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Pew survey: Mormons see some improvement but a lot of misunderstanding and discrimination

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2012 - Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints won and placed in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday. With Mormon Mitt Romney the front runner in the Republican race for party nominee and Jon Huntsman Jr. as a respectable vote-getter in the Granite State, Mormons might be optimistic about the way other Americans view them.

On the contrary, in study made public Thursday, many members of this religious and cultural group, which make up 2 percent of Americans, see themselves as not accepted as part of mainstream society. They believe they and their faith are generally misunderstood and somewhat discriminated against according to a majority polled by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

It's the first national survey of Mormons published outside the church itself. Many disdain the term Mormon, calling each other saints. On the question of whether acceptance of Mormonism has risen enough to elect a Mormon president of the United States, 56 percent say yes.

The survey was taken eons ago in political terms -- between Oct. 25 and Nov. 16, 2011. Pew interviewed 1,019 respondents who describe themselves as Mormons.

Romney is viewed favorably by 86 percent of those polled, and 74 percent identified themselves as Republican or leaning toward the GOP. About 39 percent said that GOP is friendly toward them. Less than half as many, 14 percent, said the Democrats are friendly toward them.

And just being Mormon does not guarantee high marks to a national political figure. Fewer than a quarter of Mormons polled, have a favorable view of the most powerful Mormon in public office: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. A slim majority, 51 percent, of Mormon voters view him unfavorably. And 27 percent gave no opinion about Reid. Only half of Mormon voters polled gave a favorable view of Republican candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., though 70 percent of those in Utah hold him in high regard.

Six in 10 respondents say most Americans just don't know much or are misinformed about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons think that they face more discrimination than atheists or African-Americans. Half of those surveyed said evangelical Christians are especially unfriendly toward Mormons, with 18 percent saying evangelicals are friendly toward them. Only 31 percent say blacks face discrimination, and only 13 percent say that atheists face discrimination. 

Two-thirds of those surveyed said Americans see members of the church as outside the mainstream of American society. This view is held despite their faith's strong embrace of family life, more ardent than Americans in general, the Pew survey found. About 81 percent say that being a good parent and 73 percent say that having a successful marriage are among their most important life goals.

Half of Mormons said it is essential for Mormon families to hold the church-mandated "family home evenings" regularly. These evenings, often Monday nights, are set aside for family prayers, teaching and activities at home. In many Utah communities, few public activities are scheduled on Monday to avoid conflicts with Mormon family life. About 45 percent of those polled told Pew interviewers that weekly family nights are important but not essential.

Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) told Pew that sex between unmarried adults is morally wrong, which is higher than the 35 percent of the general American public who hold the same.

Mormons said that they are devout church-goers that many other faith groups would admire. More than three-quarters of Mormons (77 percent) said that they attend religious services at least weekly. About 79 percent said they comply with church regulations on tithing 10 percent of their earnings to the church.

Nearly all, 98 percent of Mormons polled, said they believe in the resurrection of Jesus. However, most Christian theologians point out that Mormons don't believe Jesus is part of the Trinity. Nearly all, 94 percent, of Mormons polled said that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate, physical beings. An even larger number 95 percent believe temple ceremonies on earth can find families eternally.

The vast majority of Mormons surveyed, 94 percent, believe that the living president of their church is a prophet of God. Not as many, but a strong 91 percent, believe that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets. This follows the belief that Joseph Smith found their scripture on ancient golden tablets in upstate New York. Eight of 10 of those interviewed said that believing that church founder Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ is essential to be an upstanding Mormon.

The majority of Mormons, 54 percent, said that drinking alcohol is morally problematic. That response is more than three times the percentage of all U.S. adults (about 15 percent) who express moral reservations about drinking alcohol. Stop-drinking programs are a common recruitment path for new members. Three-quarters of Mormons (74 percent) said that having an abortion is morally wrong. That compares with about 52 percent of the general public who hold that view in Pew's and others' polls.

Some of the widely know prohibitions of the Mormon church are less strongly held. The survey found that a tad less than half, 49 percent, said never drinking coffee and tea is essential to be a good Mormons. Four in 10 of the men -- 43 percent -- surveyed had given about two years of their lives to the church's worldwide mission efforts. About 11 percent of the women have participated in these two-year missions.

In a Pew Research Center survey of non-Mormons in November, one-third of non-Mormon U.S. adults (32 percent) said the Mormon faith is not a Christian religion, and an additional 17 percent is unsure.

The Book of Mormon and other Mormon scripture are the focus of much more of Mormon's religious education and daily attention than the New Testament, but they don't see themselves as outside Christianity. Those Mormons surveyed were nearly unanimous in describing Mormonism as a Christian religion. Interviewers asked them to volunteer the one word that best describes Mormons, the most frequent response, which came from 17 percent of them, was "Christian" or "Christ-centered" (17 percent).

In a parallel Pew poll of non-Mormons, the most commonly offered response to a question of what one word best describes the Mormon faith was "cult."

While many Mormons regret some of television and movie depictions of Mormons, most U.S. Mormons think acceptance of Mormonism is on the rise, with 63 percent saying the American people are becoming more likely to see Mormonism as part of mainstream society.

Read more at www.pewforum.org/mormon-in-america.

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered religion.