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What does the Mormon 'temperature' reading mean in new Pew survey?

Published: Sunday, July 20 2014 8:05 a.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, July 20 2014 8:05 a.m. MDT

The Mormon Moment didn't do much to change the attitude of Americans toward Latter-day Saints, but it also probably isn't over, according to a pair of experts on the perception of Mormons in the American mind.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new survey released this week with data about how Americans feel about Latter-day Saints didn't prove whether the "Mormon Moment" is over or add insight into why Mormons like each other so much.

It did show that the partisan favorability gap — more Republicans have warmer feelings toward Latter-day Saints than Democrats since the 2012 presidential election — is narrowing.

The Pew Research Center's "feeling thermometer" survey, "How Americans Feel About Religious Groups," found Mormons with a middling score of 48 — Jews led with a 63, Muslims trailed at 40.

All that proved about Mormons is Americans don't feel much warmer or colder about them than they have for the past eight years, said David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who conducted similar feeling thermometer studies with Harvard's Robert Putnam for their book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

"While the specific numbers vary a little bit, what they've found is entirely consistent with what we found in 2006, 2007 and 2010," Campbell said. "We found very little movement across our three surveys. The Pew survey is very similar. We're all tapping into the same underlying reality."

The change in political perspective, though, still interests Campbell, who has written a new book with Jon Green and Quin Monson due out at month's end, "Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics," from Cambridge University Press.

The point the authors make about Mormons through the Mormon Moment and Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is that the generally flat line in the feeling thermometer surveys is deceiving. For them, the interesting line to consider over the past eight years is the partisan one.

"It's really striking we see the partisan difference, how Democrats and Republicans see Mormons," Campbell said. "That partisan divide is a new thing. It didn't exist in 2006 or 2010. It did in 2012, undoubtedly because of the Romney candidacy. Even in 2006 it wasn't a secret most Mormons leaned Republican, but that didn't seem to register in the minds of people.

"But now it does."

Clearly, then, Romney affected perceptions about Mormons. But Campbell described the Mormon Moment as a time when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entered the American zeitgeist in a way that showed "the greater salience of Mormonism."

Still, Campbell said, "The Mormon Moment undoubtedly has been important for many things, but it has not led to a warming up of attitudes toward Mormons."

A researcher who studies 20th-century LDS history, author J.B. Haws, took a longer view.

"The Pew survey reflects the growing prominence of smaller religious groups on the American landscape," said Haws, author of "The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception." "There seems to be a modest and steady warming trend in the public feeling toward Mormons."

Haws said the LDS Church commissioned studies about public perception in 1998 and 2002, after Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics. The ’98 study showed Mormons with a thermometer score of 40.3, and the ’02 survey bumped the number up to 45.3.

Haws said the 48 in the Pew study "seems to point to a slow and steady increase in favorable feelings toward Mormons."

He pointed out that the Pew report showed a nine-point favorability swing for those who knew Mormons (53 score) to those who didn't know any (44).

"Knowing a Mormon tends toward favorability," Haws said.

Campbell said that is a key part to understanding the Mormon Moment.

"What matters most in these surveys is not what people experience through the news media but what they experience in their personal relationships," he said.

Haws doesn't think the Mormon Moment has an expiration date but is simply a sign of a tipping point in American consciousness about the LDS Church.

"It might be too early to make those prognostications, but it does seem there is a growing interest in all things Mormon."

He pointed to the growing number of academic studies programs about Mormonism as well as the active LDS participation in social media.

Haws also said media coverage of the church changed from the 2008 Romney campaign to 2012, moving from the same old stories toward lived Mormonism and diversity.

"One thing that came out of 2012 was media coverage of the diversity within Mormonism," Haws said. "People found out that Harry Reid was LDS — and Jabari Parker, Mia Love — and began to see more of the political, racial and ethnic diversity within the church."

"I see the momentum growing," Haws said. "I'm very optimistic that, no, it's not over."

The Pew study included how Jews felt about Jews and how Catholics responded to their own faith in the thermometer readings. When those of a faith were deleted from the stats about their group, the temperature often dropped, as it did significantly for evangelicals, from 61 to 52.

Still, "Evangelicals don't like evangelicals as much as Mormons like Mormons," Campbell said. "What's truly striking and revealing (in other studies) is that no group gives themselves a higher rating than Mormons do Mormons. Mormons give Mormons even higher scores than blacks give blacks or Hispanics give Hispanics in feeling thermometer surveys about race.

"It's really more than a religion; it borders on an ethnic group. They really view other Mormons as being one of them, or being part of a tribe. In an effort to describe this, some say Mormons are a people, which is a way to say they are not an ethnic group but are more than a religion."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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