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.

An Evening with Richard Bushman


About a thousand other people and I enjoyed an evening with Richard Bushman last night. He spoke about Joseph and Emma for about 40 minutes and then entertained questions from the audience for another 40 minutes. While his insights on Joseph and Emma were interesting, I found the questions more fascinating, because they reflected a lot of the issues I blog about.

For those who don’t know, Richard Bushman is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the 2005 biography of Joseph Smith that has become the definitive account of the prophet’s life as told from the viewpoint of a faithful historian. I took advantage of the opportunity to have him autograph my copy and was not the only one in the audience who waited in line to do so.

Open and honest discussion

It was wonderful to see so many people interested in learning more about this great man and the beginnings of the Mormon Church. Every time he finished answering a question a dozen more hands shot up. We could have been there for several more hours. I think that goes to show you how much we as a people appreciate someone who has studied the prophet’s life in such detail.

There were many questions that focused on the process of translating, the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone in the hat, polygamy, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, the martyrdom, succession, Book of Abraham translation, Mountain Meadows massacre and folk magic. He welcomed every question and encouraged us to ask even the most difficult ones.

A well-qualified historian

One of the most refreshing comments I heard was his expression of appreciation to the church, specifically to the church historian’s office, Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley for the recent publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He then said that he hoped that the church would do the same with the issue of polygamy, treating it openly and with historical accuracy.

Burt what impressed me most about the evening was the obvious fact that Richard Bushman is a highly respected historian who probably understands the beginnings of Mormonism as well as or better than anyone else. Besides being the co-general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, he chairs the board of directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation.  He knows early church history.

Serving faithfully in the church

And yet, Richard Bushman has served as a bishop, a stake president, a patriarch and is currently a sealer in the Los Angeles temple.  I would say that he is a faithful, believing Latter-day Saint, in spite of everything he knows about early church history.  I bring this up specifically to make a point about a common response to my essays and how I can still believe when I know this stuff.

I recently had someone ask me how I was able to do what I do – serve faithfully in the church – in spite of all that I know about, as he called it, “the more disturbing facts of the origins of Mormonism.”  I think maybe he might want to redirect that question to someone like Richard Bushman who knows so much more than I do and yet has been a faithful believer all his life.

Believing in spite of knowing

This individual asked, “How do you reconcile your belief and what the church teaches, with the history of things like the origins of the temple ceremony, polygamy, first vision contradictions, development of the story of the restoration of the priesthood, and other issues?”  I answered him privately in an email but have been pondering this whole idea of believing in spite of knowing.

Frankly, it perplexes me. I think I have expressed this same sentiment several times in previous essays every time it comes up. What is so hard about studying and understanding our very early church history, warts and all, and then continuing to believe that Joseph Smith was an instrument in the hands of God to bring about the restoration of the gospel and his church in the latter days?

Shocked by our history

Are we supposed to be shocked, dismayed and overwhelmed with doubt every time we discover some new fact about the early days of the church?  For example, last night we were reminded that beer and wine were used by the early saints, and sometimes even whiskey.  Today, we would be shocked if we learned that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drank a glass of wine.

Yet in volume IV, page 120 of the History of the Church on the date of April 17 1840 we read, “This day the Twelve blessed and drank a bottle of wine at Penworthan, made by Mother Moon forty years before.”  Things were different back then, weren’t they?  The Word of Wisdom had been received in 1833 but was not binding upon the saints as a commandment like it is today.

History not being hidden

When Fanny Alger was brought up by Brother Bushman last night as an example of an early failed attempt by Joseph to obey the law of plural marriage, I’ll bet there were a few people in the audience who did not know that Joseph had married this sixteen year old girl in 1833. The revelation on celestial marriage had been received in 1831 but Joseph was hesitant to obey.

