Perceptions of Mormonism

August 9, 2010 | 72 comments
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The Deseret News posted an article (“Mormons need to work to increase favor“) summarizing remarks by Gary Lawrence at the recent FAIR Conference held last week in Sandy. He addressed perceptions of Mormonism, based on data gathered by his polling firm. We’ve got some problems, it seems.

Here are a few hightlights from the summary:

  • Five times as many Americans have a strongly unfavorable view of Mormons as have a strongly favorable view of us.
  • About three-quarters of those polled are unsure whether Mormons believe the Bible or are Christians.
  • The overall favorable to unfavorable measure is much worse for Mormons than for other broad faith communities such as Jews or Catholics.

Now it may be the case that the usual suspects are in part to blame for these flawed perceptions: the media, Evangelicals, or a general public content with the stereotypical view of Mormons and unwilling to update that view. But it is almost certainly the case that a fair portion of the responsibility for these perceptions rests with us. Maybe what we need is not a new PR firm, but a different way of living the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, maybe the perceptions aren’t that flawed. Here are a few of my own ideas for positive change. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

First, less cultural retrenchment. In The Angel and the Beehive, Armand Mauss documented the mid-century shift of the LDS Church away from conformity with the dominant culture and toward our own cultural and behavioral norms that differentiate us from the mainstream. Whatever the optimal balance is, I think it is clear we have gone too far toward retrenchment and tension with the dominant culture. The high “unfavorable” polling response almost certainly picks up a sense that Mormons aren’t quite normal. Certain features of current LDS life that are purely cultural — three hours of church on Sunday and an obsession with suits and ties as markers of righteousness, for example — are a good place to start. Normal Americans don’t go to church for three hours on Sunday.

Second, less overt emphasis on proselytization. About a dozen years ago, the primary responsibility for the success of missionary work was moved from the mission structure where it had always been (Mission President, missionaries, Stake Mission President, stake missionaries) to local leadership, primarily bishops. As a result, the marketing of Mormonism and the never-ending discussion of numerical goals for referrals, discussions, and baptisms are now part of regular discussion in local leadership meetings, classroom lessons, and sacrament meeting talks. I think we need to gear it down a bit. Mormons are in danger of becoming like your uncle or brother-in-law who is selling MLM vitamins or fruit juice or term life insurance: the person you don’t want to talk to because you know where the conversation will turn. Other changes to move LDS missionary work from a 19th-century model toward a 21st-century model aren’t hard to think up.

Finally, I’m tempted to say the Church should get out of politics, but I don’t want this to become a Prop 8 discussion. General requests to support particular ballot measures are not the problem — it was drawing local leadership and membership into fundraising and canvassing that made conservative politics into a semi-official part of the gospel at the local level. I believe this was an unintended consequence, but it needs to be corrected forcefully. The neutrality statement needs to be reiterated and enforced. Local leaders who have disciplined members for making left-leaning political statements should be released (with a vote of thanks) and replaced. Harry Reid should be an invited speaker at the next General Conference with the assigned topic “Why I Am Proud to be a Mormon and a Democrat.”

I’m sure there are other ideas. The linked article notes some of the suggestions Gary Lawrence himself offered for fixing some of the problems. Any other ideas come to mind? Remember, I’m not just stirring up discontent — the data have spoken and there is a problem. The question is whether we Mormons are going to do anything differently to change things for the better.

72 Responses to Perceptions of Mormonism

  1. AHLDuke on August 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    This is not mentioned in the linked article, but in a similar article published in November 2008 on KSL.com at http://www.ksl.com/?sid=4845779&nid=148 . In it, Mr. Lawrence points to other findings in his research that those people who know “one Mormon” are less likely to have a favorable impression than those who know none. I am a little skeptical about this finding, not least of all because I am not sure whether this means those who know exactly ONE Mormon (could be a really good or a really bad one) or who know AT LEAST one Mormon (skews toward the average). Let’s face it though, either way this is incredibly damning.

    It means a Mormon in the abstract, meaning all the half truths or myths that a person might have heard about them, is marginally better in many people’s minds than a Mormon in the flesh. That is downright terrible.

  2. Left Field on August 9, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    #1: The link doesn’t work for me, so I don’t know any more than what is in your comment, but perhaps people who have unfavorable impressions of Mormons are less likely to admit that their impression was formed without actual experience, whereas those with favorable impressions don’t mind admitting that their impression is just based on what they have heard.

  3. Craig P EARLS on August 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    In another poll 98% of the people in that big building by the river disliked the sanctimonious self righteous people walking along the railing up that hill to the funny tree. “If they were more like us, they wouldn’t be so bad”, stated 23 year tatoo artist and hemp salesman Joe Smith.

  4. Clark on August 9, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I’m really skeptical of these figures as they go against the Pew Survey from 2007 which showed Americans have a 53% favorable and 27% unfavorable view.

  5. Martin on August 9, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Uh, I don’t think our three-hour block is a problem to non-Mormons, and the idea of having politicians (like Reid) speak in General Conference is horrible.

    We have an image problem, but the only thing you suggested that makes any sense to me is the de-emphasis on proselyting.

  6. Dave on August 9, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    LF, the link works for me, but here is the full link to the article in case anyone else is having trouble:

    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700054363/Mormons-need-to-work-to-increase-favor.html

  7. Aaron L. M. Goodwin on August 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    I think a large portion of this shift is to a general decrease in morals in society. As Craig put so well, there’s a lot to be said about being different not being all that bad.

