Readers of my earlier Beliefnet column, "The M Word, will know that I am not surprised by what the Brethren did. But I am surprised that so many of the questions about this change in terminology that have come to me have been about whether this is all part of a new "LDS marketing strategy." Many reporters also asked whether this change is a reaction to charges that Mormonism is not Christian.
My answer to the first is that whether it is proclamation or marketing is in the eye of the beholder. As to the second, in laying titular claim to "The Church of Jesus Christ," the First Presidency is affirming Mormonism's essential Christian-ness.
This faith community may well be moving toward being a part of the nation's common religious culture. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be the sixth-largest church in the United States--which it now is--without moving in that direction. But it is not moving toward Protestantism and/or Catholicism. Instead, with this move, the First Presidency is pointing to their church's most fundamental doctrinal assertion, declaring anew that the institution they lead is the restored church of Christ.
What they are doing is just that simple--and just that profound. Consider what the Brethren propose as an alternative contraction to The Church of Jesus Christ: "The Church" (note the initial uppercase letters). To those who pay close attention to such things, this is restating Mormonism's exclusive restoration claim.
Most of these media people are likely to tour Temple Square. There, a huge and impressive corps of appealing representatives of the church will greet them. They will see the magnificent Mormon Temple and tour the Mormon Tabernacle, perhaps hearing the famed Tabernacle Choir. They may go through the extraordinary new Conference Center (which seats 21,000 church members at each semi-annual conference session), tour the Joseph Smith Building (named for the church's first prophet), and visit the 28-story Church Office Building. Featuring exhibits of the lives of Latter-day Saints from all over the world, the LDS. Museum of History and Art will be open, as will the Family History Center, which houses the largest collection of genealogical records ever amassed.
Because so many Saints have served overseas as missionaries and mastered languages other than English, the Mormon guides will be able to share the story of the Latter-day Saints with visitors in their native tongues. They will use the approved nomenclature, and if it is used in even half the stories about Mormonism that the reporters file, it will take hold. Eventually, in a process not unlike the change in language usage that has occurred in the areas of race and gender, the new terminology will become the norm.
But visitors to the Olympics are bound to discover that Salt Lake City is not merely "The Church" writ large. For more than a century, Latter-day Saints pointed to their belief that they are the "Gathering of Israel" by calling everyone outside the church "Gentile." Church authorities have been discouraging the use of this designation for nearly 40 years, however. By and large, Saints have complied with their wishes.
It is probable that the claim of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the new shortened name form is not likely to be of great concern to the people who put up that sign. Nor will it bother the substantial proportion of the non-Mormon population whose religious identity is more negation of Mormonism than it is positive commitment to another faith. But in Salt Lake City and its suburbs, there are also large numbers of conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, and members of Orthodox communities. A goodly proportion of those people may reject the church's new, shortened name out of hand.
Ordinarily, the division in this city between those who are Mormon and those who are not is fairly subtle. But the spotlight being trained on the Utah capital with the approach of the Olympic Games seems to be emphasizing those divisions. The reactions of other faith communities to this new name-change could make them even more evident.
In fact, the alteration in the shortened form of the church's name could have unforeseen consequences. Everyone expects Mormon dissidents and the self-proclaimed Gentiles in the community to make their presence known through organized protests and other means. And people also expect the Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians to warn tourists that Mormonism is not Christian. But nobody looked for protracted public combat about whose church really is the Church of Jesus Christ. Now, such a struggle will probably take place. If it does, it could end up adding an unanticipated sort of competition to the venue for the 2002 Olympic Games.