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.
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.