magic, abracadabra and presto change-o, because actually changing things requires effort and commitment beyond ranting on Twitter.

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  10. grumpy realist says:

    I suspect failure, mainly because: a) the length of the new term by comparison to the old, and b) any potential shortening of the new term results in stuff that is so bland and generic (“Church”, “Saints”) that it’s impossible to know what one is referring to. (James–do you really think that people always use the full mouthful “Kareem Abdul Jabbar”? No–they call him “Kareem”. Which is short enough and specific enough as an identifier.)

    On top of that–and related to being accused of using “Mormons” as a slur, I think people will highly, highly resent being shoehorned into using terms like “The Church” or “The Restored Church” which slyly indicates that Mormonism is the only legitimate religion around. (Also “The Church” is already used to refer to “The Roman Catholic church” in a lot of people’s minds.) So fail again on that account.

    The Mormon establishment can put out as many press releases as they want and they can potentially get a handful of newspapers to refer to them in the way they want–but that doesn’t mean anyone else is going to listen to them, especially when the term “Mormon” has such a history of use behind it.

    (Heck, they should be happy that they have an easily defined term that is in use and isn’t derogatory. Ex-Mormons have a tendency to call them “The Borg”. Would they prefer that?)

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  11. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: Considering that “Mormon” has been used for years and years and years and is enshrined in several pieces of beloved literature (Sherlock Holmes, anyone?) I think they’ve got a very uphill road if they suddenly try to earnestly convince us that this is their equivalent of the n-word.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @steve: @grumpy realist: It’s true that most of us used “Kareem” or “Jabbar” as shorthands; but he was rightfully referred to by his full name on first mention in formal, including journalistic, writing.

    I agree, and noted in the OP, that their preferred shorthand is problematic. But it would be perfectly understandable in an article about the Church that first used Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I find it awkward, but no moreso than referring to someone I’d known as”Bruce Jenner” for 40-odd years as “Caitlyn Jenner” or even “Bradley Manning” as “Chelsea Manning.” But most of us adjust.

    If the intent is to get us to use the longer language in everyday conversation, I agree that it’s an uphill struggle. It’s just asking too much. But I’m sympathetic to their right to be called by their preferred name by such as the New York Times or Salt Lake Tribune.

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  13. Franklin says:

    There was a decent article over at The Atlantic recently that showed some 80% of Americans are against political correctness. Sure, a good chunk of those people just want to be assholes, but a lot of people just don’t want their lives ruined because they accidentally used a term that was no longer considered correct by rich white liberals. Yeah I might sound like Pearce here but just read the article and decide for yourself. It’s mostly just reporting what the polls say with a bit of opinion near the end. link

    That said, I do actually think we should strive to use the name desired by the group. So as for the direct issue at hand, The Church (I didn’t know there was only one) needs to come up with a more succinct name, and then we’ll try (and be forgiven if we sometimes forget). I can handle LGBTQ because they shortened it to 5 letters.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, I tend to think that most of these debates over naming are silly. But then I’m a straight white guy and WASP-adjacent.

    @grumpy realist: The word started as a slur but was gradually embraced by adherents. But “negro” and “colored” had longstanding usage and were eventually displaced. I don’t think many whites considered “Oriental” a slur in the 1980s. The Washington NFL team has been the “Redskins” since the 1930s; many now think it’s a slur.

  15. Gustopher says:

    I think a lot of the rationale for wanting to be called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is that a lot of people don’t consider Mormons to be Christians.

    And, it’s not a crazy argument to say that they aren’t — if you are raised in one of the New Testament religions. Mormons have added a new religious text between the New Testament and the present day, just like the Muslims did. If everyone who follows the New Testament unadorned is called a Christian, then who are these interlopers with their new book that supercedes it? Well, they aren’t Christians, since that name is taken. It would be like calling Muslims Christian.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is trying to blur the lines. They want to be viewed and treated like any other Christian denomination when there is something radically different that separates them — namely the Book of Mormon.

    James wants to look at this from the standpoint of Mormon being a slur, but it also has to be looked at from the context of cultural appropriation.

    On the other hand, the mythical figure they revere is Jesus Christ — they’ve just added a whole bunch of new adventures.

    It would be like if Brazilians, Canadians and Mexicans all started demanding to be called Americans, since they were all born on either North or South America. Technically true, but the general term now has a different, more specific meaning.

    Or if Michael B. Jordan dropped his middle initial.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    It would be like if Brazilians, Canadians and Mexicans all started demanding to be called Americans, since they were all born on either North or South America. Technically true, but the general term now has a different, more specific meaning.

