Several months ago, on the Joe Rogan podcast, comedian Whitney Cummings mentioned a documentary she had seen about child abuse perpetrated by Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the course of the conversation, she asked why “we’re not all storming Salt Lake City to get these girls out” and wondered whether she was “going to get a dart in the neck (because) there is so much fear around the Mormon Church.”
It was clear she was completely oblivious to the fact that Jeffs’ offshoot, polygamous, fundamentalist sect was completely different from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Which also doesn’t use the term “Mormon” anymore.)
Despite this, at no point in the conversation was there any kind of pushback, correction or questioning from the host or on-site producer, who seemed equally oblivious (which isn’t surprising since Rogan also once believed that Jews hold Jesus as a prophet).
The thing is, it’s not just Rogan. A nationally representative survey showed that only one-third of respondents knew that Latter-day Saints can’t have more than one wife, while only about half know that members believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God — despite “Jesus Christ” being part of the church’s name.
And about a quarter believed that Latter-day Saints can’t have blood transfusions. They can — that’s a teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The lack of knowledge is not just about Latter-day Saints either. Pew found that only about half of Americans could correctly identify Jesus as giving the Sermon on the Mount — even when given four options.
With religious literacy in the United States so abysmal, it’s hard to know what to make of another recent poll that showed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has one of the lowest favorability ratings of any faith — lower than Wicca and not far ahead of satanism.
One has to wonder, do respondents in that poll even know the difference between Latter-day Saints and the fundamentalist Mormons that get so much airtime in the press?
Given the exchange on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world, I have my doubts.
A popularity contest for religions?
Much of the discussion about the survey naturally went to what could be the reason for the favorability ratings. For instance, one commentator noted, “I’m surprised that Democrats prefer Protestantism to Catholicism.” Another person noted, “Republicans significantly more pro-Jewish (+23) than Democrats (+9).” Brian Clark weighed in, “I’m Episcopalian. Anyone know why we aren’t more liked? Those numbers seem low.”
And on Twitter, Manuel Hernandez quipped that “Scientology ranking worse than Satanism also explains Tom Cruise’s Oscar snub.”
There is a lot that we can speculate on. But in general, the numbers aren’t that surprising for Latter-day Saints, as they track other surveys showing us in the company of other religious minority groups such as Muslims, when it comes to popularity.
For those of us who find solace and sweetness in our faith, the natural assumption is that deeper understanding of the faith will generate more affection — if they knew more about the church, they would love it as we do. But, of course, we also know that some expressing the strongest disapproval of a certain faith do know it well — or at least they think they do.
In the case of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attitudes toward the faith may have less to do with the same-sex dating policy at religious schools or with theological positioning about the exact nature of Christ’s divinity, and more to do with a Netflix documentary producer’s choice of creepy music.
A peculiar people
There are certainly discussions worth having about what exactly Latter-day Saints do (or don’t do) that invokes such ire in the broader public. But with such widespread ignorance about religion in general, it’s important that we pay attention to not just what we say and do, but how we are perceived.
And clearly, among some people, there is a perception that all faith groups are a societal problem that needs to be confronted. One shocking takeaway was that, to some Democrats, Latter-day Saints were seen as worse than satanists. In view of these results, one man suggested, “Republican religious bigotry toward LDS is the reason we didn’t have two terms of President Mitt Romney.”
And of course, it’s not just bigotry, but ignorance, at play.
It’s also worth noting that the chatterati commenting on the “why” behind these numbers are often people whose knowledge of the faith is limited to game-show tidbits such as the fact that Joseph Smith was a Latter-day Saint.
If people don’t know even the basics of a faith group, is it asking too much for them to differentiate between the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
It seems so. And I suspect that’s one good reason why the two groups are relatively close together in this survey’s rankings.
In a similar vein, one commentator said about the differences in religious favorability, “What is one supposed to do with this? How many respondents have a clue as to the difference between Northern and Southern Baptists or between The Episcopal Church and Presbyterianism?”
Another likewise asked, “Very curious what percentage of respondents thought Christian Scientist meant Scientologist.”
The reality is that the average American probably can’t, religiously speaking, tell the difference between an avocado and a chihuahua. That needs to change — and it needs to be taken into account when speculating about surveys.
Stephen Cranney is a nonresident fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion and teaches at Catholic University of America.