Zelophehad’s Daughters

Does Learning More About Mormonism Make You Dislike It More?

Posted by Lynnette

In a discussion of Romney’s “Mormon Problem” on a recent Bloggingheads video, Amy Sullivan makes the following observation:

What really interests me about Mormonism is it’s very different from the situation Kennedy faced in that with anti-Catholicism, a lot of it was based on misinformation about Catholics and misunderstandings, and there, learning more about it, hearing Kennedy talk about his relationship to his faith and the lines that he drew actually did put some voters at ease. Whereas with anti-Mormonism, it’s practically the only bias where learning more about it actually makes people who were opposed more opposed—because they have kind of a vague sense that Mormonism might be a little weird to them, and that they might not agree with things—but they don’t really know the specifics of it.

Conventional wisdom is that prejudice is tied to ignorance, and can therefore be cured with education. Anti-Mormons, of course, have long propagated a narrative in which the reverse is the case: you might think that Mormons are good wholesome people–but once you learn the details of the religion, you’ll be horrified and realize that they’re a freaky cult. Sullivan seems to be here suggesting that there could be some truth to that narrative (at least for those who already had reservations.)

I can see how learning more Mormonism could raise real concerns; if what you know about Mormons is that they believe in strong families, and then you hear about stuff like Kolob, you might well increasingly come to view the tradition as strange, and perhaps disturbing. On the other hand, I think it can also go the other way; if what you know about Mormons is that they have crazy beliefs like gold plates and polygamy, you might be surprised by the ordinariness of actual Mormon life. (As I’ve sometimes commented to non-LDS friends, being a member of the Church is not nearly as exciting as some of the more sensationalist literature makes it sound.) So I would imagine that whether “learning more”about Mormons leads you to like it or dislike it depends to some extent on what you already know.

Of course, Sullivan is here referring to one particular group: those who dislike Mormonism without knowing much about it. It’s not hard for me to believe that learning more specifics about LDS teachings could intensify negative feelings among those who were already wary of the religion–though I’m not crazy about the suggestion in the comment quoted above that whereas anti-Catholicism was based on misunderstandings and misinformation, anti-Mormonism might be more credible.

A survey done this year by the Pew Research Center found a connection between knowing a Mormon and seeing the tradition positively, and an even stronger link between seeing Mormonism as Christian and having a favorable view of it. They also found 49 percent saying “they know a great deal or some about the Mormon religion and its practices.” But they don’t mention any links between this self-reported familiarity and either positive or negative views of Mormonism.

What do you all think? Are LDS beliefs still so bizarre-sounding to mainstream American ears that learning more about them is likely to strengthen people’s negative impressions of the Church?

24 Responses to “Does Learning More About Mormonism Make You Dislike It More?”

  1. 1.

    It depends on how much they learn. If someone learns about home and visiting teaching, fast offerings, etc. they will likely have respect and a positive view.

    If someone looks into the history, the fact that we practiced polygamy for years after we swore we ended, the fact that a man can still be sealed to more than one woman, and other things that are out there people may have some issues and concerns about the “freaky cult”.

  2. 2.

    Personally, the more freaky stuff about Mormonism I learn the more I like it. :)

    I was talking to a lapsed Catholic who’s increasingly into Buddhism about religion the other day. When I told him about the King Follet Discourse and becoming a god he said, “Wow. Really? That’s fantastic. I used to think you guys were just a bunch of grim humorless Puritans. I’ll have to rethink that.”

  3. 3.

    I think it’s a tricky thing, educating non-Mormons about ourselves (history, beliefs, practices) in a piecemeal way because without the proper full-picture background, much of it sounds dubious, if not outrageous. Gold plates, angels, becoming gods… who would embrace such stuff without getting the complete back story? I’m speaking, of course, of those who are looking at the Church for education, not for belief. Obviously the latter, investigating by faith, is the best way to gather understanding of the religion.

