Like many others I found it hard to avoid the humor in the Church’s statement downplaying the use of LDS and Mormon. This isn’t the first time the Church has tried to get people to stop using such terms. Pres. Hinckley back in 1995 changed the logo design of the Church’s name to emphasize Jesus Christ. He also in 2001 in a letter sent to all wards asked members to refer to ourselves as Latter-day Saints and to use the full name of the Church.
Of course Hinckley, being rather media savvy, knew this wasn’t going to be fully adopted. Likewise Pres. Nelson, who has now re-emphasized this request, most likely knows people will still use the nicknames. The reasons are fairly clear. Brevity is the main reason. The other reason, as many noted, is that Mormon and LDS can be adjectives as well as nouns. So for modifying a word, they work in a way most other terms don’t. Of course Hinckley had anticipated that in 2001 and suggested we use Latter-day Saint.
While it’s easy to make fun of the request, it’s also clear this is a long standing issue. It gets repeated every few years. Why this is important seems clear. Many people, hearing just occasional references in the press, don’t realize how central to our faith Jesus Christ is. So from a missionary perspective, it’s important to emphasize that. That’s why Hinckley changed the logo back in 1995. It also carries with it a subtle framing of doctrine so that members in our thoughts focus more on Jesus Christ.
The biggest reason for the change though is to distinguish ourselves from other groups broadly in the restorationist movement. It’s worth noting that several years ago the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renamed themselves the Community of Christ. While I suspect that was primarily done to emphasize Christ, it also helped clarify their distinctiveness from our church.
In recent years various polygamist groups, often tied to distasteful practices or crimes, have been confused with our Church under the rubric of “Mormon.” Asking someone who knows little or nothing about us to recognize the difference between FLDS and LDS is probably asking a bit much. By emphasizing the full name, we avoid the ambiguities of “Mormon” when many different sects consider themselves Mormon in some fashion.
Will this all work? Probably not. Again brevity in discussion is a huge matter. The full name of the Church is anything but short. After Pres. Hinckley’s re-emphasis of the full name of the Church, the Church again embraced our nickname during the so-called “Mormon moment” around the time of Mitt Romney’s presidential run. I suspect we’ll see a similar cycle here. It’s worth noting though that hoping the press emphasizes our full name isn’t really expecting nicknames to disappear. Further there really are pretty good reasons to emphasize the full name.