How Americans View Mormonism

We spent an hour with Gary Lawrence last night. He was gracious enough to come up to visit our stake in Camarillo from his home in Orange County. Dr. Lawrence is an American opinion pollster who also happens to be a Latter-day Saint. He has been travelling around the church sharing the results of a poll he conducted in the spring of 2007 on American’s perception of Latter-day Saints in the United States.

He published a book in 2008 with the findings of his poll, How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image. Dr. Lawrence received a PhD in communications psychology from Stanford University in 1972. He said that of over twenty doctoral candidates in his group, he was the only LDS, Republican, conservative hawk among them. So he knows a little about being in the minority.

Lawrence Research

Now if you know anything about recent events in California, you’ll recognize that Gary’s business, Lawrence Research was the opinion polling company that was heavily involved in Proposition 8. Gary was also the state LDS grassroots director for the Protect Marriage coalition. Brother Lawrence, who has served as a bishop has spent over 35 years studying opinions and behaviors of the American public.

From the results of his survey, Dr. Lawrence maintains that the misconceptions, distortions, and untruths being told about Mormons have slowed the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that the average member is best positioned to turn things around. By the way, the name of his next book, due from Deseret Book later this year is “What Part of Our Name Don’t You Understand?”

Survey Results

For me, the most interesting result of the survey was that our perceived image is upside down. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable impression of Mormons. Only thirty-seven percent had a favorable impression. They say that we have weird beliefs and are secretive. Yet they also say we are good neighbors, hard workers, believe in clean living, have high moral standards and help others.

Lawrence said that thirty-seven percent of all Americans do not know a Mormon, and fifty-five percent of all Americans do not know an active Mormon. In fact, those who know one Mormon have a worse opinion of us than those who do not know any Mormons. We are viewed unfavorably more than Jews or Baptists (3.5 to 1) and Catholics (2 to 1). Mormons, less than 1 to 1. That’s a terrible ratio.

Negative Image

Simple ignorance is often blamed for Mormonism’s negative image, but Gary also concludes that it is driven by fear — fear of a supposed political agenda, wealth, organizational ability, unwavering doctrine, and a unique vocabulary that is often misunderstood. He gave some wonderful examples but I’ll have to defer in sharing some of the better ones until I receive his book that I ordered from Deseret Book.

His book explains that individual members in their daily interactions with others are the key. In his presentation, which he has probably delivered dozens of times, he pointed out that friendly and natural conversations, the facts, simple claims, individual latitude, non-threatening invitations and gentle mentoring are the ways Mormons can combat distortions, improve our image, and spread the gospel.

Unique Vocabulary

A central claim of our church is that we have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Gary explained that this phrase is not well understood by those outside our faith. They equate the word restore as something you do to an old car or a piece of old furniture. He suggested that a better phrase to use would be: “We claim to be the re-established Christian Church.” I like that. It is simpler and easier to understand.

He even broke it down for us into three bite-sized pieces: 1) Christ organized a church. 2) Men changed it and 3) It has been brought back. Amazingly, 84 percent of Americans have had exposure to our church, yet only 14 percent can tell you that this is our main differentiating claim from other Christian churches. While people may not agree with our claim, we want and need them to understand it.

Meaning of Gospel

They can then decide for themselves how they will respond to that claim. But if they never get the real message, how can they make a legitimate choice? Naturally, some people will reject the gospel truth once it has been presented to them. And that’s another word that we use differently from the rest of Christianity. To us, the gospel means more than the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul.

Most Mormons equate gospel to mean the overarching plan of happiness that was presented in our pre-earth life. We have come to see the gospel as more than just a theology, but as a way of life, and that it encompasses all truth that we embrace. But in reality, the gospel is the good news of the doctrine of Christ, that all will be resurrected and that we can be forgiven of sins through repentance and ordinances.

Higher Education

That’s why we can say that the fullness of the gospel is contained in the Book of Mormon even though there are many additional doctrines we believe that are only found outside the Book or Mormon. In fact, some within our church have gone so far as to claim that obtaining a degree of higher education is a part of the gospel. Does that mean that early saints and prophets without a B.A. degree are not saved?

Of course not; that would be a ridiculous example. While we believe in continuing education and encourage our members to get all the education we can, an advanced degree is not a requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. A high school diploma is not required. There is no requirement for any type of certified education to meet God’s conditions to enter into his kingdom; only obedience to his laws.