    The academy has been moving away from “American” meaning “United States” for a quarter century or more precisely because Latin Americans resent that appropriation. (So far as I’m aware, Canadians don’t care.)

  17. James Pearce says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We are attempting to practice magic, abracadabra and presto change-o, because actually changing things requires effort and commitment beyond ranting on Twitter.

    Sounds like something I’d say…

    When I first heard about this, it seemed like it was intended more for adherents of the faith and less for outsiders. “Stop calling yourselves Mormons” more than “Stop calling us Mormons.”

  18. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: @Gustopher: That’s why I think this is doomed to failure outside news organisations and the Mormons themselves.

    Am reminded of the old saying “every patent applicant can be his own lexicographer” –yep, you can define terms in your patent application however you like–you can define “up” down, “down” up; create your very own little dictionary and claim “mm” means “a million miles”.

    What you can’t do, however–is impose your definitions on the rest of the world.

  19. @Gustopher:

    I think a lot of the rationale for wanting to be called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is that a lot of people don’t consider Mormons to be Christians.

    I think this is the main goal. This about deepening the mainstreaming of their faith and hence the focus on “Jesus Christ” and “the Church” as opposed to “Mormon” or “LDS.”

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Understandable. Even by the low standards of religions the Mormon origin myth is transparent humbuggery. I would say no modern person could buy it, but people buy into Scientology and the Trump cult, so apparently the P.T. Barnum line remains accurate: There’s a sucker born every minute.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: If so, and that explanation seems plausible, it further legitimates the request in my view. If ‘Mormon’ is a marginalizing term, it should be eschewed by objective reporters.

    @Michael Reynolds: But this is mostly a function of their relatively modern, local origin. The Book of Mormon isn’t any more absurd than the Old or New Testament. But those books are about events that ostensibly happened a long time ago in places far, far away.

  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Of course. The events of the Bible were written by, and accepted by, people who were a millennium and a half away from the beginnings of empiricism. They were people who believed pigs could be possessed by demons. Also, they believed in demons capable of possessing pigs.

    Joseph Smith ‘discovered’ his golden tablets in the 19th century, at a point where any reasonably well-educated person should have known better. Doubly so re: Scientology. Triply so re: Trump Cult. I don’t understand why people choose to fill their brains with transparent nonsense and then spend their lives straining to convince others that their delusions are real. Reality is so much more interesting than these badly-written fairy tales.

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  23. @Michael Reynolds: @James Joyner: There is a long-standing desire on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (I did it!), to be perceived of as a mainline denomination of the broader Christian church (or, at least, to be as adjacent as possible). Theologically there are actually some significant differences over key doctrines (such as Christ’s nature and divinity) that really does separate Mormonism from mainline Christianity of various flavors (although I certainly understand why Michael would consider these differences moot). I wrote a lengthy post on this in 2006 at PoliBlog, which is now gone (the Wayback Machine to the rescue!).

    So, yes, regardless of how seriously anyone outside the faiths in question may take any of these theological differences, this is very clearly a PR move on part of the Church (following the style guide once again!).

  24. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “What if they were making more explicit what seems to be the implicit argument: that they consider “Mormon” a slur?”

    I think one problem here is that many Mormons don’t consider “Mormon” a slur. The current top guy does. So it’s less like Mr. Alcindor changing his name to Kareem Al-Jabbar and more like Donald Trump deciding the USA needs to be called “The greatest, classiest, winningest country ever and all you other guys are losers because Donald Trump is our God.”

  25. Steve says:

    James- I am going to end up agreeing that in the case of the NYT or WaPo or their like they should go ahead and use the whole name on first usage. For everyone else? Not happening.

    Steve

  26. wr says:

    @James Joyner: ” I don’t think many whites considered “Oriental” a slur in the 1980s. The Washington NFL team has been the “Redskins” since the 1930s; many now think it’s a slur.”

    Redskin has ALWAYS been a slur — it’s just that no one cared what Native Americans thought. And “Oriental,” although not explicitly derogatory, defines a huge chunk of the world solely by its relationship to the actual important people — us.

  27. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: ” They were people who believed pigs could be possessed by demons”

    If you don’t believe a pig can be possessed by a demon, how do you explain Donald Trump?

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  28. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    But “African-American” is longer and harder to say than “black.”

    A lot longer, and two words instead of one. But still a short phrase all told. And, as far as I know, “black” or “blacks” is still in use and not considered a slur.

    Two of my coworkers are Mormons. They use the term themselves, and don’t mind if others use it. One needs to ask whether this is something coming from the church hierarchy. If they consider it a slur, I’m willing to stop using the term, but they’ll still find it hard for most people to use a long phrase instead.