    That being said, there’s a lot we can do to be a more Christlike and loving people. A lot of the issue comes with our disability in discerning the difference between culture and doctrine. However, most of your suggestions I don’t find all that constructive. What really needs to happen is an awakening within the church; a realization that we need to actually *live* what we drone on and on about every Sunday. We should actually be serving others, and not just members. We should actually listen to the council of the Brethren and get involve din our communities. They’ve been telling us that for years, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

    Living the gospel is the real issue.

  8. AHLDuke on August 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Dave, I think that LF was referring to the link in my post. I cannot find another way to link it.

  9. AHLDuke on August 9, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Actually, the way to fix it is simple. Remove the closing parenthesis from the URL. Not sure why that got caught up in the hyperlink.

  10. Dan on August 9, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Five times as many Americans have a strongly unfavorable view of Mormons as have a strongly favorable view of us.

    I have an unfavorable view of Mormons right now, and it has to do with politics. It’s not Prop 8 for me. It’s the war in Iraq that did it. I stay with the church because this gospel has the best explanation of the world around me of any Christian faith.

  11. SteveDensleyJr on August 9, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I heard Gary Lawrence give this address at the FAIR conference. It was one of the best ones I heard. However, there was no suggestion that it would help matters if the Church got out of politics. In fact, he noted that controversy actually helps the Church. From this, one might draw the conclusion that the Church should be more active in politics, to the extent that it is consistent with the Church’s focus on leading individuals and famlies to Christ. Nevertheless, this was not a conclusion stated by Lawrence. In any event, I believe a fair summary of his conclusions would be that we should be ourselves, we should not shy away from correcting error, but we should work harder to clearly communicate our beliefs.

  12. Brad Dennis on August 9, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Good article. We should place less emphasis on local leadership for missionary work. Missionaries should do more grunt work. That is what I was primarily involved with on my mission.

    But the church’s involvement into politics could be seen as an attempt to improve its image with conservative thinking folks. I get the sense that the church really isn’t all that interested in appealing to or attracting the liberal-minded.

  13. Tim on August 9, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    #4–
    “I’m really skeptical of these figures as they go against the Pew Survey from 2007 which showed Americans have a 53% favorable and 27% unfavorable view.”

    Yes, but that was prior to the whole Proposition 8 thing. And while Glenn Beck’s fame has raised some people’s estimation of Mormons, it has hurt others. I’m sure there are a lot of other factors out there too (Big Love, the FLDS raid in Texas, etc.) that can have a significant impact on what people think of us.

    Not saying the poll is accurate. Just saying that popularity polls for Mormons can change as quickly as they can for Harry Reid.

  14. Clark on August 9, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Tim, I guess I’m just really skeptical opinions would change that much in such a short time based upon Prop-8 and Big Love.

    Anyone know the polling agency that did his study?

  15. Clark on August 9, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    To add, back in 2008, Gary Lawrence conducted a similar study. Then he got

    The result is poll data that report 49 percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of Mormons, compared with 39 percent who have a favorable impression. The remaining 12 percent are uninformed or undecided.

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 9, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    How about making us more like other churches by allowing female ordination to the priesthood, scrap the Word of Wisdom, and easing up on the sexual morality business?

    Seriously, though, while it is good to get feedback on how others see us, the purpose of getting feedback is not to improve the feedback, but to examine whether we are causing negative feedback because we are not living the gospel as we all covenanted we would. On the other hand, if we are getting negative feedback precisely BECAUSE we are living the gospel, then I don’t care if other people tell us to “go to hell” because, as Brigham Young used to say, the Saints will transform hell into heaven (which is exactly what we do when we baptize for the dead).

    The Reorganized LDS Church did a lot of things that would make it more popular with other churches, including changing their name, ordaining women, and cutting themselves loose from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I don’t see that they even got the supposed benefit of those changes in the sense of a better perception in the general population. I am not sure it helped them achieve more unity or general spiritual satisfaction.

    Frankly, I think that a lot of the things that are admirable about the Saints are exactly those things that make some people feel threatened. Our relatively high standards of moral behavior and avoidance of drugs and alcohol makes those who indulge in those vices resent us for showing how easy it is to avoid them. Our missionary work in many nations that also equips Mormons to get involved in international work and service feeds conspiracy theories. Our self-sacrifice, in donating time for leadership, for missions, even for community service, and our donation of tithes and offerings, sets us apart from the average standard of self-interested human behavior and ups our weirdness quotient (WQ). I think to a certain extent the denigration that is aimed at Mormons by people who a ctually know us comes form the same place that urges people to tear down anyone they perceive as being too good. It is an urge that is a source of much of the anti-education attitudes among people, especially among young black Americans. The better Mormons are, the worse this kind of resentment will be.

  17. Dave on August 9, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    AHL, I fixed the link in comment #1 — it now links to the KSL article.

    Steve (#11), I didn’t mean to confuse Lawrence’s observations noted in the article (bullet points in my post) from my own ideas for changing things (listed in subsequent paragraphs). To avoid confusion, I updated the post making that distinction clearer.

    Lawrence’s suggestions noted in the article (but which I didn’t review in my post) relate mostly to better ways to explain LDS positions. My point in the post is that better explanations may not be the solution. I think we’re dealing with more than just a communication problem.

  18. Dave on August 9, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    RTS (#16), I know where you’re coming from. That’s why I emphasized that some of the features that have become incorporated into LDS life are purely cultural. The trick is disentangling the cultural and political features which have crept into LDS church life from the key gospel components that should not be sacrificed.

    The RLDS (aka Community of Christ) example is instructive. But we can also draw the wrong lesson from their experience. As Mark Twain once noted, a cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again, but it will never sit on a cold stove either.

  19. SLK in SF on August 9, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Interesting that the same dynamic occurs with LGBT folks: once you get to know us, we’re not all that scary/different.