Mormon Scholars Testify

In our Mormon culture, besides placing great emphasis on education, we also hold those who have received advanced degrees and yet remained faithful in very high esteem. Dr. Lawrence has shared his testimony in greater detail on the website, Mormon Scholars Testify, which was created by another visitor to our stake, Dr. Daniel C. Petersen, speaking about BYU’s involvement in the Dead Sea scrolls.

My fellow blogger Steve Faux introduced me to the site a few years back when he was asked to share his thoughts and feelings about being a believing Mormon who teaches evolution at the University level. I have watched participation grow over the years until there are now more than 200 testimonies recorded there. Compare that to twenty being promoted on the opposing site Ex-Mormon scholars testify.

Opposition in All Things

One of our fundamental doctrines is that we believe there must be opposition in all things. I love the Internet for the very reason that it allows us to see the very best and the very worst of the extremes on just about any issue. I’m not a scholar and will probably never have an advanced degree, but I have come to appreciate both sides of the debate on controversial subjects I have written about over the years.

I can judge for myself when someone is presenting the truth in a distorted manner because I have been counseled over the years to study things out and come to my own conclusions about the truth of an issue. Some things can never be proven and will have to wait until the next life to determine who is right and who is wrong. That’s one of the purposes of life – to exercise faith and choose what we believe.

Choose What We Believe

I recommend you read the testimonies of Dr. Lawrence, Dr. Petersen, S. Faux and any others that you may recognize. They come from a variety of disciplines such as the Arts, Business, Management, Accounting, History, Religion, Social Science, Language, Literature, Law, Medicine, Psychology, Philosophy, Science, Mathematics and Engineering. Yes, Mormons believe in the value of education.

I hope this helps to dispel any misconceptions that Mormons are ignorant, closed-minded, brain-washed or uneducated. We do not follow our leaders blindly, nor do we worship our prophets, living or dead. But we do value loyalty and respect to those who we sustain as prophets and apostles. It is my testimony that they are leading us to Christ. I choose to follow their direction and counsel for my family.

For a great discussion of our image, or rather reputation, listen to what Michael Otterson had to say to Robert Millet on this episode of Mormon Identity on The Mormon Channel.

8 thoughts on “How Americans View Mormonism”

  1. Dr. Lawrence’s work is really fascinating.

    Generally speaking, it indicates that Americans are less than impressed with Mormons and the LDS Church. That hurts.

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen comments to the effect that it just means that most Americans are opposed to righteous behavior or some other demeaning comment.

    I think what it really means is that we are terrible at communicating with those outside our faith.

    Think what most Americans perceive of Mormons . . Polygamy . . missionaries that knock uninvited on your door . . non-Christian . . . Gold Bible . . . Joseph Smith . . . keep to themselves . . . secretive ordinances in temples.

    It is a toxic mix. The problem is that it makes us appear as if we are something different and just plain strange.

    I personally think we need to step back and figure how to improve things.

    My own idea is that we need to be far more involved in our communities. We tend to spend most of our time with each other. Maybe we need to interact more with our neighbors.

    Anyone else have any thoughts?

  2. Great site. I think we’ve spoken but can’t recall when, do you? I’m Karen with MGF–

    Gary’s research is compelling and what we’ve seen and experienced online for years–thanks for helping to turn that around. I have a great deal of respect for Gary and Dan Pterson, and all the rest, and like your take and approach here…


    PS We should be linking to each other from various sites

  3. I joined the Church in 1982 at age 19 and I remain the only Mormon in my extensive Irish Catholic family. Over the past thirty years I have spoken to my family members about the Book of Mormon, Christ, genealogy, Temples and eternal families. However, all of the good that I have done has been polluted by the tendency of LDS culture to mix politics with religion. This mixing has created the impression that Mormons are equal to or worse than the Baptists and Evangelicals who use social issues for political gain. Catholics (practicing or lapsed) do not always understand the mixing of religion, nationalism, and politics to such an extent as is found in Mormonism. It dilutes and degrades the beauty of the Gospel message.

    If one was to look objectively at Mormon culture, one could easily deduce that politics and the family were more important than Jesus Christ and his Atonement. We are not very good at preaching Christ. It is very simple to understand why they don’t view us favorably.

  4. Mormon scholars is nothing more than a way to show the world that, “hey, look people, there are smart people that believe in the LDS church too.” It’s as if a learned persons’ testimony is more important than the average mormon joes.

    Also, about 95% of the ‘testimonies’ on the site are staff from BYU, go figure. Keep your job and join the mormon scholar testify club.

