Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.
Mitt Romney's current crop of rivals for his party's nomination may have left the "Mormon question" -- how Romney's Mormon adherence will affect his chances at office -- relatively unexamined, but a new Pew poll goes deep into the actual beliefs and perceptions of Mormons living in the U.S.
In short, the general public doesn't know very much about Mormonism, and Mormons have picked up on this and see it as discrimination and misunderstanding. They see themselves as outsiders not very well liked or known by the rest of the country overall. A major reason for that, in the eyes of a majority of Morman respondents, was how they're portrayed in movies and television: 54 percent said they think the entertainment industry's portrayal of them hurts their image. They gave better marks to the news media however, with 52 percent saying they get a fair shake in newspapers and on TV news (compared to 38 percent who think the coverage is unfair).
Mormons are a tiny part of the U.S population, accounting for about 2 percent of the country, but their faith has been having something of a moment in the public eye since last spring. Between the Book of Mormon musical, the Twilight series (written by Mormon Stephanie Meyer), and Mitt Romney's run for the White House, Mormons have found themselves the subject of increasing curiosity and scrutiny. They've responded to the new attention by reaching out to the public. The "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign -- billboards, commercials, and a live Q and A chat room on the LDS official site -- is a step in a different direction for a group that is notorious for being secretive and insular.
That insularity has had a negative effect: the general public's most commonly chosen word to describe Mormonism is "cult." That word harkens back to Reverend Robert Jeffress' introduction of Rick Perry at last fall's Values Voters summit, when the pastor, contrasting Perry to Romney, had this to say: "Mitt Romney’s a good moral person, but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity."
Although 97 percent of Mormons say their religion is Christian, about one-third of Americans disagree. An additional 17 percent of Americans "don't know" how to answer that question. Among Evangelicals, that number is even higher: one-half do not believe that Mormons are Christian.
Reflecting Romney's struggles to gain the confidence of the Evangelical vote as the primary season progresses, the survey found that while Mormons are actually pretty similar to Evangelicals politically (they're much more conservative and Republican than the general population) and, in some ways, religiously there's some mutual tension between the two groups. One-half of Mormons surveyed indicated that Evangelical Christians are generally unfriendly toward Mormons. Maybe that's why Romney has kept discussion of his faith to a minimum in his fight for the GOP nomination.
But his fellow Mormons are perhaps a little more confident: 56 percent say the country is ready for a Mormon president.
Other noteworthy findings from the Pew study:
- Most Mormons (86 percent) have a favorable view of Mitt Romney, but that doesn't bleed over into support for other Mormon politicians. Jon Huntsman is viewed favorably by one-half of those surveyed, while Harry Reid (also a Mormon) has only a 22 percent favorability rating.
- 27 percent say they believe in yoga as a spiritual practice, which is actually more than the general population (23 percent).
- Some of the more notoriously weird bits of Mormon belief are real, but not that important: Just under one-half of Mormons avoid coffee and tea, and 32 percent ban R-rated movies. But 58 percent store three months of food.
- 79 percent of Mormons donate one-tenth of their earnings to the church.
You can read the full survey here.