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Mormonism? Who Cares?

by Sharon Lindbloom
14 November 2022

A new national survey related to Mormonism has recently been released to the public and has been in the news. The 2022 B.H. Roberts Foundation National Latter-day Saint Survey asked 1,157 Americans “about attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” What they discovered is that Mormonism really isn’t on the radar of the general U.S. population. People don’t seem to know — or care — much about the LDS church and its members. For those who conducted the survey, this might be good news.

According to Josh Coates, the Executive Director of the B.H. Roberts Foundation, 

“Where people learn about us mostly is family and friends, but also on TV and in movies. Especially nowadays, there’s so much media about Latter-day Saints over the last year or two, and most of it has not been flattering, and that is one of the top ways people learn about us. That’s kind of a bummer, I think.” (Deseret News, “Survey: Latter-day Saints are everywhere in media, but Americans still know little about them,” November 5, 2022)

So, the B.H. Roberts Foundation conducted a survey to (at least in part) understand how these movies and documentaries have shaped the way people view the LDS church and its members. As Mr. Coates explains, 

“Latter-day Saints have been significantly overrepresented on platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and TikTok recently. And getting actual data on what people think is helpful in elevating discussions about the Church and its members.” (Eastern Progress, “New National Survey Shows What Americans Think About Latter-day Saints (Mormons),” November 5, 2022)

This sounds like a good idea, but the actual execution of it seems to have come up a bit short. One would think that, if the goal is to understand what people think about the LDS church and its members after so many negative media portrayals have been making the rounds, the survey questions would be tied to the content of these documentaries and true crime dramas. But for the most part, they are not.

For example, Hulu broadcast a true crime drama, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” that dramatizes the 1984 murders committed by Ron and Dan Lafferty, Mormon brothers who took the fundamentals of their faith too far. The show delves in to the early but long-discontinued LDS doctrine of Blood Atonement, as well as the infamous 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (in which Mormons attacked and murdered 120 immigrants who were passing through Utah). Did this unflattering portrayal of Mormonism affect the way people view today’s LDS church? A survey question about Mormons and blood atonement would have answered that question, but it wasn’t asked.

Likewise, Netflix’s “Murder Among the Mormons” is a true crime documentary series that follows the criminal career of LDS document forger Mark Hofmann. His career came to an end in 1985 when he murdered two fellow Latter-day Saints. The series brings to light the fact that Mormon leaders (i.e., prophets, seers, and revelators of the LDS church) were fooled by Hofmann, and that church leaders tried to bury controversial LDS history. To discover whether this documentary negatively affected the way people view Mormonism, a survey question about the church’s transparency would likely have been helpful. But again, no such question was asked.

Instead, the survey asked respondents five questions related to LDS “beliefs and practices,” only one of which ties into the recent media portrayals of Mormonism. That question was: True or false, members of the LDS church “can live with more than one wife.” This question about polygamy relates to the Netflix miniseries, “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” a documentary about Warren Jeffs, the leader of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an offshoot of the LDS church. One-third of the survey respondents said it was true that Latter-day Saints “can live with more than one wife.” Deseret News notes,

“As people watch shows like Netflix’s ‘Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,’ Coates said that even when producers explain the difference between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a separate, fundamentalist group, many viewers walk away without a clear understanding.”

The remaining four survey questions regarding the beliefs and practices of Latter-day Saints are these: True or false, members of the LDS church

  • Can’t eat chocolate
  • Can’t drink alcohol
  • Can’t have blood transfusions 
  • Believe Christ is the Son of God

Eighty-four percent of respondents “failed” this short quiz (meaning they got two or more of the five questions wrong). And from this, Josh Coates concludes, “The amount of ignorance people had about the church was shocking” (quoted in Deseret News).

I don’t know if I’d say it was shocking that 15% of the people quizzed mistakenly thought Mormons can’t eat chocolate, or that 23% of the respondents, perhaps confusing Mormons with Jehovah’s Witnesses, thought Latter-day Saints could not have blood transfusions. Honestly, I don’t know why these particular questions were even asked. I wonder whether they are helpful toward the stated goal of understanding what people think about Mormonism or for “elevating discussions about the church and its members.” Is knowledge about what Latter-day Saints can and can’t do what survey-takers hope defines the LDS church in the eyes of non-Mormons?

However, one question, the question about whether Latter-day Saints “believe Christ is the Son of God,” is of a different sort. With no clarifying explanations and no follow-up, nearly half of those questioned (48%) said Mormons do consider Jesus to be the Son of God. Conversely, 52% either disagreed or didn’t know if Mormons believe Jesus is the Son of God. This seems like it could actually be helpful information for gauging what people think about the LDS church.

In the same vein, the survey also asked whether Latter-day Saints are Christians. But this question is a little more problematic. As the survey’s white paper explains,

“Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints identify as Christian. Historically, this fact has been a point of disagreement with some groups, particularly among some Christian denominations. However, disagreement about this issue may stem from lack of knowledge about what the Church believes as much as from a disagreement about what a ‘true Christian’ is.” 

Interestingly, the white paper does not provide primary statistics on how respondents answered this question. However, it does say that of those who said Mormons believe Jesus is the Son of God (48% of respondents), 73% say Latter-day Saints are Christians. This amounts to about 35% overall. Doing the math, at least 405 people out of these 1,157 have the impression that Mormons are Christians. (Please note that the answers given by 52% of respondents are not provided in the white paper so are not represented in these numbers.)

For the B.H. Roberts Foundation, this may not be the outcome they were hoping for. The LDS church has worked very hard in these latter latter-days to convince the world that Mormonism is a Christian religion, yet perhaps more than half of the general U.S. population isn’t convinced.

Regarding the influence of true-life dramas and documentaries on shaping people’s perceptions of the LDS church and its members, though, the survey results provide good news for the Mormon church. People apparently view these shows only as entertainment and, just as Deseret News noted about disclaimers included in the documentaries, viewers “walk away without a clear understanding.” Josh Coates told Deseret News,

“Most people don’t actually like or dislike us, they don’t really even think about us much. They don’t know much about us and they’re neutral on Latter-day Saints, both the church and the people.”

Contrary to the majority of those surveyed, those of us here at Mormonism Research Ministry are not neutral on Latter-day Saints or their church. One of this ministry’s goals is to see people, both Mormon and non-Mormon, come to a “clear understanding” about Mormonism and how it conflicts with biblical Christianity. We strive to learn everything we can about the LDS church and the doctrines it imposes on its members. And truthfully, though the white paper suggests otherwise, the more we learn about what the church believes and compare it to what the Bible says, the more convinced we become that Mormonism is not a Christian religion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, “Speaking the truth (about Mormonism) in love (Ephesians 4:15) is our life’s work because we believe there is only one way to be reconciled to God and we long for Mormons to find it.” 

If the B.H. Roberts Foundation National Latter-day Saint Survey had asked anyone at Mormonism Research Ministry to “Please rate how much you like the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) people,” the response would have been far from neutral. Mormonism Research Ministry associate Eric Johnson really speaks for all of us here when he explains,

“I study the claims of Mormonism and share my faith with others because I love Latter-day Saints. That’s the bottom line.”

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