‘We have work to do’ — Latter-day Saint image takes another hit in new poll

Americans view Jews, Catholics, Protestants, evangelical Christians, Muslims and atheists more favorably than members of Utah’s predominant faith.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Angel Moroni atop The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Bountiful Temple in December 2022. A new poll shows Americans view Jews, Catholics, Protestants and evangelical Christians more favorably than they do Latter-day Saints.

Americans have a far more positive view of Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants than of Latter-day Saints.

Indeed, Mormons, as they are commonly called, have fallen below evangelical Christians, Muslims and atheists in the approval hierarchy.

That’s according to poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed 10,588 U.S. adults from Sept. 13-18, 2022.

On the whole, the survey found that “35% of Americans express very or somewhat favorable attitudes toward Jews, while 6% express unfavorable attitudes. … Americans overall also express more favorable than unfavorable attitudes toward mainline Protestants (30% favorable vs. 10% unfavorable) and Catholics (34% favorable vs. 18% unfavorable).”

That balance is reversed when it comes to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are referred to as “Mormons” throughout the survey.

“A quarter of Americans say they hold very or somewhat unfavorable views of Mormons,” the Pew report stated, “while 15% express favorable opinions.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Fewer than half the respondents (43%) said they know a member of the Utah-based faith personally, that’s less than those who know an evangelical Christian, Jewish or mainline Protestant (64%) or Muslim (50%).

Even though Latter-day Saints have partnered with evangelical Christians on social issues — and 54% of Mormons feel positively toward evangelical Christians — “the feelings are not reciprocal.”

The poll found “15% of born-again or evangelical Protestants feel positively toward Mormons, compared with 27% who express negative views.”

Latter-day Saints view others positively

Latter-day Saints are the only group who express “a net positive opinion toward Muslims, with 47% reporting favorable views and 11% reporting unfavorable views.”

Mormons, in fact, do not express “a net negative opinion toward any group in the survey, and are strongly positive toward several.”

These conclusions echo a similar YouGov poll, which asked Americans their views of 35 religious groups, organizations and belief systems on a favorability scale.

In that survey, the LDS Church finished with a net negative score of minus 21, just behind atheism and Wicca and just ahead of Islam and Christian Science.

Among Americans who see religion as “very important” to them, the church’s rating rose to minus 11 in the YouGov survey, while among the opposite camp, those who don’t see religion as important, the score plunged to minus 41.

Has anything happened recently within Mormonism that would help explain such unfavorable opinions?

“When I think about the church through the lens of the last several years, a slump in public perception is not surprising to me,” says Susan M. Hinckley, a co-podcaster on “At Last She Said It,” which tackles topics within the faith. “There have been a handful of popular streaming series featuring true-crime stories or ‘why I left’ narratives. Incidents of sexual abuse have brought national news attention. We’ve seen Mitt Romney’s political fall from grace. Many LGBTQ members, their families and allies are publicly reexamining or reconsidering membership. And the church continues to lag on social issues many people care about.”

When Hinckley first moved from the Beehive State to the Midwest in the late 1980s, she was surprised to find the only thing her new friends seemed to know about Mormons was polygamy.

“Then the local Baptist church in our community showed ‘The God Makers’ as part of what I perceived to be a pretty active negative campaign against the church,” she writes in an email from her home in Arizona. “I tried hard within my circle to educate, to counteract and replace these views with more favorable ones, but I was also glad most people I met just didn’t know or care too much about us. It made being LDS easier.”

‘Sports car of religions’

Since then, Hinckley has lived in many parts of the United States as the church’s public profile has continued to grow, and information about its history, preachings and practices has become widely available.

“I’ll admit to being relieved I don’t feel the need to educate people anymore,” she says. “No matter what I say, everyone has access to enough information to draw their own conclusions.” What matters to Hinckley now is that her neighbors “taste good fruit as a result of their association with me, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

In the survey, Latter-day Saints had a high favorable rating of themselves.

“If we think we’re so great, why don’t others perceive us that way? Could it be that we’re unwilling to acknowledge our own shadow?” she wonders. “As a church that believes we have the advantage of a living prophet, I feel we’re uniquely positioned to be responsive to the context of any moment we’re in. A survey like this shows we have work to do. But the organization seems slow to change, reluctant to admit mistakes, unwilling to apologize, overly legalistic, and quick to spin every story to its advantage.”

The church could be “the sports car of religions,” Hinckley says, “lightweight, lacking thousands of years of baggage, maneuverable by design, so responsive to the changing needs of members, and therefore always slightly ahead of the pack.”

She would like to see her fellow believers “be better than we are not only in survey rankings, but in members’ lived experiences,” she says. “Maybe the latter is actually the key to the former.” Good fruit, Hinckley says, “will always speak for itself.”

The Pew poll is “weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population,” the report says, “by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education, religious affiliation and other categories.”

The full survey carries a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.