Many Americans see Mormons as friendly and say they have strong family values, but few know what Latter-day Saints believe. Some do not think Mormons are Christians or that they believe in the Bible. Others confuse the LDS Church with its polygamist cousin, the breakaway FLDS Church. Some fear the LDS Church will use force to reach its religious goals. Others see Mormons as weird, secretive, blindly obedient or exclusionary.
Gary Lawrence, a California pollster and active Latter-day Saint who has spent the past 18 months conducting surveys and focus groups on Mormonism, believes all these perceptions are based on ignorance, which has triggered an increasing antagonism toward Mormons and their church.
At the same time, Mormons seem baffled by such opposition.
The anti-Mormonism that emerged during Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign, for example, "shocked a lot of members who thought people liked us a whole lot better than they do," Lawrence says.
Indeed, Lawrence believes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has "a major image problem," which far too many members have taken too lightly.
"The misconception, distortions and untruths being told about us have slowed the growth of the church," Lawrence writes in his just-published book, How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image.
In a survey of 1,000 randomly selected Americans interviewed in February, some negative images emerged.
Forty-three percent said the church treated women as second-class citizens, 39 percent said it used pressure tactics, 38 percent said it was pushy, 16 percent saw it as racist and 16 percent said it was a "church to be feared."
Ever the optimist, Lawrence sees his research as a chance for improvement.
To combat these images, he recommends that Mormons listen before commenting, avoid LDS jargon in their conversations, speak plainly and follow the Golden Rule. They also should eliminate pressure tactics from missionary outreach, he says.
"Telling people that force has no place in the church and that we are committed to freedom of choice and the principle of individual agency is critical to allaying fears and improving our image," Lawrence writes.
But by far, the most important message that Mormons need to convey is that their church "is the re-established original Christian church," he says. "About 84 percent of Americans have seen our ads or have had missionaries or received literature, yet only 14 percent can tell us that this is our main claim."
Lawrence disagrees with some of the public-relations tactics from the past, especially those that tried to emphasize similarities between Mormonism and other faiths.
"People do not investigate commonalities, they explore differences," he says. "If we point out the differences in good faith, then we decrease the uncertainty factor about us. People can argue the point and that's fine, but the fear factor goes away because they have a handle on us."
Latter-day Saints should look for opportunities to correct distortions that are out there but not to go into every conversation expecting to win a convert, Lawrence says. "Relax. Some people are just curious."
Peggy Fletcher Stack writes about religion and spirituality. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.