by Maurine Proctor
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
Strong in their beliefs (11%)
General positive (8%)
Friendly, gentle, kind (6%)
High moral standards (4%)
Things Americans Like Least
about Mormons and Mormonism
General negative (9%)
Doctrines in general (6%)
Beliefs about Jesus (5%)
Joseph Smith & Mormon history (4%)
Status of women (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.
Strong family values (87%)
Willing to share with the needy (80%)
They can be trusted (72%)
Good leadership skills (64%)
Seekers of truth (55%)
Blind followers (45%)
They keep to themselves (45%)
Brainwashed by their leaders (38%)
Friendly as long as you are interested in their church (34%)
Think they are better than others (23%)
Poorly Educated (6%)
Teaches high moral standards (75%)
Supports the Constitution (56%)
Sharp business people (55%)
Intelligent leaders (52%)
Weird beliefs (44%)
Women are second class citizens (43%)
Uses pressure tactics (39%)
Attitude of superiority (36%)
Power hungry (26%)
Contributes generously to non-Mormon charities (25%)
A church to be feared (16%)
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
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
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.