    This is, of course, what Carol Lynn Pearson is trying to foster with Proposition Healing (http://www.propositionhealing.com/), which is an attempt to get two much misunderstood (and mutually suspicious) groups, Mormons and gay folks, to get to know each other.

  20. Sam B. on August 9, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Dan (10),
    Srsly? I can think of plenty of reasons to not like Mormons (of varying degrees of validity, and pretty much universally based on stereotypes that don’t describe any Mormons I know), but the war in Iraq? I have to admit, that never, ever would have occurred to me.

  21. Dan on August 9, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Sam,

    On only two issues do I have a very passionate view: the war in Iraq and torture. Both of those had Mormon involvement and/or endorsement, including the prophet. It really disappointed me, particularly the terrible things Mormons had said to me or to those against the war especially in 2002-2004.

    I’d like to see the church less political or politicized, like our LDS brethren and sisters have it in, say, Europe, where the community in Christ is in Christ, not in local politics. But it will take generations for us to get away from that, as America, the ideal, has a special place in Mormon history/theology/mythology. It is part of the identity of the American Mormon to adhere to a certain set of political ideals, whether they meander around through the various political cleavages over time. Someone will inevitably be pissed off whatever the church or its members do here in America.

  22. Susan Wyman on August 9, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    These issues can be debated adinfinitum but the only thing that matters is what God thinks of us. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the New Testament knows that in the last days “good would be called evil and evil good” so why are you wasting so much time on something so eternally unimportant as what others think of us? If we are truly living the gospel of Jesus Christ, good people will recognize us for what we are.

  23. It's Not Me on August 9, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    #12: “We should place less emphasis on local leadership for missionary work. Missionaries should do more grunt work. That is what I was primarily involved with on my mission.”

    The church’s statistics show that when members are involved the baptismal rates rise significantly.

  24. Mark Brown on August 10, 2010 at 12:25 am

    I think many of the comments on this thread illustrate perfectly why sometimes people think we are a bunch of insufferable scumbags and self-righteous pharisees.

    We make claims about other religions which are simply untrue, then almost put our shoulders out of joint trying to pat ourselves on the back for not being like them. Very childish and unproductive.

    We assume the worst motives on the part of others. If they make changes to their policies we are quick to claim that they are just trying to curry favor with the world. Are we so lacking in charity that it would kill us to think that other churches and religions also try to do what is right and let the consequence follow?

    Dave, I realize you don’t want this to become a free-for-all about prop. 8, but the elephant in the room here is that our involvement in prop 8 was a p.r. disaster and Gary Lawrence was our point man with ProtectMarriage. I think it is LOL funny that he, of all people, would be scratching his head, wondering why LDS people came to be viewed in a negative light.

  25. Susan Wyman on August 10, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Brother Mark, There is a chasm of difference between being “holier than thou” and truly struggling daily to try to live a holy life. Your generalities about us reflect ambivalence. We don’t all make negative claims about other religions; we don’t all pat ourselves on the back; we don’t all assume the worst motives on the part of others. Some of us are simply trying really hard – against all odds – to live worthy,charitable lives, regardless of what anyone else thinks of us or our motives. (Do you really believe this is the easy road?) Our involvement in Prop 8 may have been a “p.r. disaster,” so what? Is that our motive? To concern ourselves more with others perceptions rather than the will of God? It may not be politically correct to speak out against immorality,(of all flavors) but Heavenly Father has taught us that while he loves each of us sinners, “He cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” Our commission is to tell the truth and prepare ourselves and the world (-those who are willing-) for the Second Coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. We can’t do that if we are sitting on the fence.

  26. Mark Brown on August 10, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Susan, of course.

    I think it is important for us to live righteous and holy lives. And part of being righteous is to not place stumbling blocks in front of others. We still have a lot to learn about how to help the kingdom to emerge from obscurity, and a little humility would go a long distance. When we go straight to the conclusion that the only reason anyone might react negatively to LDS people is because they are wicked and we are righteous, it is time for us to either a)get over ourselves, or b)build a bigger rameumptom.

  27. Brad Dennis on August 10, 2010 at 11:56 am

    On #16. Raymond I don’t think that churches ordaining women as priests is not living the gospel. Some churches just do it differently.

    Also, don’t we want more people to have positive impressions of the church so that they will join? I mean, the Westboro Baptist church is pretty insistent on living their very narrow-minded perception of the gospel, with their protesting and rabble-rousing at the funerals of deceased soldiers. They don’t seem to care about improving their image. But I get the sense that the First Presidency does.

  28. Jonathan Green on August 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Dave, this is an important topic, but I disagree with several particulars. Clark pointed out some parts of the polling that have to be explained, and one also has to wonder to what extent positive and negative views of unfamiliar groups correlate with economic conditions. Note, for example, the recent increased resistance to mosque building and agitation against illegal immigration. They aren’t responses to anything American Muslims or immigrants have done, but merely reflect a frequently observed darkening of outlook in response to precarious economic conditions. You’d have to look at similar polling over time, and involving other religions, to get a better sense of what’s going on.

    I agree it’s a good idea to ask ourselves what we can do to improve our reputation. Still, I can’t agree that our meeting schedule is purely cultural. Sunday meetings are a core element of Mormons’ lived experience and Mormon community, and the schedule and nature of those meetings is invested with sacral meaning.

  29. Hans on August 10, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Aaron L.M. Goodwin said,

    “We should actually be serving others, and not just members. We should actually listen to the council of the Brethren and get involve din our communities. They’ve been telling us that for years, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.”

    Aaron, I would love to get involved in my communinity but my church and calling responsibilities make this impossible. I don’t think that this experience is exclusive to me.

