Results of a two-year study released this week show one-third of university faculty nationwide have an unfavorable impression of Latter-day Saints, while an equal proportion of the general population holds a favorable view.
The survey of 1,269 faculty members, done by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, showed that among social sciences and humanities faculty, the "unfavorable" rating for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was at 38 percent.
The results come at a time when discussion of public perceptions about Latter-day Saints is top-of-mind for many Utahns. The Rev. Al Sharpton apologized Thursday to two top LDS leaders for his jab earlier this week at GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's LDS faith. And last week, the four-hour PBS documentary "The Mormons" broke records for viewership at KUED. The ensuing discussion about whether the program accurately portrayed the LDS Church's history, doctrine and members was the topic of water-cooler discussion, news stories and Internet blogs for days.
Gary Tobin, president of the nonpartisan IJCR think tank in San Francisco, said the survey did not ask why the respondents hold the views they do. It simply measured whether faculty members held favorable, unfavorable or neutral views about a variety of faiths, including the LDS Church.
Similarly, evangelical Christians were viewed unfavorably by 53 percent of faculty, he said, noting that 71 percent agreed with the statement: "This country would be better off if Christian fundamentalists kept their religious beliefs out of politics."
The LDS Church had no comment on the survey results.
Tobin said he can only conjecture why the results came out the way they did, but he thinks there may be some stereotypes about who these religious groups are. "That's what we're trying to measure here."
Of faculty surveyed, 75 percent said religion is not important to them, and 65 percent said they are Democrats.
"For evangelicals, given that most faculty are Democrats and liberals, they are likely to see evangelicals as conservative and Republican," Tobin said. "For Mormons, we don't know what they see or what is their stereotype."
Tobin said he could only guess that, along with evangelicals, faculty see Latter-day Saints as either "too politically conservative or holding what many believe to be anti-intellectual religious views, whatever they might be." Faculty are more likely to support abortion, gun control, separation of church and state, he said, and thus are likely to see "evangelicals and Mormons as groups opposed morally and politically to what (faculty) believe."
Though conventional Christians distance themselves from Latter-day Saint theology particularly when it comes to beliefs about God, Jesus Christ and scripture they do share some of the same moral and cultural values, Tobin said, meaning the results may have something to do with religious ideology, behavior and belief.
David Keller, director of the Center for the Study of Ethics at Utah Valley State College, said while he doesn't know all the factors that may play into the survey results, personal experience bears out some prejudice toward Latter-day Saints among academics.
During his doctoral work at the University of Georgia, Keller said "quite a few grad students as well as professors were Southern Baptists, and they were particularly hostile to Mormons."
During philosophical discussions, when pressed about their feelings, he said many said they "can't define Mormons in any way as Christians because of the doctrine of individuals becoming God-like at some future time. They find that to be utter idolatry. One grad student who was particularly outward about his attitude even went so far as to claim to me he believed Mormonism was an invention of Satan," Keller said.
The conversations ensued because faculty and students learned Keller was from Utah. "There was never any feeling to me that it was personal. But it was clear that a lot of Southern Baptists are very antagonistic toward Mormonism for theological reasons. It irritates them that Mormons prominently use the name of Christ" not only in doctrinal explanations, but in the church's logo, he said.
Keller also attended Boston College for his master's degree and found nothing like what he experienced in Georgia. "I got the impression there that Catholics just don't care too much about Mormons and are not that focused on them."
Keller suspects the political ideology of most university faculty has an impact, especially since Utah and its LDS majority have been widely identified with the Republican Party since the 1970s. "People take note of that, and intuitively I would assume it does have an impact."
He said he hasn't encountered any particular negativity toward Latter-day Saints among faculty at UVSC, but that many were "miffed that certain people would self-anoint themselves as community spokespeople" during filmmaker Michael Moore's controversial visit to the school in 2004.
"The most outspoken critics of him coming, and those that seemed to be the least tolerant, prominently displayed their Mormon background. So faculty at UVSC who are more for pluralism and open dialogue especially out of state faculty certainly had a negative view of the anti-Michael Moore critics, based on assumption that a democracy and open society should welcome differing perspectives, even if you don't agree."
He believes more moderate Latter-day Saints "are probably less out-spoken, which gives the general public a skewed perspective" of what believers think, both politically and otherwise.
University of Utah spokeswoman Coralee Alder said she was unable to find anyone at the U. willing to comment on the survey, or whether there is negativity toward Latter-day Saints among faculty there, as some have alleged in recent years.
Tobin said a 2002 study done by his institute to measure how the general public views people of different faiths and ethnicity showed that "56 percent of respondents said Mormons were unlike them, while 30 percent said Mormons were like them." The results were most strident among young people ages 18 to 34, 66 percent of whom said Mormons were unlike them.
"When I look at other religious groups for all Americans, Mormons were down there (in percentages) with Muslims and with people who have no religion.
The two surveys together "pretty much confirm most Americans don't feel close to Mormons," Tobin said, adding that the Rev. Sharpton's comments earlier this week "reveal a larger reservoir of misconception and prejudice about Mormons than you have with what's going on among faculty."With 33 percent of faculty who are supposedly more well-informed and publicly persuasive holding such unfavorable views, "you're getting into some pretty dark territory," Tobin said. "That's certainly worth looking at."