Already riled by the HBO series "Big Love," the LDS Church this week faced a new public relations problem as the story of fugitive polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs became worldwide news.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, criticized media outlets from CNN to Fox News for not adequately distinguishing between the mainstream LDS Church and polygamist groups, particularly the sect led by Jeffs.
Jeffs is president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which has historically occupied by the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. He made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list last Saturday, triggering a week-long deluge of media coverage on the FLDS and polygamy in general.
"Too often news reports refer to these groups as 'Mormons' or 'Mormon sects,' the statement posted on the church's Web site said. The reference is "misleading and confusing" because it implies an association with the LDS Church, the statement continues.
The LDS Church abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890 as a condition of statehood and excommunicates members who embrace it or other fundamentalist philosophies.
The statement said there is no such thing as a "Mormon Fundamentalist" or "Mormon Sect" and suggests a more correct term would be "polygamist sects."
However, such a general term does not distinguish groups with beliefs rooted in the teachings of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, from other polygamous groups around the world. There are, for instance, Christian fundamentalists who also practice polygamy.
Those who follow Smith's earliest teachings, from independents to groups such as the FLDS, have used the self-description of "fundamentalist Mormons" since about the 1940s.
They believe they are adhering to a more pure theology than that practiced by the mainstream LDS Church, which they consider "out of order."
The LDS Church has itself struggled with the term "Mormon." In 2001, the church asked media outlets to avoid referring to it as the "Mormon Church" but okaying its use in phrases such as "Mormon pioneers."
The LDS Church-owned Deseret Morning News refers to Jeffs' group as the "Fundamentalist LDS."
In its statement, the LDS Church criticized specific stories such as a May 2 Fox News segment that implied members of the faith would oppose a crackdown on polygamy.
The LDS Church also blasted CNN for imposing the face of Jeffs over a photo of the Salt Lake Temple, saying that implied a connection between the two.
"This is not just careless editing, but highly offensive to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," the statement said. "Warren Jeffs is not and never has been a member of the [LDS Church]."
HBO does much the same thing in "Big Love," its new series about a polygamous family living in the Salt Lake Valley. Bill Hendrickson, the main character, has an office that overlooks the temple and he is often shown gazing out at the building.
Finally, the church said it had received calls from several reporters seeking comment on Jeffs and his FBI listing.
"There is no reason why the Church would wish to comment about a legal action concerning a group with which it has no affiliation or connection," it said.
It also reiterated several statements by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley disavowing the fundamentalists. In 1998, Hinckley flatly told CNN's Larry King that "there are no Mormon fundamentalists.''