    With 3 hours of church in the middle of Sunday, FHE on Monday nights, Wednesday nights reserved for youth activities, one night a week for a planning meeting, where does one find time to volunteer?

  30. H. Ross on August 10, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    #12.

    I assure you that keeping the local leadership/membership involved in missionary work is far better than having the missionaries knock doors all day, every day. It’s a statistical fact (stated at a zone conference in my mission) that people are more likely to join the church because they know someone than from a cold contact at a door. That is why missionaries ask for referrals.

  31. George on August 10, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    A few days ago, I was reading an interview with the sociologist Rodney Stark. Here is an excerpt:

    You say that Christianity succeeded in part because of its high moral standards. Today, however, many churches are lowering the bar to make religion more popular. How would you analyze their efforts?

    RS: They’re death wishes. People value religion on the basis of cost, and they don’t value the cheapest ones the most. Religions that ask nothing get nothing. You’ve got a choice: you can be a church or a country club. If you’re going to be a church, you’d better offer religion on Sunday. If you’re not, you’d better build a golf course, because you’re not going to get away with being a country club with no golf course. That’s what happened to the Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Unitarians and, indeed, to some sectors of Catholicism.

  32. msg on August 10, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    I joined the Church in the 1970′s, went to BYU and don’t live in Utah.
    In the 80′s, I was very concerned about the future consequences for us LDS when the evangelical Christians started to demonize our Church and do it so nastily and publicly –while our Church leaders remained silent thinking their replies would only fan the fire. They couldn’t have been more
    wrong. Now 20 some years later the damage has been done and we are
    coming a bit too late to the party to stop it–but better late than never. Elder Ballard, Elder Holland are correct when they say it’s time
    we stop letting others define who we are and say what we believe–they need to hear it from us. Now with polygamy tv shows and books like
    Under the Banner of Heaven, I’m afraid lots of people are just lost about us and that saddens me. It’s going to make the work in the hereafter even harder.

  33. Chino Blanco on August 10, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    If #32 is an accurate description, it’s another reason to take Gary Lawrence’s prescriptions with a big grain of salt. As Dick Wirthlin’s protégé, Gary’s got the ear of the folks who matter, which means that if you’re concerned about the direction of LDS PR, you probably ought to worry if Gary’s wrong about something.

    And when Gary advises to respond to public anti-Mormon displays with a dismissive “Bring ‘em on” … he’s wrong. And when Gary urges the membership to start using better explanations … he’s deflecting attention away from the real problem and falling back on his faith in the panacea of “quantifiably safe rhetoric” (see Wynton C. Hall’s paper by the same name for a fascinating glimpse into the origins of Gary’s POV).

    As much as it pains me to type it, kudos to Banack for asking the right question and surprising me with his bold suggestions. Of course, I’m sure it’s a question that gets asked regularly in less public settings. The main obstacle, as far as I can tell, is that the folks who matter (like Gary) tend to answer this question (and too many others) with one of their own: WWRD? (What would Reagan do?)

    Sorry, Gary, but when it becomes painfully obvious that a new playbook is needed, you don’t ask your current coaching staff to write it.

  34. Robert Ricks on August 11, 2010 at 7:50 am

    For what it’s worth, Dan (#21), when I taught a class on contemporary Middle Eastern studies at BYU, there was a variety of opinions expressed on the Iraq war. Indeed, some of the students with more conservative views on the subject felt that I should have done more (as the teacher) to ensure that their viewpoint was represented.

    When President Hinckley spoke about the topic of the Iraq war, it was as something that was regrettable but necessary for national security. (I don’t know if he later revised this opinion.) I never got the sense that it had his prophetic approbation as a “righteous” war (if such a thing can exist). And, if I recall correctly, he also recognized the complexity of the issue and the variety of opinions about it that existed.

    To address the main topic, I too would like to see us known for something other than just proselytizing. It’s not that we shouldn’t be known for it, but I wish it wasn’t the first or only thing people associate us with. People don’t like being viewed as the mark for a sell (which, in my experience, is not at all how LDS view the world); it makes them uneasy and distrustful. I’m not sure what the solution is. I suppose we need more time to participate in community activities as good citizens who just happen to be LDS; this may mean streamlining or eliminating some church activities.

  35. Coffinberry on August 11, 2010 at 9:01 am

    I think Mr. Lawrence misses the mark.

    Where I live/work (Boulder, Colorado), the primary reasons for the poor impression of the Church among the people I know has to do with (1) Social Policy Politics practiced by the Church (yes, I’m talking about Prop. 8) and (2) Role of Women as taught by the Church. The people I know and work with find the Church’s official stand on these issues to be appalling, and for that reason become more inclined to believe the crazy stuff that is said about the Church from other sources. There is nothing that I could say or do that would improve the image of the Church on these points, because they are more-or-less factual. Despite my obvious presence as a woman attorney, I am thought of by them as not being representative of a ‘real’ Mormon, my protestations notwithstanding… which has some merit, since there are no other LDS women doctors, dentists, accountants, or lawyers (or even electrical or mechanical engineers, which more than half the Priesthood quorums are) in the entire county. It is what it is, and the people around here can see it for themselves.

    Given that much of the population of the US lives in urban centers where such attitudes on social policy and women are common, and where Latter-day Saints are a minuscule proportion of the population, I don’t think that Mr. Lawrence’s suggestion is very useful.

  36. Coffinberry on August 11, 2010 at 9:19 am

    One more thought: Interpreters of such surveys should remember that on the average Americans are culturally (and religiously) illiterate, and tend toward xenophobia. Do we, as retailers in the marketplace of ideas, really intend to get some mysterious 100% favorable response from people who can’t even tell you whether the Civil War came before or after the Revolutionary War? People who couldn’t tell you the difference between Quakers or Amish or the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Surely yes, the survey reported by FAIR indicates there is a great deal of ignorance out there about Mormonism, but to assume that such ignorance is singling out Mormonism is a silly thing to do.