    Did you ever call Prince “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”? I never did.

  29. @Kathy:

    Did you ever call Prince “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”? I never did.

    Only for humorous effect.

  30. Kathy says:

    @wr:

    If you don’t believe a pig can be possessed by a demon, how do you explain Donald Trump?

    Trump’s possessing pigs now? 🙂

  31. PJ says:

    How about just dropping the m in the middle?

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  32. John430 says:

    This is akin to liberals trying to fashion themselves into “progressives” which is a YUUUGE misnomer.

  33. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Re: “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. Someday there will be a good biography of him and people will recognize this move for the practical bit of genius it was. Basically, Prince found himself trapped in a record contract he felt was oppressively unfair with a label he absolutely detested. He could not legally recored an album for any other label under the name “Prince”. If he recorded under another name (not as rare as you might think: “George Harrysong” and “John Lemming” backed up Harry Nillson on a record or two) he could not use “Prince” in promotional material or interviews. And eventually, the other name would take over and generations of new fans would never even realize he had an entire body of earlier work. At some point he realized that if he changed his name to something that literally had no pronunciation, every mention of him in the press would be as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”.

    He eventually got out of the record contract and he went back to “Prince” with nary a blip.

  34. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: …and Kathy wins the internet today…

  35. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: Tangential: Labels mean different things to different groups and I realized this to my core when I was a newly minted Peace Corps volunteer sitting in my tiny Ghanaian village 20 miles from the main road, the only white guy living in at least a 20 mile radius, and this was long before there were Chinese taking up residence, so dark skin was not just the norm it was the only option. Someone was trying to jog my memory about a speaker I had heard at the village meeting a couple of weeks before. “You know him”, he said, “he was that black man”.

  36. @MarkedMan: I do recall that ploy, yes. Amusing in its own right.

  37. Tom S says:

    I truly despise the LDS/Mormon church. It’s such a crock of crap that it’s hard to imagine anyone could believe in its core tenants. I hate it even more because it exposes how anyone could believe religion of any kind. I suppose this could be viewed in a positive light, as it enforces reason over magic, but it’s still hard to accept.

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  38. @John430:

    This is akin to liberals trying to fashion themselves into “progressives” which is a YUUUGE misnomer.

    Makes much more sense than “liberal” (at least “progressive” does not mean in the USA the opposite of what it mean in almost all other countries of the world).

  39. An additional problem that I see with these change is that does not seems cleat what noun will be used to refer to the believers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the equivalent of “Catholics”, “Baptists”, “Muslims”, “Lutherans”, etc.); or what adjective (who you will say “JFK was the first Catholic president; Mitt Romney could be the first Mormon president” by the new rules?).

    Or the change is only in the words used to designate the church but not its believers? If it is that, I doubt that this could be a stable equilibrium in the long term.

  40. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Re: “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. Someday there will be a good biography of him and people will recognize this move for the practical bit of genius it was.

    I’d no idea it was a ploy. At the time, I thought it was a publicity stunt. Knowing this now, I still think that was apart of it. after all, he could have called himself something that could be pronounced.

  41. Kylopod says:

    We’re all familiar with name-changes related to race and ethnicity, and sometimes to other types of groups (e.g. gays/lesbians). Up to now are there any examples of this having to do with religious groups? The only one I can think of is that there was a period between the late 19th and early 20th century when people stopped using the term “Jew” and started saying “Hebrew” (it’s preserved in the names of some Jewish institutions such as Hebrew Union College). But as far as I know, this happened organically, not as part of some public campaign.

    There are some outdated slurs for certain religions–e.g. Muhammadan, Papist. But I certainly can’t think of a change in the modern age demanded as part of some public campaign, the way we had with ethnic/racial terms like African American or Native American or Latinx.

  42. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    ” If ‘Mormon’ is a marginalizing term, it should be eschewed by objective reporters.”

    I’m not sure that this assertion carries much weight in this context. In the big picture sense of what America consists of philosophically, it’s possible that both “christianity” (in the “we are a ‘christian’ nation” sense) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are at one of various margins of a fairly relentlessly secular society. Is it really unfair to “marginalize” something that is, for all intents and purposes, at the margin of a margin?

  43. Mister Bluster says:

    There’s a sucker born every minute.

    “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is what can you make people believe you have done.”
    ― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

  44. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the same argument could be made for “African-American”

    Since when are people born irrevocably Mormon? If you don’t see the difference, look harder.

    All of which is beside the fact that my Mormon relatives refer to themselves and their church as “LDS” all the time. This is a not-so-subtle power play for a piece of the Jesus brand; no victimization has occurred or is occurring.