Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on this new, lovely, coffee-table book which is artfully designed and beautifully laid out. As we shared one of the concepts with the missionaries who were visiting in our home recently, their eyes widened with an expanded understanding of how to talk about the gospel. Click the book image to purchase your copy today.
How Americans view us has become a hot topic for Latter-day Saints since Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy and Proposition 8 pushed Mormonism into the glare of the media spotlight. In the foreword to Gary C. Lawrence’s new book, How Americans View Mormonism , Seven Steps to Improve our Image, Senator Robert F. Bennett quotes something that Elder Neal A. Maxwell said to him, “The prophets always prophesied that the Church will emerge out of obscurity and darkness. As that is coming to pass, some members of the Church are finding that they prefer obscurity.”
Gary Lawrence’s message in this book is one that everybody in the Church ought to read who cares about spreading the gospel. It is for missionaries, bishops, stake presidents, and every member who puzzles over how to talk about their religion. This is because he deals with a very stark reality-our image isn’t as good as it ought to be. In fact, he says, “Few Americans have an accurate understanding of who we are and what we believe” and “The resulting ignorance is causing increasing antagonism and fear of us.” He quotes Robert Novak, who notes, ” Mormonism is the only minority category where bias in America has deepened.”
Based on Data
He isn’t basing this on personal insight or speculation, but on data. In February 2008, Lawrence Research, the author’s polling firm, interviewed 1000 randomly selected Americans by telephone and asked them an average of 24 minutes of questions on Mormons and Mormonism, certainly one of the largest such surveys ever undertaken.
He hoped to unearth the answers to questions we ask ourselves often, “Why don’t people understand us? ” “What is our image as Mormons and why?” “If we have an opportunity to say only one thing, what should it be?” “When referencing other faiths, should we talk about similarities or differences? “What is the major impediment to interest in the Church?”
More than that, however, he hoped to uncover solutions-what we as members can do to make a difference because if people don’t know about us or have misperceptions, we are the only ones who change that.
As Charles Kettering said, “Research is simply to find out what you are going to do when you can’t keep on doing what you are doing now.”
Results of the more than 160 variables his firm measured, according to Lawrence , brought a range of findings including “the gratifying, the sad, and the infuriating.” His data is fascinating, eye-opening, with information that ranges from what people know about us theologically to what general image they have of our institution and its people.
Lawrence explores how the perception of Latter-day Saints is shaped by age and economic group-and he clues us in to the reason some view us antagonistically.
He compares what people believe about God and life’s purpose to what they think Mormons believe-and the answers show that we haven’t done enough as individuals to dispel the ignorance of our friends and acquaintances who are not LDS.
For instance, 82% of those surveyed believe in life after death, but only 57% perceive that Latter-day Saints believe that! When asked if religious revelation is still possible today, 83% of those surveyed believe that it is, but only 57% think that Mormons see it that way.
If those numbers are astonishing about the ignorance of Americans about Mormonism, nothing underscores it like this. Despite the implications in the formal name of the Church, when they were asked: “To the best of your understanding, what is the main claim of Mormonism?” and no choices were given, only 14% could tell the interviewers about the idea of restoration, re-established original church, or anything synonymous. As Lawrence says, that’s an 86% ignorance factor .
He said, “similarly, in the summer of 2007, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a national survey and asked respondents what one word best describes their impression of the Mormon religion. Not one person suggested the words restored, original, re-established or any synonymous expression. Less than 1%, probably our own members said the word true.
“The major message we’ve been trying to send the world does not pop up in a simple word-association exercise about us,” Lawrence notes.
Six General Perception Problems
He wrote that there are six general groupings of feelings and perceptions that shape the problematic side of Mormonism’s image and standing in America . These are:
The Ignorance Factor. Questions about our basic beliefs-whether we are Christians, whether we believe the Bible, our relationship to Jesus Christ, acceptance of historical Christian traditions, the role of Joseph Smith and other prophets, etc.-are driven mostly by a simple lack of knowledge, although some ill will may be involved.
The Polygamy Factor. The key word is confusion-confusion about the facts, confusion about the history, confusion about breakaway groups. It has become an excuse not to entertain further information.
The Power Factor. The central suspicion and fear about us is whether we would use force to reach religious goals. This is fed and exacerbated by the negative traits a sizeable segment of Americans believe apply to us.
