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."
According to Campbell, almost all Americans have an "Aunt Susan," or rather a close relationship with people not of the same faith. According to the study, as people become close friends with people of other faiths, they actually become warmer toward people of the faith represented among their friends and towards people of other faiths not in their circle.
"Why is it that we find Jews and Catholics on top?" Campbell asked. "Turns out there are a lot of Aunt Susans who are Catholic and Aunt Susans who are Jewish. There are not very many Mormon Aunt Susans. It's because of that sacred tabernacle which Mormons have built. That is one of the cons of being a peculiar people.
"Mormons have a high regard for other Mormons. No group in America today likes themselves more than Mormons. It's because of the sacred tabernacle, it's because of that sense of identity that Mormons have with one another. It's a reflection of the fact that Mormons really do feel a strong affinity for their own people and culture."
"This plays out in the bonding of Mormon communities, Campbell said. While some religious groups build bridges outside of their faith, Mormons have a strong tendency to build bonds within their faith, he said.
"There's pretty clear evidence that when Americans know a Mormon and particularly know a Mormon well their attitudes towards Mormons change," Campbell said.
From a survey conducted in 2008 designed to gauge the reaction of Americans when they learned that Mitt Romney is a member of the LDS Church, Campbell found that people who don’t know a Mormon had a negative reaction, people who have a Mormon who is a close friend or family member had a somewhat negative reaction and those who had a Mormon acquaintance had a highly negative reaction.
Campbell suggested the latter was due to the idea that people with Mormon acquaintances know enough about Mormons to know there is something different about them, but not enough to overcome any suspicions engendered because of that difference.
However, in a survey conducted in October , Campbell found that by the time the general election came around, Romney's religion ceased to matter.
Another survey tested how voters would respond to other political candidates who were identified as LDS. He found that those who don't know a Mormon are most likely to have a negative reaction, those with an acquaintance will have only a slightly negative reaction, while those who know a Mormon well barely move in their reaction.
"Because of the attention paid to Mormonism, Mormonism has not ceased to matter in our politics," said Campbell. Looking at the data, Campbell suggested that the way to change non-Mormons' perception of Mormons is for members to reach out and become close friends, not merely acquaintances, with those outside of their faith.
"The data also suggests that it's not the media that will move attitudes towards Mormons, but rather the development of close personal relationships that Mormons find with their neighbors and friends who also happen to be of another faith," said Campbell.