    Thus the real question is whether there is a problem of perception among those who are culturally/socially literate. If there is, then maybe there is something we can do about it. If not, then the problem is with ignorance and xenophobia in general, not ignorance about our religion specifically.

  37. Jack on August 11, 2010 at 10:29 am

    I think perception is just as important as reality. How do others see us? Are we seen as clannish, unthinking, unengaged with society? Do we hold a diversity of opinions on the major issues of the day, or are we all of the same mind? Do we associate with nonmembers, or is our acquaintance merely a missionary ploy? The charge I dislike the most is that we are provincial. We had at one time over 20 people in our ward who spoke Arabic. That doesn’t strike me as a group of people who are provincial. I worry, though, that we are letting too many outside the church define us. We need to do a better job of doing that ourselves.

  38. Brad Dennis on August 11, 2010 at 11:39 am

    #23 “The church’s statistics show that when members are involved the baptismal rates rise significantly.”

    That may be, but then why don’t we do it like the Jehovah’s Witnesses; members going door-to-door in their own communities instead of sending young men and women away from their homes to devote all of their time and energy towards what is largely grunt work. The JWs do have a higher conversion rate than we do. But Dave is right; the more the local leadership and community gets involved, the more the members are seen as peddlers of something like unto MLMs, and it is more likely to appears cultish and agenda-laden.

  39. Chino Blanco on August 11, 2010 at 11:53 am

    My sense is that the door hasn’t completely closed on changing “perception among those who are culturally/socially literate” … but until faithful (and utterly sweet and sincere) efforts like this are routinely met with open encouragement and applause from a significant (and externally visible) segment of Mormon society, I suspect that outside perception will continue to be that, no, Mormons do not “hold a diversity of opinions on the major issues of the day.”

    As it turns out, I was also impressed today by this faithful and sincere effort to describe one of the challenges for the LDS project:

    Our binary hermeneutic, our sense that “the world” is always arrayed against us, simply will not give us a useful interpretive framework for engaging the ever-broadening discourse about Mormonism in the new media world.

    That said, I found myself suddenly doubting the sincerity of the author when she immediately followed up that insight with this:

    It’s not at all clear to me what *will* help us develop a framework for that engagement.

    I rather suspect that whoever wrote that first bit above about engaging new media has got more than an inkling about possible ways forward. Then again, I hold the same suspicion about many of the brighter lights in the Bloggernacle, who I constantly suspect of knowing more than they let on.

    Or maybe that’s just me. In any case, if it was me running new media for this particular institution, I’d have long ago reached out to the talent in these parts and beyond.

  40. DavidH on August 11, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    There are other Christian churches that do not bestow priesthood on women, that do not support same sex marriage or that support fairly strict sexual morality. Yet those churches (including the Roman Catholic church) do not have the same negative public connotation.

    I do not think it is the conservative social values of the church that lead to a negative impression as much as it is a perceived “smugness”/certainty among many LDS (i.e., I know I am right and you are wrong), a perceived absolute obedience to church leaders, a perceived Stepford wives/husband ideal, a certain clannishness, and a perceived overzealousness of converting others. (I have had several people who have asked me questions about my church preface it by saying “Now I am not interested in joining or converting” or “Don’t send the missionaries, but I like this aspect of your religion or wonder about xyz”)

    I think the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is part of the Church’s response, and I think it is directed as much at Church members as to friends or potential friends of the Church. A message to support seeing Mormons to be more openminded, less regimented, less clannish, and not perpetually viewing other people as potential conversion candidates.

  41. Dan on August 11, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Robert,

    #34

    When President Hinckley spoke about the topic of the Iraq war, it was as something that was regrettable but necessary for national security. (I don’t know if he later revised this opinion.)

    Never in General Conference, or any other venue as far as I am aware. I won’t go into it much more. Suffice it to say, I was disappointed when he passed away because he never clarified his remarks. I felt that his attempt to the “complexity” only muddled his message, on which I felt he was clear: the war in Iraq was a continuation of the war in Afghanistan which has its roots in the war in Heaven and that we should trust military and political leaders to do what is right, because they would never lead us astray or abuse the information they have at hand.

  42. DavidH on August 11, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Dan,

    I was (and am) an opponent of the Iraq invasion, from long before it occurred. I listened carefully to President Hinckley’s talk. Gordon B. Hinckley, “War and Peace,” Ensign, May 2003, 78 I think he carefully crafted it to avoid coming right out and stating that he supported the invasion, although you could certainly infer from his talk that he did.

    The reason I make this point is that in my ward people used to argue to me that President Hinckley supported the war in that conference talk (and therefore I should), and I would argue back that he never quite said that. And they would usually simmer down, and after re-reading the talk, drop their argument. I have re-read the talk. I don’t see him saying that he supported the war.

    In any event, to the extent President Hinckley implied that he supported the war, he made quite clear that any views he had were his personal views. (I don’t think a prophet has to be right about political or military issues, even when he is clearly wrong (or at least clearly wrong in my opinion.)

  43. Kristine on August 11, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Hey, Chino–thanks for reading. I’m completely sincere when I say that I’m not sure how Mormon culture will get past the circling-the-wagons-with-us-or-agin-us mentality that we’ve cultivated since the 1960s (or so). I think that the PTB know they can’t control the message anymore–Google eats Correlation committees for breakfast–but I don’t think anybody (not even Steve Evans) knows what’s next, or what form uncorrelated Mormonism will take. I’m excited about it, though, because I think that at its heart, Mormonism is expansive and inclusive and humanist, and new media forms will remind us of some of those aspects of Mormonism that got swept under the rug in the late 20th-century retrenchment.

