When the bodies of five slain members of an Ohio religious commune were found last year, the LDS Church faced what a spokesman said was "a definite public-relations problem."
Initial press accounts associated both victims and killers with the Mormon Church.Church leaders in Salt Lake City and Ohio mobilized to spread the word that the commune was not affiliated with the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Instead, it was an offshoot of the Missouri-based Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Press conferences were held and a series of public meetings arranged to which Mormons were urged to invite their neighbors.
The church also paid $45,000 for a four-page color advertising insert in Cleveland's Plain Dealer that included photographs of such prominent Mormons as then-Cleveland Indians baseball player Cory Snyder, 1985 Miss America Sharlene Wells Hawkes and J.W. Marriott Jr., president and chairman of the board of Marriott Corp.
The campaign's message was clear: Mormons are true-blue Americans and Mormonism is a mainstream religion, not a cult, with wholesome, attractive, successful members.
As the Ohio events demonstrate, the LDS Church responds to public-relations problems as quickly as any image-conscious corporation. It commands a powerful public-relations apparatus that smoothly markets Mormonism to the world.
Mormons are sensitive about their image not only because they actively seek converts but also because of the suspicion and persecution that in the 19th century drove them to seek refuge in the Rocky Mountains.
"When we tell our history among ourselves, it's always about the world beating up on us," Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone Magazine, a periodical about Mormonism that is not affiliated with the church, said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.
In a series of television, radio and magazine ads begun in 1971, the church has marketed itself as a bastion of domestic strength and middle-class respectability.
The ad series, called "Homefront," shows poignant and humorous vignettes of domestic life. Encouraging patience and understanding between parents and children, they end with: "A thought from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - The Mormons."
The spots are produced by Bonneville Media Communications Inc., a church-owned advertising agency based in Salt Lake City.
But despite these efforts, Mormons still confront widespread suspicion.
For example, in an Arizona Republic poll that asked 604 adult residents of Maricopa County how favorably they viewed religions, Mormons ranked well above members of the Unification Church but just slightly above Muslims and below born-again Christians, Jews, Methodists, Baptists and Catholics.
One of the most universal negative associations with Mormonism is polygamy. The image persists, even though the church has rejected the practice, just as it has turned away from the theocracy and communal ownership of property that in the 19th century often were condemned as un-American.
Practiced for decades as a divinely sanctioned "principle" of Mormonism, polygamy brought repeated crackdowns by federal authorities.
In 1890, the church banned polygamy, although Mormon temple ceremonies to this day join Mormons in a spiritual form of "plural marriage."
Even now, polygamy is actively practiced in several small communities of fundamentalist Mormons in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Like the Ohio commune, the church disclaims any association with the polygamists, but the situation reinforces the image that polygamy is still part of Mormon culture.
The church also has been plagued by perceptions that it advocates discrimination against women and blacks. It officially opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and didn't permit blacks to ascend to its priesthood until 1978.
Ironically, young white-shirt-and-black-tie Mormon missionaries overseas often are viewed as representatives of the American way of life.
"The missionary effort emphasizes family life and American values," said Michael Barrett, a former missionary, who said non-Americans often regard Mormonism more as an expression of American culture than as a religion.
Barrett, the assistant general counsel to the CIA in McLean, Va., and a missionary in Argentina in the mid-1960s, said the church's image of middle-class respectability is attractive primarily to working-class people who have been exposed to the "American way of life" through television and movies.
"We got into a lot of doors simply because we were affluent-looking Americans and they wanted in their lives what we had," he said.
The Mormon image of epitomizing American values does not sell well in some nations. Particularly in Latin American countries that have strong leftist movements, it has brought the church conflict as well as converts.
The church recently has been a target of violence in Latin America.
According to the State Department, Mormon Church property or missionaries were the object of 24 attacks in 1989, including the slaying of two missionaries in Bolivia.
"When they start blowing up Mormon chapels overseas, they're not really attacking Mormons," said Barrett, attributing the violence to left-wing radicals. "They view it as attacking American culture."