Ever since the FLDS raid in 2006, and the media calling the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” (a term the Church itself came up with in the 1940s to describe the offshoot), the Church has been eager to monopolize the term “Mormon.” It has asserted that, in the interests of resolving public confusion, the media should only apply the term “Mormon” to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This means that even the phrase “fundamentalist Mormon” is not acceptable because it can lead the public to think that the FLDS are related to the LDS (not just historically, but currently). In fact, President Hinckley went so far as to call the phrase a “contradiction.”
Moreover, the phrase “polygamous sect” is not considered acceptable because it maintains that there was (and therefore is) a link between the two. So, the preferred phrase is “polygamous group” (regardless of the fact that many FLDS are not polygamous), utterly stripping the “group” of its Mormon heritage.
The LDS Newsroom has been on top of the matter:
2006: Use of the Word Mormon in News Reports
2009: Misuse of “Mormon” in The Times Confuses Readers
2011: Journalists Mostly Getting Mormon Usage Right
The argument is that most people these days associate “Mormon” with images of Mormon missionaries on bikes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Mormon temples (all the “good” Mormon things), so we cannot allow the public to associate it with polygamy (which is “bad”). The Newsroom says, “particularly internationally, readers do not distinguish between these groups and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which there are over 13.5 million members worldwide.”
Who cares if these small groups (and last I read, the FLDS are somewhere between 20 to 60 thousand members) actually call themselves “Mormon”? What “right” do they have to confuse the discourse just because they have a shared Mormon heritage?
Well, actually they have a huge right. To try to strip this right away would be akin to telling the Church that just because it wants to say it’s “Christian” doesn’t mean it actually gets to be “Christian.” And last I read, the Church considered this tactic unjust — but apparently not unjust enough to not engage in it itself.
The Church attempted to trademark “Mormon” in 2002, and the application was denied. The back-and-forth letters between the Church and the United States Patent and Trademark Office over the course of 5 years are eccentric, to say the least. They’re available here (the application # is 78161091). Eventually, the Office was scathing in its final letter:
Applicant argues earnestly that the term MORMON is a not a religious service, but the source of religious services. …[But] one expects religions to provide religious services; it is what God or the founders had in mind for them. One expects to find a religious service in a house of religion.
[...] Attached hereto are examples of other registrations including the names of various religions. None of them, nothing on the record shows a mark for Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Jewish or Judaism, Catholic or Catholicism for religious services. They are all for publications or health care or social programs and none merely employ the religions name as a full mark. Often the name of the religion or its adjectival equivalent is disclaimed apart from the mark.
There are plenty of other nuggets in these communications.
Basically, the point is that “Mormon” is generic. It cannot be owned, just as no faith tradition can be owned. In asking for the trademark, the Church was essentially attempting to use the state to help silence other faith traditions that claim a Mormon heritage.
Apostle Quintin Cooks makes the following argument. Instead of silencing others,
we’d much rather be talking about who we are than who we aren’t. [...] People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren’t interested in attacking someone else’s beliefs. [...] At the same time, we have an obligation to define ourselves rather than be defined by events and incidents that have nothing to do with us. It’s obvious we need to do more to help people understand the enormous differences that exist between our Church which is a global faith and these small polygamous groups.
Yet, many polygamist Mormons continued to regard the LDS Church as authoritative long after the split in hopes that one day the Church would re-establish the practice of polygamy. This is an intra-Mormon conversation, and I don’t see how these folks are any less Mormon than other “excommunicated” or inactive members just because a few generations have passed — particularly if they still self-identify as Mormon.
To argue against their Mormonness would be arguing against the idea of a Mormon culture and history. It’s an argument for the faith being all about official membership today, right now. Is this really the way the Church wants to go? It doesn’t seem like the way a “global” faith ought to behave.