  44. Steve Evans on August 11, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Oh, I know what’s next, Kristine. Hop in my DeLorean and I’ll show you.

  45. Sam B. on August 11, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Holy crap, Dan–that is a huge interpretive leap, from what Pres. Hinckley said to how you heard it. If you infer that many steps from everything Mormons say, no wonder you don’t like most of them. (But seriously: I remember the statement, too, and it didn’t strike me as (a) claiming any prophetic weight, or (b) supporting the war, other than as a necessary evil to stop weapons of mass destruction. And yes, I know Iraq didn’t have any, but that’s not what was coming from anybody who had knowledge at the time. And, while I expect my prophet to be pretty in tune with what the Lord wants us to be doing, I don’t really expect him to have his finger on geopolitical intrigue. Moreover, it certainly didn’t link the Iraq war, even impliedly, to the so-called War in Heaven.)

  46. Bob on August 12, 2010 at 8:21 am

    @45: “And yes, I know Iraq didn’t have any, but that’s not what was coming from anybody who had knowledge at the time”.
    I clearly remember Iraq put on a very strong case, (remember the DVDs and papers on the big table?),that they had no such weapons.

  47. Jonathan Green on August 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Also, there were some inconvenient UN weapsons inspectors on the ground in Iraq who were also saying that there were no WMD.

  48. Alison Moore Smith on August 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Dave, I read the article in the newspaper and was thinking of posting about it. Glad you did so. It’s a worthy topic.

    One of the elephants in the room that wasn’t mentioned in the OP is the 75% who are still unsure whether or not we practice polygamy. Other than the occasional “you’re going to rot in hell” because “you don’t accept Jesus,” the most common disparaging comment I’ve received when someone finds out I’m LDS is, “So which wife are you?”

    Someday, we’ve gotta come to terms with this. We finally addressed Mountain Meadows. Isn’t it time to deal with this directly with polygamy rather than just saying, “Oh, it’s in the past”?

    First, because it’s NOT in the past (we all know the current sealing policy, right?) and second, because no one can satisfactorily answer the reasonable question of, “What the heck was up with polygamy?”

  49. Anto on August 12, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Christ too had a PR problem, and as his disciples He said we were going to have a PR problem…Joseph Smith was warned of his future PR problem. I guess nothing new under the sun

  50. Bob on August 12, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    #48: ” Isn’t it time to deal with this directly with polygamy”?
    That would mean saying we don’t practice polygamy, but in someways still believe in it(?)

  51. Left Field on August 13, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Mainstream Mormons do not have more than one living wife.

    That has been the case for a century or so, so the news ought to have gotten around by now. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp. It’s just a simple straightforward fact about Mormons. We can quibble about polygamy in the hereafter, and the reasons why it was instituted in the 19th Century, but the fact remains that Mormons (you know, the ones with the gray temple in Salt Lake and the white one by the Beltway, Harry Reid, Donny Osmond, Mitt Romney, Gladys Knight, Harmon Killebrew, Steve Young, and almost certainly every Mormon you’ve ever met… those Mormons) have no more than one living wife.

    It’s not a hard concept to understand. Why does the public have such a difficult time with it? My guess is they just don’t care as much as we think they ought.

    We’ve tried everything over the years. We’ve tried ignoring it. We’ve tried speaking out about it. Nothing really makes any difference, except possibly to fix the Mormon-polygamy connection ever more firmly in the public mind.

  52. Bob on August 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    #51: “Why does the public have such a difficult time with it”?
    Because it not true. They are active LDS families who practice earthly polygamy. And yes, if found out, will be Ex’ed.

  53. Chino Blanco on August 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    It doesn’t matter who gets ex’d as long as #48′s last sentence remains the plain truth.

  54. Left Field on August 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Oh, come on. People don’t give a fig what we think will happen in the afterlife. They think we’re living polygamy in the here and now, and that just ain’t so, the occasional renegade notwithstanding.

    Do you really think if you were to interview people who think Mormons practice polygamy, you’ll find they’re talking about serial monogamists who think they will be with all their wives in the hereafter?

  55. Chino Blanco on August 13, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    No, you come on. I could give a fig about what people happen to think at the moment. I’m available to nudge them towards the truth, but you can’t even tell me what that is.

  56. Bob on August 13, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    #54: I have seen #s, ( don’t have them), but they are far higher than ” the occasional renegade”. But, I will let others ( or the Church) present them ( or not), for us to ponder.

  57. Left Field on August 13, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I told you the truth in #51.

    Alison cites 75% who are unsure of whether Mormons practice polygamy, and says she is frequently asked which wife she is.

    No doubt 75% of the public is confused by their intimate knowledge of sealing policies outlined on page 172 of the CHI. Sounds like a reasonable explanation to me.

  58. Left Field on August 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    #56 Bob:

    Whatever the number is, do you really think that the public perception of Mormon polygamy can be attributed to accurate information active LDS members practicing polygamy?

  59. Alison Moore Smith on August 15, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Left Field, my problem with your response is that it doesn’t address what I actually said. I didn’t say that the 75% cited in the study wonder if Mormons are polygamists BECAUSE they are confused about current sealing policy. I said that MORMONS can’t clear up the confusion because (a) brushing it off by giving the impression that we have nothing to do with one man/multiple women simply isn’t true and (b) we don’t know what IS true, anyway.

    I have lots of friends who are evangelical Christians. Often they don’t have a problem with gender inequality in the LDS church, because their own sects are even more old school than we are. (Titus 2, submission to husbands, etc.) But outside of that group, I get a lot of “How can you belong to a church that treats women like second class citizens.”

