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Contrasting religious practice

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The LDS general conference week provides a view into contrasting religious practices.

The LDS general conference week provides a view into contrasting religious practices.

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This weekend members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will gather for what many believe will be a historic conference weekend. With three vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Mormons will watch with anticipation, love and faith as the LDS Church makes orderly and what many believe to be inspired choices about its leadership. More importantly, the approximately 15.5 million LDS faithful will receive words of inspiration and wisdom from their leaders helping them to live better lives.

Conference weekend stands in stark contrast to the sadness I felt this week as I watched CNN's prime-time television program “This is Life with Lisa Ling: Children of the Prophet.” The program features two of Warren Jeffs’ children. Both have alleged the imprisoned leader of a polygamous sect sexually abused them as children. In 2011 Jeffs was convicted of two felony counts of child sexual assault and today he sits in a federal prison. His is a tale of darkness, and I hurt for the victims. I also hurt for the way his actions are associated with the Mormon Church.

For those close to the LDS faith, when it comes to polygamy there is no confusion. The LDS Church abandoned the practice of plural marriage 125 years ago. LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said in October 1998 general conference, “I wish to state categorically that this church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this church. Most of them have never been members. They are in violation of the civil law.” He continued, “If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the church can impose … There is no such thing as a ‘Mormon Fundamentalist.’ It is a contradiction to use the two words together.”

For journalists the distinction should also be completely clear. The Associated Press Stylebook (which most media outlets follow) says in reference to splinter groups of the LDS faith, “The term Mormon is not properly applied to the other Latter Day Saints churches that resulted from the split after (Joseph) Smith’s death. This includes polygamous groups. The LDS Church renounced polygamy in 1890.”

For Mormons the problem originates with the casual observer who doesn’t associate closely with members of the faith. If you live in Utah it can be an out-of-state business associate or someone you meet on vacation. If you live outside Utah it can be in everyday interaction with people unfamiliar with the faith. Understandably, people see the news reports and documentaries of multiple wives, pioneerlike dress, underage marriage and Warren Jeffs and immediately associate them with the red rock in Southern Utah, the skyline of Salt Lake City and the large missionary force of the Mormon faith. Very quickly, admirable traits of both the LDS Church and polygamous sects are forgotten because of Jeffs' crimes.

What should they associate with the Mormon faith?

I think Michael Otterson, who heads public affairs for the LDS Church, answered this well in a column he wrote for the Washington Post. He said, “Being a faithful Mormon is to live a life of commitment, marital fidelity, parental responsibility if blessed with children, honesty and health consciousness. It is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as best they can. It also means recognizing that most of the time we fall short of our own ideals and those that Jesus Christ set for us, but that through repentance and forgiveness we can start afresh and do better.”

Conference weekend is a great time, whether you are LDS or not, to contemplate what it means to be a person of faith. Because of the CNN feature story on Warren Jeffs' children, it’s also a good time to remind people about the differences between the LDS faith and polygamous sects. Even more important, it's a good time to help anyone who has been harmed by Jeffs' crimes.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.