Just half of Mormons have favorable views of Jon Huntsman, also a Mormon, who is a former Utah governor and former Obama administration ambassador to China. Only 25 percent view President Obama favorably, half the rate of the U.S. general population.
More-educated Mormons are far more religiously committed than less-educated ones, a gap not often seen in other faith groups.
Terryl Givens, a religion professor at the University of Richmond who focuses on Mormonism, said the commitment of educated Mormons appears at odds with the fact that “cult” is the word most Americans most closely associate with the faith.
“It shows Mormons haven’t done a good job of conveying the appeal of their faith. They haven’t been able to move the discussion beyond gold plates and magic underwear,” he said.
The poll also presents this dichotomy: Mormons overwhelmingly say discrimination and misperceptions about them are their biggest problem, but they have high rates of optimism about future acceptance and are more satisfied with their lives and their communities than are Americans in general.
“That is Mormonism to a T,” said Cornwall, laughing. “Mormons tend to be very optimistic, but they also have a theology that says things are going to get worse. They plan for it, but in the meantime, they’re happy.”
The increase in Mormons living outside the West and the mini-boom in independent Mormon bloggers have changed a tightknit culture that appeared hemmed in by official voices. Church officials have responded to challenges by opening a bit of their vast and detailed records — including the publication, beginning in 2008, of the archives of the founding Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith.
Such changes reflect a shift for a community long in a defensive crouch. Mormons want to be accepted, but they also maintain beliefs and lifestyles that they affectionately call “peculiar,” Givens said. “Their very sense of identity is bound up with their sense of distinctiveness,” he said.
The poll reveals a bit of the complexity Mormons feel about their faith being mainstream.
Ninety-seven percent say their faith is part of Christianity, according to the poll, and the fact that many Americans — one-third, polls show — don’t see them as Christians is one of their primary concerns.
White evangelicals, with whom Mormons share many attributes, are the group least likely to see Mormons as Christians.
Yet many Mormons say they are very or somewhat different from Catholics and evangelicals, according to the poll.
“This is a people who are increasingly willing to learn about themselves,” Campbell said.
Church spokesman Michael Purdy praised the poll and said Mormons are “eager to participate in conversations that help the public get to know us better.”