The Weird Factor. We are a people apart and we are different, as the Lord intended, and the unfamiliar-from our belief in a pre-mortal existence to our ordinances for the dead-might be seen as weird, as the things of God are often foolishness unto the world. These are generally harmless impressions, but if people also harbor suspicions about power, then weirdness will feed it.
The Secretive Factor. Centered on rumors about temple worship, this factor becomes a problem the more we keep to ourselves. Even positive traits such as self-reliance and taking care of our own can contribute to this perception if we are not involved in our communities.
The Exclusionary Factor. Any time a prophet delivers to the world the message God has delivered to him, it follows that the prophet will be mocked and that those who believe him will be viewed as thinking themselves better than others. Antagonism often follows.
Exposure to Mormonism
Among the most basic questions Lawrence Research asked was how many Mormons their respondents actually knew. All but 2%f of the nation had heard of Mormons, but when asked how many individual Mormons they actually knew, 37% admitted they didn’t know any, 21% said they knew one or two and only 10% said they knew many.
Gary said, “Sometimes we members think that although the world may not be beating a path to our door, people generally respect us. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Our image is upside down. It was bad enough at the beginning of 2007 when Gallup reported that 42% of Americans held a favorable impression of us and 46% an unfavorable one, but events during that year have driven our numbers down even more: only 37% of those outside our faith now view us favorably, and almost half (49%) have an unfavorable impression.For every person who strongly likes us, there are more than four who strongly dislike us.
So what did people like most and least about Latter-day Saints? What were their first impression images?
Things Americans Like Most about Mormons and Mormonism
Family-oriented-21% Helpful (11%) Strong in their beliefs (11%) General positive (8%) Friendly, gentle, kind (6%) High moral standards (4%)
Things Americans Like Least about Mormons and Mormonism
Polygamy (14%) General negative (9%) Doctrines in general (6%) Beliefs about Jesus (5%) Joseph Smith & Mormon history (4%) Status of women (4%) Exclusionary (4%)
When the researchers read a dozen or so words or phrases half the respondents were asked whether or not they felt each word or phrase described the Mormon Church. The other half was asked whether these words or phrases described a Mormon. On the whole the individual members fared better than the institution in this evaluation, probably because it is easier to describe people than institutions.
Word Associations: The Members
Friendly (88%) Strong family values (87%) Kind (86%) Willing to share with the needy (80%) Spiritual (79%) Honest (78%) Happy (78%) Normal (76%) Gentle (76%) They can be trusted (72%) Patriotic (72%) Good leadership skills (64%) Seekers of truth (55%) Blind followers (45%) They keep to themselves (45%) Narrow-minded (41%) Self-righteous (39%) Fanatical (38%) Brainwashed by their leaders (38%) Friendly as long as you are interested in their church (34%) Pushy (29%) Nave (26%) Rich (25%) Think they are better than others (23%) Arrogant (20%) Poorly Educated (6%) Lazy (4%) Poor (3%)
Word Associations: The Church
Friendly (80%) Strict (78%) Teaches high moral standards (75%) Good (75%) Controlling (57%) Supports the Constitution (56%) Sharp business people (55%) Powerful (55%) Wealthy (52%) Intelligent leaders (52%) Mysterious (49%) Secretive (42%) Tolerant (46%) Open (44%) Weird beliefs (44%) Women are second class citizens (43%) Uses pressure tactics (39%) Pushy (38%) Attitude of superiority (36%) Classy (33%) Power hungry (26%) Contributes generously to non-Mormon charities (25%) Racist (16%) A church to be feared (16%) Evil (4%)
This snapshot of people’s perceptions of the Church and its members is disturbing for a number of reasons, according to Lawrence . For instance, the low 25% score on “contributes generously to non-Mormon charities” shows that even when the Church gets publicity for its efforts, as it did with its relief efforts in the wake of Katrina, “the resulting positive image apparently did not stick.”
Even that the church only got a 75% score on that it seeks to good is unfortunately. You would assume that it would be a no-brainer that a religious institution would intrinsically be about good.
What Can We Do?
This survey and Lawrence ‘s book are not a call to worry, but to think differently about the way we explain ourselves and our beliefs to others. Tomorrow we’ll give Gary Lawrence’s solutions to this knotty image problem.