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Deseret Morning News graphic

Americans identify polygamy with the LDS Church more than anything else, including Donny and Marie.

And, a new Gallup poll released Friday shows, 46 percent of the nation has an unfavorable opinion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, compared to 42 percent who have a favorable opinion.

"Something about the Mormon religion apparently disturbs a significant portion of the American population," according to the Gallup News Service.

But scholars and political scientists say the results shouldn't concern Mormons, who belong to one of the fastest-growing religions in America.

"I don't think it's anything to get too excited about because it's not that bad," said Rodney Stark, Baylor University professor of social sciences. "A whole lot of Americans have never met a Mormon."

The nationwide Gallup telephone survey of 1,018 adults, conducted Feb. 22-25, shows the negative attitudes appear to be based on more than just concerns about the Utah-based religion in a presidential

context. The poll, which can be found at galluppoll.com, has a 4 percent margin of error.

Gallup earlier surveyed voters about a Mormon, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, running for president. It showed a quarter of the country would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified presidential candidate who is LDS. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 29 percent would not vote for a Mormon hopeful.

The new poll broke out the results by region, political party, ideology, church attendance and religion. Findings include:

• Americans who attend church have highly negative views of the Latter-day Saint religion.

• Protestants have a significantly more negative impression than Catholics, the most positive group by religion.

• Republicans are slightly more negative in their views than Democrats and independents.

• Liberals are extremely negative in their views, while conservatives and moderates are about evenly divided.

• Opinions about Mormons are better formed in the West, where the preponderance of Mormons live.

Attitudes changing

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter issued a brief statement Friday afternoon in response to the poll.

"Many religions in the world are not well understood, and we believe that the survey reflects the fact that many people know little or nothing about the doctrine, teachings and values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he said.

Stark, a religion scholar, said the results aren't as negative as they would have been 30 years ago. "I think people's attitudes have become much less hostile," he said.

Jan Shipps, emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, said the poll results aren't shocking.

"There's nothing about it that really surprises me," she said.

Shipps, who has studied the LDS Church since 1961, attributes the poor impression to the impact of Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentecostals who question whether Mormons are Christians. Groups like Ex-Mormons for Jesus and films like "The Godmakers" also play into it, she said.

One perception the LDS Church has not been able to shake is its connection to polygamy, a practice it officially banned in 1890.

In an open-ended question, respondents were asked what comes to mind when they think about the LDS Church.

Polygamy topped the list, followed by Salt Lake City or Utah and good, caring people with strong morals. Other responses included a dislike of LDS beliefs, door-to-door proselyting, big families and descriptions such as strange or cult-like. The Osmonds were way down on the list.

Interestingly, among 17 percent of those who have favorable opinions of the LDS Church, polygamy is the most frequently mentioned single impression.

Shipps said two things factor into polygamy as the top answer. "One is Warren Jeffs and the all the fundamentalists, and two is 'Big Love,"' the HBO series.

Liberals, evangelicals

Despite Utah being one of the most Republican states in the nation, GOP survey respondents didn't show Mormons much love. Republicans had a more unfavorable impression than did Democrats or independents.

Quinn Monson, a Brigham Young University political scientist, said that polls haven't dug deep enough to confirm it yet, but he believes data are showing that the unfavorable group is really two groups — secular liberals and Christian fundamentalists or evangelical conservatives who don't like LDS beliefs.

"The secular liberals don't like us because they are unfavorable toward religion," Monson said, "and the evangelicals don't like our doctrine and theology, although they might like to be around us, don't mind hanging out with us, think we're pretty good people."

That jibes with an anecdote published recently in a New York Times Magazine excerpt from the book "The Blind Side," by Michael Lewis. A former University of Mississippi basketball player and evangelical named Sean Tuohy, referring to help his adopted son got from BYU while taking correspondence courses, said, "The Mormons may be going to hell, but they really are nice people."

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics, said "both Republicans and President Bush are faring far worse than Mormons in the country right now."

The top four contenders for the presidency have issues with age, race, gender or religion, he said. "The media is billing this election as one to overcome some prejudice."

Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter, disagrees that the perception of the LDS Church was worse in the past. Political polls over the years show that while the prejudice against a candidate's age, race or gender has diminished, it has stayed about the same for a Mormon candidate, he said.

"I suppose the whole point is what does it mean for Romney," Stark said. "I don't think it's all that bad given that nobody knows him yet."

The Romney campaign did not return telephone calls for comment.

"If we did this in 1961, it would have been twice as bad. No Mormon would have thought of running for president. It's not some guy trying to make it out of Utah. He wouldn't have the same kind of exposure," he said.

Stark placed Romney in the same category as John F. Kennedy, who as a Catholic faced strong opposition in his campaign, prompting him to say he wouldn't move the pope into the White House. Likewise, Stark doesn't see the three-member First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve that preside over the LDS Church getting special access. He supposes Romney could say something like "the Twelve won't have a secret tunnel to the Pentagon."


E-mail: romboy@desnews.com