Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of SpokaneFāVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.
Study portrays Mormons as outsiders looking in
In some ways, Mormonism is the ultimate American religion. Born in America, it was unveiled by an American prophet who believed the Constitution was divinely inspired and the Garden of Eden bloomed in Independence, Mo.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown from six members gathered around a charismatic New Yorker named Joseph Smith in 1830 to nearly six million believers in the U.S. alone. Richard Ostling, a religion expert and co-author of the book “Mormon America,” calls it “the most successful faith ever born on American soil.”
But even as a devout Mormon leads the GOP field for the presidential nomination and the award-winning musical “Book of Mormon” plays to overflow crowds on Broadway, a new survey portrays Mormons as strangers in their own land.
The vast majority of Mormons believe that Americans do not embrace Mormonism as part of mainstream society, and most say Americans know little about their religion. More than half worry about discrimination, according to a survey released Thursday (Jan. 12) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“Clearly this is a population that sees itself as outsiders looking in,” said Gregory Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum.
The survey — called the first of its kind conducted by a non-Mormon organization — interviewed 1,000 American Mormons between Oct. 25 and Nov. 16, 2011, by telephone, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
“I wish the public could see us for our day-to-day doctrines, devotions and practices, which are just like other devout religions,” said George Robinson, 63, a cardiovascular surgeon and local LDS leader in Gadsden, Ala. “Instead, the public either hears pejoratives about us, or focuses on differences, many of which are rarely brought up as part of our religion.”
Still, Robinson and many other Mormons remain upbeat, saying that American attitudes toward their faith are changing for the better.
Nearly nine in 10 Mormons say they are happy with their lives and judge their communities as excellent or good places to live. More than half say the country is ready for a Mormon president.
But most Mormons also say that popular entertainment damages their public image. In recent years, a number of TV shows, such as HBO's “Big Love” and TLC's “Sister Wives” have featured polygamous families who belong to offshoots of Mormonism. According to the Pew survey, 86 percent of Mormons believe that polygamy, which the LDS Church banned in 1890, is morally wrong.
Perceptions of anti-Mormons animus are likely also fed by the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, despite his front-runner status.
While three in four Mormon voters identify as Republican or lean conservative, less than 40 percent believe the GOP is friendly towards Mormons, the Pew survey found. The hostility directed at Romney's Mormonism by some evangelicals — a key GOP constituency — reinforces that perception, Smith said.
Most evangelicals do not believe Mormonism falls within the Christian fold, according to a separate Pew poll, and some have been outspoken about opposing Romney's candidacy on those grounds. Half of Mormons, according to the Pew survey released Thursday, pick up an unfriendly vibe from evangelicals.
“It's frustrating that some people are trying to build a hedge of deceit around the church so that people won't decide to take a look for themselves and find out what our church is all about,” Robinson said.
Most Mormons do not deny the differences between their faith and mainstream Christianity, the survey found. While 97 percent of Mormons believe their faith to be a Christian religion, less than half say it is similar to Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism.
And yet, Mormons remain firm in their religious commitments, even to practices and beliefs that set them apart from mainstream Christianity.
For example, 94 percent believe that the president of the LDS Church is a prophet of God, and that ancient prophets wrote the Book of Mormon. Nearly the same percentage believe that families can be eternally bound in temple ceremonies, and that God the Father and Jesus are separate beings. (Traditional Christianity calls them unified, along with the Holy Spirit.)
“Mormons want acceptance, but not assimilation,” LDS spokesman Michael Otterson wrote in The Washington Post on Thursday. “No church leader I have ever heard preach has suggested that Mormons should drop their distinctiveness — the very characteristics that the Pew study identifies — in order to become more popular with the world at large.”
In fact, Mormons are among the most committed religious groups in America, according to the Pew survey. More than 8 in 10 say they pray daily; three-quarters attend weekly religious services; and 82 percent say religion is very important in their lives. Only Jehovah's Witnesses approach Mormons' religiosity, Smith said.
Laura, thank you for such a thoughtful response. I’ve too often heard people label Mormons as “non-Christian,” or sadly, even as a cult. It’s voices like yours that will make a difference!
* I meant to say the other residents of cities would feel threatened by the presence of early Mormon communities, for some reason, not that they were actually being threatened by them…
Oh and as far as the Christian thing, yes, we are Christians!! You could not find a better way to insult me than to tell me I’m not a Christian, and yes it’s happened! 🙂 I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe He is our Savior and atoned for our sins. I believe in the Jesus written about in the Bible. So I am a Christian. But yes, Mormons are unique in that we believe God, Jesus, and the Holy spirit are three separate beings. 🙂
Thanks Tracy and Hanane!!
I like your replies. Unfortunately many people will go with the flow and adopt or accept certain labels about a religion without make their own examination.
As far as I am concerned, I always believed that Mormons are Christians and I don’t see what is not normal about not drinking alcohol or not having sex until after marriage…
Well I think us, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… aka mormons, have always had more than their fair share of discrimination and bad treatment. There’s a term called “anti-mormon.” People write books flaming the religion and such. When the church was forming in the 1800s they had to keep moving, and people would die traveling with handcarts and wagons, because whatever city they were in the other people would get threatened by them and drive them out. The first prophet Joseph Smith would be tarred and feathered and was eventually shot to death. Our history and ancestors are full of extremely sad stories. So it was a very hard beginning and there’s still problems as mentioned. However I don’t mean to tell a sob story. I think most Mormons consider themselves very normal and want to be seen that way, I don’t think we want to be outside looking in. I’d say we very much want to be both accepted and welcoming- and normal. But I can understand that feeling lingering. Mormons tend to be extremely loyal to their faith and it’s very stressful when someone has a negative attitude about something so special to you, and you wish others could appreciate it for the great thing you know it to be, I’m sure that is universal.
It’s an interesting article. I do struggle with that, when I meet people and share that I’m Mormon I’m just hoping so hard they receive it normally and don’t raise their eyebrows and ask if I’m a polygamist… I really dislike that. Also when people roll their eyes at me when they find out that I don’t have sex before marriage or drink alcohol. It really shouldn’t be a big deal, I mean it’s important to me personally, but I’m still a normal person, so I want people to be relaxed about it, and I of course want to return the favor and be accepting of people who have different lifestyle choices than me. That’s what I really want, mutual acceptance, and ideally, mutual appreciation and admiration. 🙂 Isn’t that what this blog is for? And that is my experience in general, so it’s a good thing 🙂