For some reason, the idea that Joseph participated in plural marriage is supposed to be shocking to us. This continues to be one of the most common tactics of our critics – to try to shock us with facts that are supposedly being hidden from us by our modern church leaders.  Nothing could be further from the truth. We are always being encouraged to study our history and learn the facts.

Selling the Book of Mormon Copyright

Another example that our critics like to throw at us is the failed attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. Until recently, the only source for this event was the memory of David Whitmer who was not present when Joseph sent the brethren on their mission.  Joseph never said that it must have been a false revelation as Whitmer claimed he said upon their return.

We’re then supposed to conclude that if we can’t trust a revelation from Joseph then how are we supposed to know what is revelation from God. I’m not an apologist but I’m grateful that there are people who dig into these things to get the facts and present them for our review.  Of course, the same facts can be presented in favorable or unfavorable light, depending on where you go.

Consider carefully the source

For example, you can read the story of the copyright mission to Canada on MormonThink as supposed evidence that even Joseph Smith didn’t know when revelations were from God and when they were from the devil.  Yet you can read the same account in greater clarity and detail from a more trustworthy and reliable source like FAIR and come away strengthened in faith.

We could go on and on with hundreds of things that are supposed to be shocking to us modern believers of the faith because they seem so out of character with what we’ve been taught about Joseph or other leaders of the early LDS church. If we are bothered by something, then we need to do our homework and get all the facts as part of the process of confirming truth for ourselves.

Get the facts straight

If I were concerned upon reading that Joseph Smith was supposed to have said that even he didn’t know when a prophecy came from the Lord or that he is supposed to have said that a revelation he received must have come from the devil, as David Whitmer said he did, then I would want to read more about this and would be very careful about the source that I study.

Because if I believed that Joseph really said this, then that might lead me to conclude that if even prophets have a hard time understanding revelation, how can I really be expected to understand or know the truth of revelations that come to me, especially revelation that I think is telling me that the church itself is true? Do you see how important it is to get the facts of certain matters?

The Joseph Smith Papers

Of course Joseph never said that he must have received a false revelation.  In fact, according to more recent information discovered, the brethren who went on the mission to Canada in an attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon felt that they were successful on their mission and that the Lord was pleased with their efforts. The promised sale was conditional.

I’m grateful for brethren like Richard Bushman, who are helping to bring us the Joseph Smith papers. In volume 1 of the Manuscript Revelation Books, we have the full copy of the mission to Canada revelation. It can be read there. The criticism that Joseph later claimed that the revelation had not come from God is in all likelihood the product of a false memory by David Whitmer.

We can believe the prophet

As I wrote in a previous essay, I believe it is our lifelong pursuit to understand revelation and to come to know how the Lord communicates with each of us. We can rely on the promises of the Lord to lead us, guide us and walk beside us because we have the gift of the Holy Ghost. I hope we cherish this gift and live worthy of the constant companionship of this promised revelator.

Joseph Smith knew when the Lord was inspiring him and so did most of the brethren who were with him at the time when he received revelation. We can trust that the Lord will help us to have the assurances we need to believe in the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith. Someday, we will meet Brother Joseph and if we still have questions about his life we can ask them to him directly.

Gospel Symposia are making a comeback


Carol and I are flying up to Salt Lake on Friday to attend a gospel-related symposium on prophecy and cosmology. In other words, it is a seminar about Armageddon and the last days. It is being held at the Provo Marriott in the Aspen room. Attendance is expected to be several hundred. I am encouraged by the interest in the subject and by the very idea that such an event is being held.

Let me explain why. A few years back in the LDS Church, there were a number of people in Utah who started holding gospel study groups in their homes to discuss doctrines that were not being taught in depth in the regular church meetings. One of those doctrines was Armageddon and the events of the last days. You could say that some participants were just a little obsessed.

Gospel study groups in the home

You may recall that the Manti group formed out of a gospel study group that met in the home. For those who don’t know, that was the forerunner of yet another polygamous split-off called the TLC started by James Harmston. It was a sad period in the history of the church because it was also about this time that several outspoken LDS intellectuals were excommunicated for apostasy.