    It’s the curse of being the original religion of modern times. Judaism, Islam, Catholicism– these faiths have the advantage of being ancient and whose origins are beyond scrutiny. Ours, on the other hand, is too well documented.

    I didn’t like the Mormons or their church… until I prayed about it.

  4. 4.

    I think Romney is going about this wrong. In a sense, I think the LDS hierarchy is going about this wrong as well.

    Romney simply cannot defuse this by saying “look, I’m as conservative as any of you. There’s really no difference between us. Join hands and sing cum-ba-ya!”

    That ain’t gonna fly with Southern Baptists, and it isn’t. They know we’re VERY different than them and it does no good to argue with them over this point. Firstly, because they are very strongly convinced of it and we come off looking dishonest. But secondly, because, let’s face it, we are night and day from them. We are radically different than any other faith in the USA. And when we deny this, again, we look slimy and dishonest.

    Which is what Romney looks like right now. His change of heart over abortion and stuff just accentuates this.

    I’ll be blunt. The Christian Right sees us as sneaky, two-faced, religious chameleons who will do and say anything to get the Mormon missionaries in your door. When the Church Office Building types try to quietly sweep the uncomfortable stuff under the rug, it just proves this point.

    For them, Romney is just playing the typical two-faced lying Mormon who will say anything to get you to like him.

    Romney would do much better to simply say, “yup, I’m different than you. In fact, I’m a LOT different than you. But there are also crucial ways in which I am the same as you. It is those similarities that matter in this race. My beliefs may be ‘out there’ for a lot of you, but I will reduce government spending, I will give you the Supreme Court you’ve been waiting for, and I WILL NOT be sleeping with one of my interns. Over and out.”

    That’s the speech he needs to give. Plain talk that doesn’t sugar-coat the “wierdness,” but basically makes people willing to look the other way about it in order to get what they want. Playing the “I’m one of you guys” card is just going to piss Evangelicals off and he really needs to stop playing it.

  5. 5.

    “Wow. Really? That’s fantastic. I used to think you guys were just a bunch of grim humorless Puritans. I’ll have to rethink that.”

    I’ve always had a sneaky suspicion we’ve been targeting the wrong demographic with our missionary program…

  6. 6.

    This is quite a question, Lynnette . . . . hmm . . . I don’t know quite how to respond.

    Would this statement hold any kernel of truth?

    Mormonism has worn the conservatism of the traditional, evangelical separatists; but deep down it seriously rejects the very heart of puritan theology.

    Where I would see this in my study, this is where my tension toward Mormon doctrine increases.

    But as far as Mormons being weird . . . well, I love mingling with others in Ammon, Idaho. I can’t think of a better place to play with my family.

    In other words, there is a severe doctrinal/social dichotomy. If any of your non-LDS friends show any hesitation about living in a Mormon town, just send them my way for a good referral.

  7. 7.

    #4 – I agree with Seth wholeheartedly on this one.

    It drives me absolutely crazy when an LDS friend says, “Todd, I believe just like you.”

    Who taught this person to respond like this?

  8. 8.

    The Pew survey does provide data to suggest that how you learn about Mormonism is connected to positive/negative evaluations of us. Of those who know about Mormons through personal experience, 31% are favorable while 23% are not. Of those who know about us through the media, 20% are favorable while 21% are not. (I wonder if respondents interpreted “the media” to include evangelical “anti-cult” propaganda films?) Of those who report that their views of Mormonism are influenced by their “religious views,” 7% are favorable and 19% are not.

    This all might well mean that different kinds of information have different effects on public opinion about us. Personal information about Mormons being normal people seems most favorable. Media information, which probably conveys a mixture of information about the relative normality of current Mormon life, as well as information about Mormon history and theology, may be somewhat less positive. Finally, purely theological information might be downright negative for people’s attitudes. (Some caution is in order, since survey results don’t have a direct causal interpretation.)

  9. 9.

    Coming from one of those outrageously Mormon towns you hear of, I have a couple of perspectives.

