SANTA ANA, Calif. — Gary Lawrence remembers many times when he was a moderator for focus groups in the South and had to bite his tongue. The topic was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and the groups never knew he was a Mormon. "I've done a ton of focus groups for the LDS Church over the years," Lawrence said. "I've heard things that the average Mormon will never hear from somebody who knows he is a Mormon. I get the unvarnished perception of us out there."
Over a 40-year career, the professional pollster Lawrence heard many of these perceptions. Now, he's written a book about it. "It is just unbelievable what some people believe about Mormons," he said. "And these are not ignorant people. I'm thinking of a group in South Carolina, for example. They were intelligent and well-dressed and well-spoken. And then the words would come out of their mouth. And I would think, 'Are we talking about the same religion?' "
These days, a lot of people are talking about the Mormon religion. Take Bill Keller, the colorful Internet minister who once declared, "If you vote for Mitt Romney, you are voting for Satan!" Keller is sending out an email today to his 2.4 million subscribers describing conservative media personality Glenn Beck, a Mormon, as a "false Messiah." Keller also calls the LDS Church a satanic cult and claims founding prophet Joseph Smith was a murderer. Comedian and atheist Bill Maher told MSNBC last week that Mormonism is more like Islam than Christianity and that Mormons put Joseph Smith above Jesus Christ. And people watching "The Book of Mormon Musical" on Broadway may wonder if Mormons really believe what the actors portraying missionaries are singing.
"All of this is coming to the point where people are saying, 'Where did all this come from? How come I am hearing so much about Mormons lately?' " Lawrence said.
To help answer people's questions and correct misconceptions, Lawrence wrote "Mormons Believe … What?! Fact and Fiction About a Rising Religion," available in bookstores Sept. 20.
Lawrence doesn't back away from critical comments that show up not just in focus groups, but on television news programs, pulpits, political campaigns and around the water cooler:
Mormons aren't Christians.
Mormons don't believe the Bible.
Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers.
Mormons wear magical underwear.
Mormons practice polygamy.
Lawrence said these are not the types of misconceptions that lead to violence like the LDS Church saw in the 1800s. These are various forms of verbal attacks, parodies, mocking and ridicule. And, in a way, he loves it. "I say, have at it, that's wonderful," Lawrence said.
"If civil disagreement gives rise to falsehoods, there should be a rebuttal," Lawrence said. "But the give and take and the parody and the satire — I think that helps the LDS Church. … Which is the greater hindrance: antagonism or apathy? I submit that it is apathy. The church has more to be concerned about with apathy."
Criticism also gives people a chance to teach, Lawrence said.
The biggest source of misunderstanding, Lawrence thinks, comes from what he calls faith-family confusion. "You ask an average person the difference between a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist, they won't know," Lawrence said. The same thing happens when an average person thinks about the difference between LDS and FLDS. Lawrence said they just think since they both believe in the Book of Mormon, they must be from the same faith family. "When they hear about a polygamous group in Vancouver, they think, 'Oh, those are the Mormons.' "
In a survey, Lawrence found that only 3 out of 10 people say Mormons are only members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have nothing to do with polygamous groups. About 45 percent of people polled thought all believers in the Book of Mormon are called Mormons, while 25 percent had no opinion.
"So three-fourths of America still needs to be educated on that," Lawrence said. "The LDS Church needs to hammer away at this."
Lawrence hopes his book will help hammer at this as well.
"I've always maintained the easiest form of education is the correction of a distortion," Lawrence said. "That is my motivation, to correct the distortions that are out there and do it in a way the people don't feel like they are being propagandized or pressured or persuaded to join."
And Lawrence has his work cut out for him as curiosity about Mormons grows — for good and bad.
CNN's religion editor, Dan Gilgoff, said in a video titled "Explain it to me: Mormonism" that "there is this great curiosity about Mormonism." The LDS Church public affairs blog called Gilgoff's video "informative."
Newsweek had a cover article on "The Mormon Moment: How the Outsider Faith Creates Winners."
Memphis Fox News' Ben Ferguson mocked Mormons on a televised report in June.
The Tampa Tribune summed up the interest: "Without question, the LDS church is the religious denomination du jour."
An apt description, according to Lawrence's book.
"Sometimes," Lawrence writes, "it seems that the only way certain Christian groups will accept us Mormons at the table is if we're on the menu."