4 March 2007 (updated 10 April 2012)
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As a result of Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency of the United States, media scrutiny and debate of what it means to be Mormon has been increasing. Browse through news related to Mormonism in recent months, and you’ll find that a significant portion of them mention Mitt Romney. And, in the same breath, they wonder or assert how Mormonism affects a person’s views, political and otherwise.
A recent SurveyUSA poll of Utah residents suggests that Mormons generally feel misunderstood. This is reflected in another recent poll, from Gallup, focused on “Americans’ Views of the Mormon Religion”. Gallup summarizes its results as follows:
Something about the Mormon religion apparently disturbs a significant portion of the American population. A quarter of Americans in a recent Gallup Poll said they would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified presidential candidate who is a Mormon. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 29% of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is a Mormon. These negative attitudes appear to be based on more than just concerns about the Mormon religion in a presidential context. New Gallup polling shows that 46% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the Mormon religion in general, slightly higher than the 42% who have a favorable opinion.
When asked what comes to mind first when they think about Mormons, respondents most frequently responded, “polygamy”. This is not surprising, given the LDS Church’s historical emphasis of the practice of plural marriage, regular media coverage of fundamentalist Mormons who continue the practice, and a general unfamiliarity with modern Mormonism. What surprised me, however, is that even respondents with favorable views of Mormonism most frequently mentioned “polygamy” as the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps trends toward serial marriage (and simple promiscuity) have decreased our relative concern with marital commitment to multiple partners? That is implicit in a comment from New York Post columnist Dick Morris, in reference to Republican candidates for the presidency: “the only one of these guys who hasn’t had multiple wives is the Mormon”.
Despite increasing big media attention, interest in Mormonism on the Internet may be decreasing. Google Trends, which charts search trends among the majority of Internet users, shows a marked downturn in searches for “mormon” over the last year. It will be interesting to observe whether these trends continue and how they affect popular attitudes toward Mormons. It seems that increasing exposure to big media combined with decreasing reliance on information available through the Internet would continue to promote stereotypes that, whether more or less positive than those promoted today, overlook the diversity of Mormonism, and therefore perpetuate misunderstanding.