America could be standing on the precipice of the "Mormon Moment," according to a new survey that says most members of the religion believe the country is ready to elect a Mormon president.
The just-released Pew Survey, "Mormons in America," overall shows a mixed bag of ideas and feelings Mormons have about how the general public sees them. Sixty-two percent of Mormons surveyed say the American people are uninformed about Mormonism. And nearly half (46 percent) say they face discrimination.
But 63 percent of Mormons say acceptance of their religion is on the rise. And more than half (56 percent) said the American people are ready for a Mormon to sit in the Oval Office.
"Even though there is this recognition on the part of Mormons of some of the challenges they face in terms of acceptance in American society, they also exhibit, a sense that things may be changing and express quite high levels of satisfaction with their lives," said Greg Smith, Pew Study Senior Researcher.
"As the Church and its members are increasingly the focus of media attention, we're eager to participate in conversations that help the public get to know us better. Even though the recent Pew study did not survey any of the Church's eight million members who live outside the U.S., it highlights some important aspects regarding who we are and what we believe," Michael Purdy, a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints said in a statement responding to the survey.
Dr. Randall Balmer, professor of American Religious History at Columbia University, agrees somewhat with the survey findings. "The fact that most Americans don't understand Mormonism is absolutely true," he said.
Balmer, who's also the author of "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush," teaches a course on Mormonism at Barnard College. But he says even his Ivy League students are "woefully uninformed."
Part of the reason, he says is the church's somewhat secretive nature. For example, Mormon Temple ceremonies are still off-limits to non-members.
The Mormon faith has also experienced negative publicity in recent months. A sold-out Broadway Show called "The Book of Mormon" skewers the faith. Hailed in published ads as, "The best musical of the century," it pulls no punches poking fun at some of the religion's beliefs and practices.
The faith is under intense scrutiny by many prominent Evangelical Christians who proclaim Mormonism a cult. One pastor, Bill Keller, who said in 2007 that a vote for Mitt Romney was a vote for Satan, continues to call Mormonism a cult that is "100 percent inconsistent with Biblical Christianity."
But the LDS church, always successful in controlling its image, has taken the reins of its fate and answered with a national marketing campaign called "I am Mormon". Television spots, billboards and a website display everyday people going about their lives, showing how normal they are. Then they say in the tag line.. "And I'm a Mormon".
The problem is, says Smith, that all those efforts to reach out to the general public have not affected people's knowledge about Mormons or their faith.
"In a survey we conducted just in November among the general population, we found that 50 percent of American adults say that they themselves know not very much or nothing at all about Mormons," Smith adds, "and that number hasn't changed at all since 2007."
As to why Mormons are feeling better about their future in America, Smith says they have no data on that. "It's hard to know for sure." But he points to one question's answer that may be the clue: The fact that Mormons feel America has come to accept the idea of one of their own becoming president may be the reason.
Balmer is not persuaded. It may boil down to perception.
A nearly unanimous number (97 percent) of Mormons surveyed describe themselves as Christian. But a Pew survey in November showed one-third of non-Mormon U.S. adults said Mormonism is not Christian, and 17 percent were unsure.
"Mormons think they're more fully mainstream than other Americans think they are," Balmer said. "I don't question their status in American society but there are vestigial prejudices against Mormons, particularly from Conservative Evangelicals."
But Balmer asserts that the Iowa caucuses, where Romney placed first, may be a barometer for Evangelical voting in 2012. "Many evangelicals were willing to set aside principle for pragmatism for a candidate who has the best chance of winning against President Obama."
"A lot of Mormons I know see Mitt Romney as a test case for them as their full acceptance in society," Balmer adds.
For Mormons, says Balmer, there is more at stake in 2012, than the presidency.