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Survey: Latter-day Saints are everywhere in media, but Americans still know little about them

SHARE Survey: Latter-day Saints are everywhere in media, but Americans still know little about them
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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

The media spotlight shining on Latter-day Saints on television and social media may seem like a sequel to the “Mormon Moment,” but a new national survey shows that most Americans still know very little about them and their beliefs.

“The amount of ignorance people had about the church was shocking,” said Josh Coates, the executive director of the B.H. Roberts Foundation, which published the study and is best known for its Mormonr brand. “I mean, two-thirds of the people that responded either thought we practice polygamy, or they weren’t sure if we practice polygamy.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in 1890.

“Mormon Moment II” may be perpetuating the misunderstanding. As people watch shows like Netflix’s “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” Coates said that even when producers explain the difference between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a separate, fundamentalist group, many viewers walk away without a clear understanding.

Coates said the survey of 1,157 Americans by Momentive is the first of many. The B.H. Roberts Foundation, a non-profit that supports education and research related to Latter-day Saints, plans to conduct the survey every year or every other year so it can track American views of the church.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that the more you know about Latter-day Saints, the more you like them. The less you know about Latter-day Saints, the more you dislike them,” Coates said.

What do people know about Latter-day Saints?

The problem for Latter-day Saints, Coates said, is that the survey’s other big finding is that most people don’t know much about Latter-day Saints. For example, 84% earned an F on a short quiz about Latter-day Saints beliefs and practices.

Without much knowledge of the church or its members, it’s understandable that about 50% said they don’t have strong feelings about the church or its members.

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“Most people don’t actually like or dislike us, they don’t really even think about us much,” he said. “They don’t know much about us and they’re neutral on Latter-day Saints, both the church and the people.”

Where do people get their information about Latter-day Saints?

Coates also was surprised that 46% of Americans have never talked to a Latter-day Saint missionary, and that about half of those surveyed said they don’t have friends or family who are church members.

Utahns may think everyone knows a Latter-day Saint, Coates said, but half of Americans say they don’t have a Latter-day Saint friend or family member.

“There’s a whole wide world out there and people don’t know us,” he said.

The burst of movies and shows and social media accounts about the church rivals family and friends for the sources of the most information about the church, according to the survey.

Over the past two years, streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have released several shows about Latter-day Saints or groups related to the church, including “Murder Among the Mormons,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Sins of Our Mother” and more.

The interest has led some to compare this to the so-called Mormon Moment from 2007-12, when interest in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns and other topics catapulted the Church of Jesus Christ into the spotlight.

That moment didn’t necessarily change Americans’ perspectives on Latter-day Saints. Gallup polls at the beginning of Romney’s second campaign found that around 1 in 5 Americans would not vote for their party’s nominee if the nominee were a Latter-day Saint. That number was virtually the same as it was in 1968 when Romney’s father, George, ran for president.

“Where people learn about us mostly is family and friends, but also on TV and in movies,” Coates said. “Especially nowadays, there’s so much media about Latter-day Saints over the last year or two, and most of it has not been flattering, and that is one of the top ways people learn about us. That’s kind of a bummer, I think. But that’s not going to change. We’re a really interesting topic, apparently.”

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How much (or how little) do people know about Latter-day Saints?

The quiz about church beliefs and practices included polygamy. Missing two or more answers was considered a failing score. Here is the quiz:

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) ...

  • Can live with more than one wife (false)
  • Can’t eat chocolate (false)
  • Can’t drink alcohol (true)
  • Can’t have blood transfusions (false)
  • Believe Christ is the Son of God (true)

The survey found that those who said they like Latter-day Saints scored three times higher on the quiz than those who said they disliked church members. Those with a college degree scored 78% higher than those without a college degree.

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Coates said understanding what people know about Latter-day Saints is important in an era where many people are turning away from religion. Interestingly, the survey found a correlation between religiosity and feelings about members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

“The more religious you are, the more friendly you are toward Latter-day Saints,” Coates said.

“Nowadays, it seems like we have a lot of things in common, because faith is declining rapidly in America,” he said. “The fastest-growing belief system is the non-belief system. In fact, several surveys indicate that roughly 1 in 3 Americans are no longer affiliated with a religion.”

A Pew Research Center study released in September found that people who are religiously unaffiliated, sometimes called religious “nones,” accounted for 30% of the U.S. population.

Coates said his team checked the survey’s results against other survey results, including the University of Chicago’s GSS survey, which has been conducted about every other year since 1972.

The GSS indicates that mainline Protestant churches have lost about a third of the 20 million members they had about 20 years ago, Coates said.

“That’s incredible, 7 million members just vanishing. It’s just an extreme plummet,” he said. “Latter-day Saints in the United States have grown, though the growth rate in absolute terms is down. In the last 10 years, the (Church of Jesus Christ) in the United States has grown by 530,000 members.”

What religious group is friendliest toward Latter-day Saints?

The most Latter-day Saint friendly religious group was Muslims, according to the survey, possibly because their beliefs match those of Latter-day Saints in numerous ways, from abstinence from alcohol to the importance of families to the wearing of sacred clothing, Coates said.

Coates launched the B.H. Roberts Foundation to build a comprehensive database of primary-source records related to complex faith-related topics. The foundation is fully independent and funded by Coates and other private donations. Coates said the foundation will share the survey with the church.

“Gathering sociological data about the church and about the Latter-day Saints has always been a fascination of mine,” he said. “And BHR has the means, motive and opportunity to get more data on the topic.”

A second, Utah-specific survey will follow. Its aim is to learn what people in the state who don’t belong to the church think about church members. It also will seek more information about both Latter-day Saints in Utah and former church members.

What is Mormonr?

The Mormonr brand is aimed at 20- to 40-year-olds. Its website publishes Q&As about different topics related to the church. The site draws 30,000 visitors a month, Coates said, 77% of whom say they are Latter-day Saints.

Mormonr’s Twitter account has 10,800 followers and is known for its memes.

The white paper for the 2022 B. H. Roberts National Latter-day Saint Survey will be available at bhroberts.org/2022BHRNLDSS.