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David Campbell on the pros and cons of being a peculiar people at Mormon Media Studies Symposium

Published: Friday, Nov. 9 2012 3:49 p.m. MST

David Campbell addresses the audience in his keynote address at the Mormon Media Studies Symposium on Thursday.

Trent Toone, Deseret News

According to David Campbell, "the very things that make Mormons distinctive and build up the faith and keep Mormons vigorous and active at times can have collateral damage to those who perceive Mormons, who are outside the faith."

Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame studying politics and religion and the author of "American Grace," gave the keynote address for the Mormon Media Studies Symposium on Thursday on "The Mormon Dilemma: the Pros and Cons of Being a Peculiar People."

The overwhelming majority of members of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints are perfectly fine with being described as a peculiar people, according to a national survey conducted by Campbell.

"What does it mean to say Mormons are peculiar? Mormons are three things simultaneously: active, distinctive and cohesive," Campbell said.

In "The Faith Matters Survey," which is the backbone of Campbell's book, Americans were asked questions regarding religious belief, religious behavior, civic and political views, and other topics.

"The main story I want to take from this figure is how the numbers for Mormons swamp those from any other group," Campbell said. According to the data, three things are normal for Mormons: attending church, praying daily and reading scripture. The data also show that people who are more religious are actually more, not less, likely to be involved in non-religious activities.

"Mormons as a group give a lot of time and energy and money to their church, but that doesn't come at the expense of time and energy and money donated outside the church," Campbell said.

"Other ways we might think of Mormons as being peculiar, one rests on the fact that Mormons as a group have a very strong sense of identity as Mormons," he said. "In fact Mormons identify with Mormons at a rate we do not find in other religious groups."

Campbell suggested a metaphor to help people understand how Mormonism works — a sacred tabernacle, such as the Tabernacle that the children of Israel traveled with in the wilderness, a tent-like structure that was somewhat portable. The metaphor reflects the fact that Mormons have a community that's more than just a small umbrella, but it doesn't cover all of society, but rather the community of Mormons wherever you might find them.

"That means that within Mormonism you find boundaries drawn between those who are and are not within the faith. Mormons have always drawn boundaries between those who are and are not," said Campbell, who went on to suggest that today these boundaries are symbolic. Every time a member of the LDS Church declines a glass of wine at dinner or does any of the other things that mark Mormons as being distinctive, they're marking a boundary between who they are and are not. "Mormons have created these tight-knit communities. … It turns out that Mormon peculiarity carries with it some cons in addition to those pros."

In a survey presented in the book "American Grace," Americans were asked how they feel about members of a whole series of religious traditions. In other words, the graph reflects a popularity contest among different religious groups in America. According to the survey, the most popular religious group in America today is the Jews, followed closely by the Catholics and then by the mainline Protestants. Evangelical Protestants and nonreligious individuals are marginally high, followed in order by Mormons, Buddhists and Muslims.

According to Campbell, the answer to the difference in popularity is a metaphorical "Aunt Susan."

"Your Aunt Susan is that person in your life who is the kindest, sweetest, nicest person you know; the person you know is destined to go to heaven," Campbell said. "But you also know your Aunt Susan worships at a different altar than you do. It turns out that when faced with their theology, most faiths teach that you have to play by their faith to go to heaven. When faced with this, most Americans go for Aunt Susan."

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