    First, many of the no-mo’s and no-mo-mo’s in my home town were that way because of rather egregious behavior by people in leadership positions in the community and LDS church. In this way, getting to know individual Mormons can make you dislike them more… just like with anyone else

    Second, if you have a specific world view that you define as truth, and you learn about another group of people that have a different value as truth… well… there is a reason that my Google News search for Mormon keeps coming up with a new wingnut pontificating about how Mormons will lead the Christian nation of the United States down to hell.

  10. 10.

    aml,
    The thing is, most Americans don’t come from predominantly Mormon towns, and the “rather egregious behavior by people in leadership positions in the community and LDS church” don’t have even the smallest impact on their view of the Church. In Manhattan, we’re maybe 4,000 of millions of people. Growing up in the suburbs of San Diego, there were maybe 150 of us in a high school of nearly 3,000. So I doubt that general negative opinion can be explained by the malfeasance of leaders of small communities (as bad as their malfeasance may be for those in the communities).

    On your number 2, I would definitely agree.

  11. 11.

    What if the distinction is knowing more about Mormons (as individuals) vs. knowing more about Mormon doctrine/belief/history. While I love the King Follett Discourse, my belief that I can become a god doesn’t impact my life any more deeply or in any stranger ways than another Christian yearning for heaven. Knowing Mormons (as people) will increase anxiety, since they’re nice and care for their own, etc, etc. Whereas knowing Mormon doctrine will freak you out, since, let’s be honest, there are parts that are way out there.

    Also, if that “personal experience” is having two young elders knock on your door at inconvenient times and tell you they’ve got a special message for you, can you blame them for not liking us? How many would say they have a negative view of telemarketers or car salesmen?

  12. 12.

    I agree the most with those who have said it’s a matter of what you already know and what you’re learning. If you’ve known a large number of Mormons who are nice, family-oriented people, and then you suddenly start learning about Joseph Smith’s Masonic connections and polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it’s understandable that you might start seeing a “creepy cult” truth lurking under that shiny happy exterior of your Mormon neighbors. If, on the other hand, all you’ve ever heard is Mormons being blasted in the mainstream media, meeting some friendly, kind, utterly normal-looking Mormons might change your perceptions. (And Alea has a very good point about the missionaries; I think having met missionaries is a perfectly valid reason to dislike Mormons.)

    Moreover, I think who you are and what you’re looking for affects whether your bias increases or decreases upon learning more: at least some people are fascinated by the weirdness, the more so the more they learn, and in those case one wouldn’t necessarily want to claim that their bias had increased through learning.

    Of course, a lot of this boils down to the fact that I don’t agree with the main assumption of Sullivan’s point, that all biases, with the exception of an anti-Mormon bias, are resolved and erased through acquiring greater knowledge of the subject. One could argue that education takes a bias out of the realm of bias and into the realm of researched opinion, but one could just as easily argue that it solidifies bias, depending on the person and what they learn. In my own experience, at least, I’ve had pre-existing biases eliminated through education, and I’ve had pre-existing biases strengthened through education. And, frankly, I’ve had biases created through my education, by which I don’t just mean school but rather the whole of my learning experiences.

    So, in sum–sure, learning about Mormonism can make you dislike it more, depending on who you are, what you knew, and what you learn, but learning about anything (including, I would say, the Catholics) can make you dislike it more, depending on those same factors.

  13. 13.

    I think the post and subsequent comments at least show that forming a positive or negative opinion results from a complicated set of interactions. One angle I always like to see explored is in considering the practical effects of the church’s overt emphasis on member missionary work. What I don’t like is how it can (at times) turn us into shallow PR folks. It also can endow opinion polls with serious spiritual implications depending on how the public views the results of our missionary efforts. At the moment, I find the whole package very uncomfortable.

  14. 14.

    alea-LOL. I never thought of the missionaries like that in regards to “a very special message”.

  15. 15.