    In my experience, the perception comes from two things (1) historical polygamy and (2) exclusion of women from the priesthood and most leadership.

    The less tolerant the world becomes of gender inequality, the more the church will seem weird, out-of-step, offensive, etc. I’m not saying that we should change the church because of the unpopularity of those policies, I’m just saying we should acknowledge that it’s going to happen.

    Until we come up with a cohesive explanation for polygamy — and unless the explanation is something those in a more and more gender neutral culture can accommodate — the perception of the church on this issue is likely to only get worse.

  60. Left Field on August 15, 2010 at 7:35 am

    I agree with you completely, Alison. I was responding to Bob and Chino who seem to attribute public confusion to sealing policy and closet polygamists among active LDS. I don’t think the public in general is aware of those issues at all, and wouldn’t be able put them in any context if they were.

    I think the public is confused mostly because they don’t have anything invested in getting it right. But my point in #51 was that it is a simple indisputable fact that Harry Reid, Mitt Romney, and Alison Moore Smith do not belong to a church that requires, expects, or allows men to have more than one living wife. Historical and remnant polygamy and their effect on current church policy and practice are important issues, but it’s not going to be very productive to address them when the public still thinks you must be a polygamist if you’re a Mormon. It would be like trying to have an in depth discussion on the effects of current and historic alcohol laws with someone who doesn’t know, and seemingly can’t be convinced that Prohibition was repealed.

  61. Bob on August 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    #60:_____ Or seemingly can’t be convinced that people drank during a Prohibition.

  62. Left Field on August 15, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Bob:

    You’ll need to find someone else to cross swords with if you want to argue with someone who thinks there are no LDS church members who have and do practice polygamy. If you review what I wrote, you’ll find that I am not such a person.

    Thanks.

  63. Bob on August 15, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    #62: ???
    #51- “Mainstream Mormons do not have more than one living wife”.
    #54:”They think we’re living polygamy in the here and now, and that just ain’t so”.
    #60- “simple indisputable fact ….do not belong to a church that requires, expects, or allows men to have more than one living wife.”
    I too end the discussion.

  64. Left Field on August 15, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    #51- “Mainstream Mormons do not have more than one living wife”.

    Bob, do you see the qualifying word “all” anywhere in this sentence? The statement is true as a generalization. As in “Republicans disagree with the president’s policies.” The sentence changes meaning if you add the word “all.” I didn’t say all; I didn’t mean all. Please don’t add “all” to my sentences even if you really want to disagree with what you wish I had said.

    #54:”They think we’re living polygamy in the here and now, and that just ain’t so”.

    You somehow missed the rest of the sentence, where I acknowledge exceptions?

    #60- “simple indisputable fact ….do not belong to a church that requires, expects, or allows men to have more than one living wife.”

    I defy you to tell me what in this sentence might possibly be misconstrued to say anything about closet polygamists in the LDS Church. The church does not currently require, expect, or allow men to have more than one living wife. Any that do are in defiance of current church teaching and policy, and will, as you admitted, be excommunicated if found out.

    And you somehow overlooked the following affirmative statements acknowledging some LDS members who are polygamists:

    “the occasional renegade notwithstanding”
    “accurate information [on] active LDS members practicing polygamy”
    “closet polygamists among active LDS”
    “Historical and remnant polygamy and their effect on current church policy and practice are important issues”

    Of course there are some closet polygamists in the church (if you’ll pardon me for having agreed with you on that point). I have no idea how many, and it really doesn’t matter. By definition closet polygamists are in the closet, which means that it is not publicly known. And since the public doesn’t actually know that Bill, the second counselor in the elders’ quorum, secretly has a second wife, Bill’s having a secret second wife seems a highly unlikely explanation for much of the public thinking that LDS church members are (as a generalization) polygamists. No matter how many Bills there may or may not be.

  65. Dan on August 15, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    DavidH (#42) and Sam (#45),

    My apologies for not getting back sooner. My internet has been out of late. David, indeed President Hinckley indicated that he wished to note what “governs my personal feelings and dictates my personal loyalties in the present situation.” That would be “another overriding responsibility” as he described it only after noting the horribleness of war, in other words, that even though war is hell, there is “another overriding responsibility” in President Hinckley’s eyes, that “governs my personal feelings and dictates my personal loyalties in the present situation.”

    It is at this point where he gets into trouble because he ties the “present situation” in Iraq to the fight between the Nephites and Lamanites. (earlier in his talk he referred to the War in Heaven). The Nephites, President Hinckley reminds us, were fighting for their homes, their wives, their children, their religion, and so on. He quotes scripture discussing defending your families even unto bloodshed, and then finally making the clearest statement on his support of the war:

    It is clear from these and other writings that there are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation, to fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression.

    Should one really ask exactly what “tyranny, threat or oppression” President Hinckley was possibly talking about in April 2003? We’re obligated to fight for family, liberty, against tyranny, threat and oppression? For who? For our families? For our liberties? Exactly how was Iraq a Lamanite-like threat against our families and liberties? No one could make such a terrible argument in light of all the evidence available in 2002-2003. Or are we truly obligated to fight for the families and liberties of ALL oppressed throughout all the world? President Hinckley says yes, just later on:

    Furthermore, we are a freedom-loving people, committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy.

    Really? Are we? What about the liberty of Muslims seeking a building to house their own religious institution? I’d love to see our prophet rise to the occasion and show commitment to the defense of the liberty of Muslims getting their Cordoba House built. What about invading China? What about poor Palestinians who are certainly lacking liberty under Israeli occupation. I’m betting President Hinckley did not mean those liberties. What about the liberty of those who are innocent at Guantanamo Bay prison?