  5. Closet Doubter

    Tim, did Lawrence talk about the negative affect Prop 8 has had on the church in California (perceived or real)? I’m hearing antidotal information that baptisms in California are down since Prop 8, the cost of supporting it is way higher the dollars spent.

  6. Tim:


    Thanks for the links.

    I want to assure Dave (comment above) that Professors can have testimonies, but they are certainly NOT stronger than others. Also, many different universities are represented at “Mormon Scholars Testify,” and the scholars are from many differing fields of expertise. Dave’s figure of “95% from BYU” is nothing but a bad guess.

    Mormonism is NOT in the business of telling people to avoid legitimate fields of scholarship. Thus, the Church has accomplished scholars in all major fields of science, literature, economics, political science, medicine, etc. I think it is important to combat the misleading stereotype that Mormons are feeble minded. They are not.

  7. Steve: Your observations are right on. Clickish is another word that comes to mind. We do tend to socialize mainly among ourselves. I looked at my Facebook friends. Of the nearly 600 friends, about 450 of them are LDS – current and former stakes. The rest are family, high school classmates, current and former co-workers and a few from the blogging community. Your suggestion that we become more involved in the community is probably the best advice we can follow. Thanks for sharing.

    Karen: I wrote about the More Good Foundation a couple of times here on Latter-day Commentary back in early 2008. We may have communicated back when Larry Richman’s LDSOnline site was active on Ning. I have watched the MGF grow over the years and am gratified to see the good stuff that keeps showing up. I think the amount of good content about our faith that now shows up in a Google search can be directly attributed to the MGF. I believe that was the vision expressed by Jim Engebretsen when he founded it. You are part of a great team. You’re right; I should link to more stuff on MGF sites. Future essays will probably reflect that. Thanks for the heads up.

    Michael: I don’t know if the negative impression of some towards the church can be traced to the mixing of politics and religion. The data just don’t bear that out. I can’t wait to receive my copy of Dr. Lawrence’s book to understand the real causes better. I also disagree that we are not very good at preaching Christ. I have seen the emphasis on Christ being preached from our pulpits and taught from our lesson manuals focus more and more on the Savior in my lifetime. Perhaps a few of the older generation have not caught it but our youth know who it really is that we worship. Our public opinion and perception is changed only by what people see among our members. How focused are we on the Savior and his teachings? That is why the Brethren keep focusing on this from the pulpit over and over again. We still are not the living examples that we need to be, but we are getting better.

    Dave: Your statistics are off. I counted only 45% (108 out of 244) of the testimonies there as being from BYU. That’s only because this is Dr. Peterson’s site and he is from BYU. Give it some time. Things move slow in the world of academia. I hope I made it clear in my essay that having an advanced degree is not a prerequisite for membership in the kingdom of God. Dr. Peterson just happens to be a scholar, which is why he started the site for scholars. He specifically expressed that he hoped to see other sites like it such as “Mormon Farmers Testify”, “Mormon Pharmacists Testify”, “Mormon Plumbers Testify,” and “Mormon Police Officers Testify.” Maybe I should start one for Mormon computer guys.

    Closet Doubter: Dr. Lawrence only mentioned a few things in passing about Prop 8. His research was completed before Prop 8 became news. I’m sure you know that baptisms have been declining for years. I don’t think that trend is related to Prop 8. As Elder M. Russell Ballard has said, “The Lord has never given us a mandate to be the biggest church — in fact, he has said our numbers will be comparatively few — but he has asked that we commit ourselves to living and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” A good scripture to support this is 1 Nephi 14:12.

    I know some people are determined to tie the success of our missionary effort to the truthfulness of the LDS Church. “If this is really God’s church,” they say. “Then why aren’t more people joining? Why are the conversion rates decreasing?” The answer is simple: people have their agency. The Lord never promised that the whole world — or even the majority of its population — would join his church. He only promised they would all be given the opportunity, if not in this life, in the next.” Source: McKay Coppins, 22 Jan 2010, Mormon Times.

    S.Faux: You’re welcome. We go way back and I appreciate our continued long-distance friendship. I don’t get over to your site as often as I used to. In fact, I don’t get out much anymore at all, meaning I’m not as active as I once was in visiting all my fellow bloggers, reading and commenting on their essays. I know I’ve missed some good stuff, but the good thing about blogging is that the essays will still be here for later reading, when the demands of life are not so pressing. I appreciate your assertion that Mormons are not feeble minded and that we have a responsibility to combat that negative image by producing works to prove it. I am trying to do my part and I know you are. Keep up the good work.

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