Mormons have “fundamental” PR problem
The Mormon faith — or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it is officially called — has a “fundamental” PR problem.
It may have renounced polygamy over a century ago but the breakaway sects which continue to practice plural marriage are the ones that often catch the public eye, leading to the popular misconception that all Mormon men have, or strive to have, more than one (often underage) wife.
This was driven home to me as investigators late last week swooped on a polygamist compound in a remote part of west Texas in response to an abuse complaint.
The compound belongs to followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and is linked to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which broke away from the main branch of the faith decades ago.
Over 400 children were yanked from the Texas facility over the course of the weekend and into the early part of this week, providing a riveting spectacle in a dusty corner of the state.
Television footage showed young girls in long, apparently homemade “pioneer dresses” boarding buses. Some who looked to be in their early teens carried infant children. Texas child welfare officials said it was their biggest operation ever.
As all of this was unfolding my wife happened to mention to a friend of hers in South Africa — a friend who is well-educated, a journalist and a devout Christian — that I was covering the story. Her friend’s response? “Those Mormons, they’re weird. I don’t answer the door when they knock,” she said. My wife said as far as her friend was concerned, Mormons were Mormons and that was that.
The renegade polygamist sects whose followers number several thousand (some estimates are as high as 40,000 or more) are not knocking on doors in Johannesburg. But the perception is clearly there: Mormons are the funny fellows taking multiple wives and living in isolated retreats in remote patches of America.
In places like Texas, the mainstream Mormon faith — based in Salt Lake City, Utah — has to contend with plenty of suspicion anyway.
Southern Baptists and other evangelicals widely regard Mormonism as an almost sinister cult which is successfully competing for souls among the faithful. They regard Joseph Smith, who founded the faith in New York state in 1830, as a false prophet. Southern Baptists are taught in Sunday School to be wary of that “knock on the door” from Mormon missionaries.
Against this backdrop the last thing the mainstream LDS needs is more bad press stemming from its fundementalist kin. The Texas media is abuzz about the probe and court documents alleging a compound rife with sexual abuse and girls being forced into “spiritual marriage” after reaching puberty.
One also gets the impression that Texas authorities were chomping at the bit to take the place down, given the scale of the operation in response to complaints allegedly made by one person.
But it has all served to reinforce popular stereotypes of the Mormon faith — and that must be causing discomfit in Salt Lake City.