SANDY — More Americans have a strongly unfavorable impression of Mormons than a strongly favorable one — by a ratio of 5-to-1 — and it's up to Mormons themselves to correct the situation, a public opinion pollster said Friday.
Gary Lawrence said only 12 percent of non-Mormon Americans know, unaided, the LDS Church's claim to be a restoration of the church that Christ founded. Sixty-seven percent are uncertain whether Mormons believe the Bible, 77 percent on whether Mormons are Christians and 75 percent on whether Mormons practice polygamy, he noted.
"We've been doing missionary work for 180 years," Lawrence said. "I'd say the delivery vehicles are arriving, but the freight isn't being off-loaded, and that's our fault."
Lawrence addressed the annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research convening Thursday and Friday at the South Towne Exposition Center.
Working primarily by means of a website and the annual conference, FAIR seeks to counter adverse criticism against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though it is not formally affiliated with the church.
Lawrence spoke on the theme "How Americans View Mormonism and What We Can Do about It."
Two years ago, his Orange County, Calif., polling firm conducted a survey among 1,000 randomly chosen American adults, asking about their view of the LDS Church.
"We tend to think people are not beating a path to our door, but they respect what we Mormons are trying to do," Lawrence said. "Baloney. They don't."
He found that Americans have a 37 percent favorable and a 49 percent unfavorable impression. By contrast, Jewish people have almost a 7-to-2 positive-to-negative ratio, and the proportion for Catholics is almost 2-to-1 favorable.
Lawrence identified the cause as an "approach-avoidance" situation in which many people are "cross-pressured."
"It's a love-hate relationship," he said. "They'd like to believe certain things about us, but they hear other things about us."
Fifty-five percent of those polled said they believe Mormons are seekers of truth, "which means that 45 percent don't even believe we are seeking the truth, let alone have entertained the thought that we have the truth," Lawrence said.
"A lot of this comes with a misperception of what is known as a faith community," he said, explaining that many people confuse the church with schismatic groups that practice polygamy.
"They do the same thing to us that we do to other religions," Lawrence said. "How many of you make a distinction between, say, a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist?"
It's up to Latter-day Saints, he said, to let people know there is a distinction between the LDS Church and the more than 150 splinter groups.
"Until we make that point very firmly, we are going to continue to have some problems," Lawrence said.
While Mormons think they are known to the public, "37 percent of Americans do not know a Mormon, and 55 percent never met anybody like you," he said, presuming most of his listeners were active Latter-day Saints.
Conducting focus groups for the church, Lawrence found that less-active Mormons have the most friends among those of other faiths.
"We are being represented by our least-prepared members," he said.
Lawrence suggested that church members get out into the community but not with "an agenda." Rather, they should do it "simply because we believe in their cause and what they are trying to accomplish."
"And we make friends, not because we are trying to lead them to the waters of baptism, although it would be wonderful if we could do that, but simply to be their friend," he said.
Doing so, Mormons are apt to find people from a wide variety of backgrounds who are looking for truth, Lawrence said.
"I say that any church that can have Glenn Beck and Harry Reid as active members is a big-tent religion," he said.
The immediate goal of church members should not be referrals and baptisms, Lawrence said, but rather spreading information, correcting distortions and improving others' understanding of Mormonism.
In doing so, Mormons need to "cut the jargon," he said, adding that people don't know where to find the truth "because we have not told them in words they can understand."
"When we say something, we think we're communicating, but it's not the case until the person understands what we understand," Lawrence said.
He cited a stock statement church members often use: "The gospel has been restored and the keys of the priesthood are again on the earth."
In focus group, Lawrence found that the word "gospel" only conveys the same meaning to about 15 percent of non-Mormons that it does to Mormons, that is, the totality of Christianity, including its authority and doctrines.
Instead, he suggested these words: "Jesus Christ organized a Church; men changed it, and it has been re-established."
"If we can get that simple set of phrases across, we will have accomplished a great amount of work," Lawrence said. "If you want to put it in one sentence, 'We claim to be the re-established, original Christian church.' Even an atheist can understand those words."
He said Mormons should say "we claim" instead of "we are" because it carries less tension, pressure and implied threat.
"People can dispute our claim, but they cannot dispute the fact that we make the claim," Lawrence said.
He suggested that church members replace the traditional three-step paradigm of conversion (find, teach and baptize) with a more realistic six-step model: awareness, awakening, curiosity, interest, investigation and conversion.
Regarding correcting distortions, Lawrence said people have a right to their own opinions but not to their own facts and that "differentiating messages motivate; similarity messages do not."
"When somebody criticizes our church, or any church, it's American fair play that they will expect you to defend your religion," he said. "It's going to be welcome, or at least it will be tolerated."
Lawrence suggested some responses to a couple of false assertions such as "Mormons aren't Christians." Lawrence said, "Why don't we give them a differentiating piece of information, something they can think about for a while: 'How can we claim to be the original of something if we are not at least the something?'"
To the assertion that Mormons don't believe the Bible, Lawrence suggested this response: "Of course we believe the Bible; our members wrote it."
"If that strikes you as being from the Orrin Porter Rockwell school of diplomacy, you can simply say, 'We claim to be the followers of the same religion as those who wrote the Bible,'" he said.
Regarding the charge that Mormons practice polygamy, he suggested the response given by a friend of his. "If I wanted to be excommunicated from the church, I would practice polygamy; the other sins take longer."
e-mail: [email protected]