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.
It's a sensitive issue for the Mormon church, which was persecuted in its early years. The initiative begun Thursday also details how it considers its 19th century practice of polygamy different from present-day practitioners like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
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“People have the right to worship as they choose, and we aren't interested in attacking someone else's beliefs,” LDS church apostle Quentin Cook said in a statement. “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.”
“Mormons,” he said, “have nothing whatsoever to do with this polygamous sect in Texas.”
The LDS church has not taken a stance on the April raid of the FLDS compound in Texas, subsequent child-custody battle and ongoing grand jury investigation.
“We don't know if there's abuse of children,” Cook said in an interview. “We would condemn that. … We don't know all the facts.”
Cook said the church's feeling that it had to do something was confirmed by a survey of 1,000 people it commissioned in May that found 36 percent thought the Texas compound was part of the LDS Church or the “Mormon Church” based in Salt Lake City.
Another 6 percent said the LDS and FLDS were partly related.
The centerpiece of the new campaign is a package of materials and video to be featured soon on the LDS Web site.
The video clips include interviews with video of Texas LDS church members — an orthopedic surgeon, a former Houston Oilers quarterback, a news anchor — to show that church members are part of the community as opposed to insular polygamist groups.
The Web site highlights other differences. There are no arranged marriages in the LDS church, and members “wear regular clothing and have contemporary hairstyles
Jan Shipps, a historian, said it's accurate to call sects like the FLDS “fundamentalist Mormons” because Mormonism is a new religious tradition with several expressions.
The LDS church sees it differently. The church's general counsel, Lance Wickman, wrote a letter to media executives this week asking that the term “fundamentalist Mormon” not be used. “Decades ago, the founders of that sect rejected the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were excommunicated,” he wrote, “and then started their own religion.”