    President Hinckley made a classic neo-conservative argument of the American position in the world. He bought into the propaganda. It started with his defense of the Afghanistan war, which he states here:

    And so I venture to say something about the war and the gospel we teach. I spoke of this somewhat in our October conference of 2001. When I came to this pulpit at that time, the war against terrorism had just begun. The present war is really an outgrowth and continuation of that conflict. Hopefully it is now drawing to a conclusion.

    But in this following quote he makes his biggest mistake. He actually trusts American political leaders to tell the truth:

    But as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders. They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally.

    How can someone look at his talk and NOT conclude that President Hinckley supported the war in Iraq? We’re under the direction of political leaders. They have access to greater intelligence. We’re committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy. We’re under threat of tyranny and oppression which began with the 2001 attacks. The war in Iraq is just simply an extension of that war. Where am I wrong in assessing President Hinckley’s talk?

  66. Bob on August 15, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    #65: Without knowing fully the context of your Hinckley quotes, I will withhold comment on them. But otherwise, your comments seem fair, and likely correct.(IMO).

  67. Bill on August 16, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Check this letter from a former US intelligence officer to see just how much faith we ought to have had in our leaders at that moment:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/aug/19/cia-and-wmds-damning-evidence/?pagination=false

  68. chris on August 16, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Tangent! The church does stay out of politics in the traditional sense. If you disagree, reconsider what politics is.
    “social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power”
    or
    “The management of a political party; the conduct and contests of parties”

    Now if you want to expand politics to mean, “having an opinion on something”, you’ve got a point and we can argue over definitions. But the church did not seek to put any one party in or out of power. It was not attempting to gain authority or manage a party.

    What party did the church support? The dems or the repubs? It was not politics in the traditional sense.

    Of course if you want to examine the broad definition of politics to mean social relations between groups, the church as every right and must be involved in that kind of politics. I’d also not the Argentina case where it was not an apolitical referendum like in California, but an actual act of legislation proposed by a political party that the church avoided involvement in.

    Whatever the case, the fine distinction that I’m viewing isn’t being viewed by anyone else that way, so it’s probably a moot point. To paraphrase Elder Oaks, it seems the church is really just being told to shut up unless you agree with us. (no one complained about other churches opposing prop 8)

  69. grego on August 16, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    “A message to support seeing Mormons to be more openminded, less regimented, less clannish, and not perpetually viewing other people as potential conversion candidates.”, etc.

    So my sister-in-law moved to an area that didn’t have many LDS. She took her daughters to playgroup, but after being asked what religion she was, she and her daughters got kicked out.

    “Open-minded”? She was the one willing to sit and talk with others and let her children play with children of other religions.

    “Less-regimented”? She had seemed normal… until that fateful question.

    “Less-clannish”? She wasn’t the one kicking others out of her clan.

    “Perpetually viewing other people as potential conversion candidates”? She had enjoyed the company; she was asked, and she answered.

    No, I am quite sure these things might have to do with some LDS, but definitely not all.

  70. DavidH on August 16, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Hi Dan.

    You sound just like the members of my ward who said President Hinckley stated that he supported the war. I agree with you that he certainly implies this in what you quote. But he never quite closes the loop, maybe because he was a master of language and sometimes ambiguity (see Lorenzo Snow quote exegesis in interviews).

    Another example of careful language would be the statement of the First Presidency and 12 asking Latter-day Saints to “let [their] voices be heard” with respect to the then-proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. It is reasonable to infer that they were asking members to write to support it–but they did not quite say it. Yet there was enough wiggle room that I felt I could write in opposition to it without feeling like I was “disobedient”. (I would support an amendment expressly stating that the definition of marriage was a state matter.)

    Again all of those passages surely hint or reasonably imply that he supported the invasion of Iraq. But the talk as a whole also stated that faithful Church members would have differing opinions about the matter, and that we should be respectful of each other. And I think that is part of why he finessed his implicit statements of support.

    I would add that I have little doubt that Elder Russell Nelson opposed the invasion, and I highly respect him for that. See his October 2002 conference talk, while the drums were beating for the invasion. Russell M. Nelson, “‘Blessed Are the Peacemakers’,” Liahona, Nov 2002, 39–42

  71. Dan on August 17, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Dave

    I’m in agreement that President Hinckley noted that we’re free to agree or disagree on the issue, and I appreciated that he at least gave us that. However, he made clear where he thought we should be, noting that we could be held responsible by God for hedging the way of forces “fighting evil”, whatever that actually meant in the context of the war in Iraq. He had already taken us into an illogical place by comparing us going into Iraq to Captain Moroni’s fight against the Lamanite aggressors. For the comparison to be logically sound, the Iraqis are the Nephites fighting against the true aggressors of the conflict: the Americans.

  72. grego on August 18, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    I believe:
    Pres. Hinckley was misinformed about quite a bit about 9/11 and the invasion, and that at first he did believe ObL was responsible and he supported the invasion. But later–certainly after reading the Book of Mormon–he became much more aware of the farce and conspiracy that was going on.

    That didn’t mean he could openly say much about it (much as when Pres. Benson became prophet and slowed down on commenting on the same conspiracy), other than encourage others to read the Book of Mormon and hopefully discover it for themselves (remember the challenge?).

    Supporting this point of view was his plan after the Waco killings–he invited Attorney General Janet Reno to the Freedom Festival devotional, he prayed there, and he commented on the LDS being good people, supportive of freedom and the government, etc. He didn’t confront and condemn the USA government, he didn’t point out the obvious constitutional violations, etc.

    Perhaps a time will come when that will be the way to proceed, and perhaps that is what will split the Church.