MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Mormons have an image problem. That's what Mormon leaders confirmed when they commissioned a nationwide survey. The survey found that most people questioned had heard about that raid on the Texas ranch, the one owned by the polygamist group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One third of those questioned- one third believes those FLDS polygamists are Mormons. Well they're not. That has triggered a Mormon public relations campaign which essentially says this, they are not Mormons, and we are not polygamists. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.
HOWARD BERKES: The leaders at Mormon headquarters here, in Salt Lake City are used to being misunderstood and maligned. But even they were surprised when most of the 1,000 people surveyed, didn't seem to know the difference between FLDS polygamists and Mormons. Mike Otterson (ph) the spokesman for the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mr. MIKE OTTERSON (Spokesman, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): We're certainly aware of the fact that there is some confusion out there. But when that comes back as three out of every four people either not knowing that there's a difference or actually thinking that there's a connections, that's -that's sobering. Probably the best way to counter that is to show them who Mormons really are.
Ms. JILL: I'm Jill and I do Community Theater here in Belmont.
Dr. MARSHALL HAYES: And I'm Dr. Marshall Hayes (ph) an orthopedic surgeon here in Belmont.
BERKES: This is one of seven videos posted on YouTube and the official Mormon website depicting average Mormons in Texas families with just one wife or mom. No child brides. Living in conventional homes, engaged in their communities and open about their lives and faith.
Ms. JILL: We're members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that makes all the difference in everything that we do.
Dr. HAYES: It's been a tremendous asset to us to have our children raised in a community where family values and faith is so strong.
BERKES: A church lawyer also sent a letter to more than 80 news organizations noting that Mormon is a registered trade mark. The letter discourages the use of the phrase "Fundamentalist Mormon," which is what the FLDS and other polygamists call themselves. And it suggests phrases like 'breakaway Mormon sect," are misleading. Kelly McBride agrees. She's a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute in Florida.
Ms. KELLY MCBRIDE (Ethicist, Poynter Institute, Florida): The Mormon church in general, when we refer to that means the church that is headquartered in Salt Lake City, and founded by Joseph Smith. So to use that word to describe a group that is not affiliated with the main Mormon Church, naturally confuses people.
BERKES: Confusion may also stem from the fact that Mormons and FLDS polygamists share what historian Jan Shipps describes as a common religious tradition. Shipps is not Mormon, but has spent 50 years studying Mormon history.
Ms. JAN SHIPPS (Mormon Historian): They believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, they accept the book of Mormon, they share that much and they even share a period of practicing plural marriage. That leads to the real confusion.
BERKES: There's also the fact that 1890, decided by Mormons as the year the faith abandoned polygamy, but even high-ranking Mormon leaders had multiple wives until 1904. Some Mormons continue the practice at least 15 years after that. And polygamy is still part of Mormon theology notes historian Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon scholar.
Mr. RICHARD BUSHMAN (Historian): A man can be sealed to two women. If one of them dies and he marries again, so there's sort of an implicit heavenly plural marriage that stays still authorized and acknowledged. So at the very best we're caught in kind of an ambiguous situation and people probably pick that up.
BERKES: The new Mormon public relations effort does not address these ambiguities. But they're irrelevant, insists Mormon spokesman, Mike Otterson, because there's no Mormon polygamy in this life today.
Mr. OTTERSON: There is absolutely no connection between these polygamist groups and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We're not the same. We don't embrace the same belief system. We don't act in the way that they act. We certainly don't live in compounds. And its remarkable isn't it, in the 21st century that we even have to say that.
BERKES: What's remarkable given all the potential for confusion is that more than half of those surveyed, did not connect Mormons with FLDS polygamists. But Mormons are constantly seeking converts around the globe and they're still considered a cult by some Christians, especially Southern Baptists. So they don't want anyone they're polygamists anymore. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.