    I was in Austin yesterday on business. I’m regretting not buying one of the “Keep Austin Weird” teeshirts at the airport, so that I could have put tape over it to read “Keep Mormonism Weird.”

  16. 16.

    Thanks for all the interesting input, everyone! I’m still not sure what I think about this, and I’m enjoying the various perspectives.

    Matt B. said (#2):

    Personally, the more freaky stuff about Mormonism I learn the more I like it.

    That figures. :P

    Actually, I think you raise a good point–what one person might find off-puttingly weird might be embraced by another as refreshingly different.

    Dave T. (#3), I agree that one of our problems is that we locate our supernatural stories in the recent past, rather than having them shrouded in centuries of tradition. Angels in the 19th century simply sound stranger than angels in the first century.

    A couple of comments make what I think is a relevant distinction between Mormons as people, and LDS theology. My guess is that it’s easier to persuade others that Mormons are relatively normal folk than that LDS beliefs aren’t bizarre. Though I want to think more about the extent to which the two can really be separated.

    I also think Petra makes a good point: the assumption that education necessarily eradicates prejudice is definitely one worth examining.

  17. 17.

    A couple of thoughts on this question of whether we should we strive to find common ground, or we should proudly emphasize our differences. I’m sympathetic to Seth’s point of view on this one; I see a contradiction between telling the world we have a message that they need, and telling them that we basically believe the same things. On the other hand, I think that noting genuine points of contact can also be useful–at least, I know it helps me understand other people’s faith when I can somehow connect it to my own religious experience.

    Catholic theologian David Tracy proposes that we make use of what he calls “the analogical imagination” in interfaith dialogue, which involves maintaining the tension between similarity and dissimilarity without collapsing the relationship into either one, and I find that a potentially helpful way of thinking about this. In other words, our doctrines may have analogues in those of other traditions; they’re not exactly the same, but nor are they utterly foreign.

  18. 18.

    Regarding education and negative affect toward Mormons, the Pew results were pretty interesting. Among college graduates, 64% like Mormons and only 21% dislike us. Among those with some college who didn’t graduate, 56% are favorable toward Mormons and 27% are unfavorable. For those with a high school education or less, 45% are favorable and 31% unfavorable. So, while education specifically about Mormonism may or may not reduce negative feelings about us, education in general is clearly correlated with more positive feelings toward us. Actually, a lot of research suggests that education in general is connected with an increase in social and political tolerance; for a good example of this research, see this book.

  19. 19.

    In considering this question in its most practical application, what’s actually being asked seems to be this: Will the American public, motivated by Romney’s candidacy to find out more about Mormonism between now and the 2008 election, gain a positive or a negative view of Mormonism?

    The answer, I believe, is that it will be largely a negative view… for one simple reason: People will go to the internet for information, before they go anywhere else. And we all know what you get when you type “mormon” or “mormonism” into Google. And the problem with anti sites is that, unfortunately, much of the information they provide is actully true — it’s just presented in the worst possible light. And I don’t think very many people will probe beyond the first few shocking facts they’ll learn:

    –stone in a hat
    –funny underwear
    –think they can become just like God
    –the papyri
    –JS had lots of wives and seems to have lied about it
    –apparent similarity in LDS and Masonic rituals
    –no Hebrew DNA in American Indians
    -etc. etc.

    This is the kind of stuff that is used as ammo against the Church and I can just imagine someone learning these things right off the bat and deciding they’ve heard enough and don’t need to know more. They’ll decide that Romney belongs to a “weird cult.” After that, maybe they will pity him, but I don’t think they will vote for him.

  20. 20.

    Now, I’m torn on this subject.

    As a non-member, I’ve spent a little over a year deeply investigating the LDS church. I came into this search knowing only ‘the basics’ taught to me by my own church while in high school. None of it wrong, but definitely not the entire picture.