This was also the time that Bo Gritz was running for president and was promoting his ideas of being prepared for the impending collapse of the current socio-economic order. He taught there was a secret conspiracy and new world order being planned and that we should do all we could to resist it. His encouragement of paramilitary preparation was very popular in Utah and Idaho.

The decline of church firesides

The response of the church to the Manti group, the intellectual apostates, and those who went so far as to quit their jobs and hide in the mountains with large supplies of ammunition and food, was to send out a letter to all priesthood leaders warning them of the dangers of people holding study groups in their homes. President Packer also referred to this in General Conference.

The result was that there was an immediate decrease in firesides held throughout the church. I noticed it and so did a lot of others who enjoyed a group gospel discussion outside of church. It is unfortunate that the stimulating intellectual growth that comes from a group setting discussion was curtailed as the result of a few individuals who went too far and led others to apostasy.

Unintended consequences

I can understand the response of the Brethren in doing what they did. Their duty is to protect the church and to see that the doctrines taught are pure. The unintended result was the demise in legitimate intellectual dialog. I guess what I’m saying is that gospel doctrine classes don’t meet the needs of some individuals when it comes to wanting to increase their gospel knowledge.

I have missed the firesides that we used to have growing up where we talked about the last days and the signs of the times. I confess that I’m a little bit unorthodox when it comes to wanting to know more about Armageddon. I don’t think I am obsessed but my interest is keen, especially as events that I see as being fulfillment of the signs of the times become more and more abundant.

Exploring ideas together

That’s why I am so excited about this symposium and would invest the time and money to travel from California to Utah to attend this two-day event. Now don’t go thinking that I’m following after one of those individuals that is trying to lead the people of the church astray. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anthony Larson is a respected author and authority on the subject.

I have read all five of his books and all of his essays over the years and can tell you that he is in no way advocating anything other than loyalty to the church and to the Brethren who lead it. He does, however, have some rather unique views on what is prophesied to happen in the very last days as the advent of the Savior draws nigh. It has to do with an unorthodox view of cosmology.

Common interests

I think such a symposium like this can be held again because of the way that the Internet has filled the vacuum for intellectual gospel discussion. The church has embraced new technology and is encouraging members to speak out through all aspects of the new media in sharing the message of the restored gospel. Those with common interests have found each other online.

It is true that a subject like Armageddon can bring out the whackos among us. I have seen this on several of the online discussion groups, blogs and websites. It is also a subject about which mainly guys are interested. Carol finds it boring and is only attending the Friday evening meeting as a courtesy to me. She is spending Saturday taking pictures on the BYU campus.

Unorthodox views

What is unique about this symposium is that Anthony Larson is considered a crackpot by some in the LDS academic community. His ideas are unorthodox, unproven and in fact, go against what modern science teaches about cosmology. But that’s what I like about him and his ideas. He has studied this out in detail all his life. Isn’t he entitled to some inspiration on the subject?

So I’m going to give him a fair chance. I’m going to hear his ideas out and consider what he has to say on the subject. I have an advantage in that I have already invested dozens of hours over the years in reading and understanding his published material. But still, I have never met the man nor have I seen what kind of individuals attend his symposia. I may be in for a shock.

Preparing for Armageddon

Academic symposia in the LDS community are not new. Sunstone and similar groups have held such events continuously over the years. I am not a Sunstone kind of person. I find that some of the material they publish is not faith promoting. Independent thinking is encouraging, but not at the expense of loyalty to the prophets and apostles who lead the true church of the Lord today.

I am confident that what I hear from Anthony Larson this Friday and Saturday will in no way cause me to feel any less inclined to follow the Brethren. I do expect to have my understanding of the cosmological events of the last days increased. After all, haven’t the prophets always warned us to watch and be ready that we may be prepared for the days when the Lord returns?

Note: I have also written a report of the symposium

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