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About Utah: LDS have big image problem

Published: Sunday, Nov. 23 2008 12:08 a.m. MST

Gary Lawrence is a card-carrying, tithe-paying, churchgoing Mormon who had long suspected that the public perception of his church in America wasn't exactly up there with, say, baseball and apple pie.

So a year and a half ago, he decided to conduct a public opinion poll to see if he was right.

Finding a pollster was easy.

He hired himself.

Ever since he left Stanford University in 1972 with a Ph.D. in communication psychology, Lawrence has been tracking the attitudes, moods, opinions and behaviors of Americans. He was worked for politicians — he was part of Ronald Reagan's successful presidential campaigns — and for any number of clients in the business world. His firm, Lawrence Research, headquartered out of Santa Ana, Calif., has become one of the most respected in the country.

It was during his 35 years as a professional that he would occasionally peripherally catch the drift that the church he was born into in Springville, Utah, wouldn't win any popularity contests, a suspicion that caused him a good deal of proprietorial concern.

Finally, in April 2007, he set aside the time to academically probe the question "How Americans View Mormonism."

He followed all the accepted rules of non-biased polling. He randomly selected 1,000 people from all 50 states to survey.

"I got to ask everything I've always wanted to ask Americans about (Mormons), and because I was paying for it, I got to decide the questions," says Lawrence.

The results were pretty much what he expected.

"We're not as popular as we think we are," he says.

He found that 84 percent of Americans have been exposed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one form or another — via missionaries, members, the media or all three. That translates to a very healthy awareness penetration.

But of that 84 percent, just 14 percent could correctly answer the main claim of Mormonism: that it is Christ's original gospel re-arranged on the Earth.

Even when those polled were prodded with facts they may have forgotten — a polling technique known as aided recall — just 29 percent could accurately state the church's position.

The result is poll data that report 49 percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of Mormons, compared with 39 percent who have a favorable impression. The remaining 12 percent are uninformed or undecided.

"As Mormons, we think we're effectively communicating our message, but we're not," says Lawrence. "Our image is lousy largely because of so many falsehoods and distortions out there about who we are."

By coincidence, Lawrence's polling took place about the same time Mitt Romney became America's first viable Mormon presidential candidate.

The study's results confirm why Romney's campaign ran into so many public perception problems.

"Romney brought the latent anti-Mormonism to the surface," says Lawrence. "I think in the long run that can be a help if it prods (Mormons) to become determined to get more people to understand what we really believe and do not believe."

Lawrence has compiled all his data and published it in a book called "How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image."

Hot off the presses, the book includes detailed charts, eye-catching color photographs and thought-provoking quotes — all of it designed to catch someone's eye.

"We made it coffee table size so it might stick around in Mormon households and not gather dust on the bookshelf," says Lawrence, who has priced the book at $29.50 and made it available at www.howamericansviewmormonism.com.

"I'm not going to make any money on this, and I don't care to," he says. "I want to get it into Mormon homes. That's my motivation. I believe this is something (church members) need to see.

"As I see it, the church has a serious image problem, and that is causing increasing antagonism and fear of us," he says, cautioning that such a view is personal and in no way reflects any official church positions. "If I could, I'd like to help turn that around."


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.

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