Over at By Common Consent, Mark Brown has put up one of the most interesting posts ("Outreach, ur doing it wrong") I've seen in a while. It touches on the issue of just how unfavorable the public image of Latter-day Saints is, and what might be done about it; for some other insights, I'd also recommend Jack's post "A short post on why people don't like Mormons" at ClobberBlog. Turning back to Mark's post - which I would strongly recommend to all readers, and especially to Latter-day Saints - one of the sections that caught my interest so strongly and which I think needs most to be heard is this:
Much of the problem is because we seldom associated with people who aren't LDS. The simple fact is that we are insular, and this insularity inevitably produces unsatisfactory and dysfunctional interactions and conversations about religion. [...] Lawrence gave an example. Many Americans believe that LDS practice polygamy. We have expended lots of time, effort, and money to try to persuade them that we don't, and we get our noses out of joint when people confuse LDS with FLDS, for instance. But he then asked the group how many of us understand the differences between the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Nobody raised a hand, to us, they are all Lutherans. Until we are willing to understand others, we have no standing to insist they understand us.
I've put emphasis on the sentence that I believe most captures the crucial point here. (And for another story that expresses the problem, see Jeremy's comment #10.) I can also attest that I've met quite a few Latter-day Saints who, for example, are willing to make sweeping claims of apostasy without having a clue about broader church history, or who are very willing to complain about the errors in the way people view the LDS, but are not only blind but obstinately so to their own errors in viewing other groups. Now, unfortunately this is by no means a uniquely LDS problem. Evangelicals, for instance, are frequently not only clueless about what separates one group from another, but also about what separates our own groups from others. And we by no means have cornered the market on charity; quite far from it. But what this does go to show is that all of us have room to grow and problems to address. Religious ignorance has proliferated so massively that it threatens to eviscerate the potential productivity of religious discourse. For my part, I intend to do what I can to continue learning at least the basics of every group I might encounter, and to do so in a way that lets me fairly and sensitively represent the beliefs of those groups to others in order to dispel this sort of ignorance. I rather like Ken's suggestion that the MTC program incorporate information about other faiths into its instruction for prospective LDS missionaries. As for Evangelicals, we don't have one unified program and so it may be more difficult to address these sorts of problem, but a greater emphasis on a broad education would be pretty fantastic as a start. And I have, of course, met both Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints who have a broad understanding of religious beliefs, but unfortunately this is a lot rarer than it ought to be.