    Throughout this past year, I have developed close relationships with members of the church and can now say that almost all of my friends are LDS. They endearingly call me a ‘dry Mormon’. Being a part of the community has really made the Mormon faith very appealing and not at all scary, and at times I think to myself ‘Well, what the heck? It’s pretty much the same thing, except they have a few extra visions, a few more prophets, more experiences, scriptures… What if it’s true?’ And every single one of them is more than happy to answer any questions I may have.

    But it stops there, because it’s so much more than ‘just a little extra’. Although the people I have come into contact with are amazing and I know they have a true relationship with Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father, I have to know what I’d be getting into. So, I do my research, both on/in LDS sites, books, television shows (yes on the BYU channel) as well as what you would call ‘anti Mormon propoganda’ websites, books, etc. In this research, it does nothing but solidify my belief that you don’t have it right. (Please don’t take offense at this. I honestly say this with as much respect as possible.)

    Reading The History of the Church (all of it, not just what is in the Pearl of Great Price) makes me question so much about Joseph Smith. And if Joseph Smith wasn’t the man he presented himself to be, then it’s quite plausible that the Book of Mormon isn’t what it’s been set out to be either, and that’s what your faith is based on. It seems like a slippery slope argument I’m laying here, but even Gorden B. Hinkley has said, “If the First Vision did not occur, then we are involved in a great sham. It is just that simple.”

    This may seem like I’m trying to go off topic or push my own agenda (all while rambling incessantly), but I guess I just wanted to give you some insight into what someone who really has been trying to go at this with an open mind and heart has gone through when becoming ‘educated’ about the faith/church. Like I said, I’m torn. I LOVE your church. I do. I would not attend Sacrament meetings or other church functions if I didn’t. But I think I love the people and practices of the church more than the beliefs and the history of the church or else I’d probably have been baptized by now. :)

    Sorry for barging in on your page….

  21. 21.

    Thanks so much for your comment, Beckie, and no need to apologize for “barging in.” You’re clearly more of an authority on what Mormonism looks like from the outside than most if not all of us here (although I believe Todd Wood who commented above is also not a Mormon).

    It’s also fascinating to hear what Mormonism sounds like from the point of view of an interested (and involved, it sounds like) non-Mormon. Even if it sounds like you’re leaning toward thinking we’re a little off. ;)

    Please feel free to jump in and comment again if you like.

  22. 22.

    What I find somewhat puzzling is the fact that traditional Christianity easily believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, Noah saved the human race by building a big ship under the direction of God, Jesus was born of a virgin, Jesus raised the dead, fed the masses with two fish and two loaves of bread, etc. They believe that through God all things are possible….

    YET a 15 year old boy asks God in fervent prayer which church to join and it is totally out of the realm of possiblity!?! Are you kidding?

  23. 23.

    Sorry – I clicked too early… the possibility that God answered his prayer is too far “out there” to believe? LDS doctrine has biblical support. Even the Temple Garments (Hebrews) that so many like to make fun of. It’s a fact that while many Christian churches exist – all with slightly different doctrine…none of them claim to be the “right” church. Someone has got to have the complete Gospel of Jesus Christ, they can’t all be different and all be right! Why wouldn’t God continue to speak to prophets to guide his people? I find the fact that other churches seem to believe God has nothing to say to us today a little weird. I guess we’re even.

  24. 24.

    TJC, I agree with you that it’s a bit inconsistent to accept something as fantastic-sounding as the Resurrection of Jesus and then dismiss stories of angels and gold plates out of hand as unbelievable. As may have pointed out, one of the things that makes Mormons appear so weird is simply that our faith is so young–our mythic founding stories are relatively recent.

    I would disagree with you, however, on a couple of points. I believe there are other Christian churches out there who consider themselves the “right” church–most obviously the Catholics. I’d also note that I haven’t met many people from other churches who believe that “God has nothing to say to us today”–in fact, there’s a big sign on the UCC church which a friend of mine attends that says “God is still speaking.”

    I’d agree with your overall point, though, that given the odd-sounding claims that various religions make, people who accept some form of religion aren’t generally in the best position to dismiss other belief systems simply because they sound strange.

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