This is part one in a two-part series – abridged from a referenced version previously published on Millennial Star. It is a response to the recently released book from Jana Riess entitled “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church”

In 2002, word circulated that a PBS Documentary would be coming out focused on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I got excited about such a high-quality film – and on a network known for fair-minded reporting.  So, I sent out a note to friends to be watching out for it.

As soon as the film aired, however, something became quickly apparent. From the dark images of Joseph Smith set to spooky music, to the scene of primary children clearly intended to convey brainwashing, it became obvious that this film was less about representing us, than someone else’s story about us.

Rather than attempting to craft something malicious or deceptive, I believe producer Helen Whitney approached her documentary with pre-existing strong feelings about who we are – which emotions naturally influenced how she told the story.  Unfortunately, for the many who tuned-in to learn the truth about our faith, Helen’s own arguments and our own reality were fused into one indistinguishable product.

‘The truth about what’s happening in Mormonism.’ On February 26, 2019, after sharing 18 months of advance results, the Salt Lake Tribune announced the “day is near” for people to read the full report from a study it described as “groundbreaking,” “sweeping” and “landmark.” Hailed by others as “momentous,” “revolutionary” and a “must read for anyone interested in the LDS Church,” the text by Dr. Jana Riess was widely promoted as “showing” and “revealing” the truth about what’s really happening right now within the Church. 

For instance, Peggy Fletcher-Stack writes that the book “shows how LDS millennials view the faith and why more are leaving.” And Doug Fabrizio introduced her work as allowing us to “now [be] able to add some facts to the dozens of opinions about Latter-day Saints.” Another person added,  “It is as though she created a Mormon MRI: able to see below the surface to understand what LDS folks really think.”

Compared to others with mere “opinion,” Jana’s conclusions have been widely proposed as possessing a distinctive authority.  As justification for this kind of confidence, people emphasize that it is a “large-scale, nationally representative study” – which is all many people need to hear in order to consider the findings as uniquely trustworthy. As one reviewer pointed out, regardless of acknowledgments about the study’s limitations, “this book’s conclusions are going to be accepted and spread as fact.”

But, hasn’t Jana earned that right? 

Research as a human enterprise. Although we (all) love to be able to claim empirical evidence as definitively supporting what we most deeply believe…it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  Another RadioWest guest spoke of “this dance between fact and theory constantly going on” in research – “and the expectations you have going into something will influence the data you collect, how you interpret that data, how you think about that.”

As I previously demonstrated with Dr. John Dehlin’s research, depending on the underlying questions, the measures used, the characteristics of people answering the questions, the analytic decisions and the framing of results, dramatically different conclusions can be reached.  Particularly when the topic is sensitive enough that respondents might find it socially desirable to answer one way or another, small leanings in the question framings, answer options and sample demographics can also lead to large cumulative effects on results.

Large data sets have also been long appreciated among scientists as introducing even greater risk for confirmation bias.  This complexity only multiplies once analysis starts. Out of hundreds of pages of survey responses or interview transcripts, for instance, what patterns are highlighted and shared (and which are overlooked), which statistical analyses are performed (and which are not) and how the hundreds of various results are ultimately packaged and presented (or not), can all make a big difference.

This is different than claiming a particular study is “biased.” Everyone has bias and a certain viewpoint or judgment about things (including researchers), which is an aspect of being human, and not a problem. The issue is being aware of this bias, and transparent enough about how it inevitably shapes research, so that people can take that into account as they consider whatever conclusions are being made.

That’s why I write.  When insufficient attention is given to this larger interpretive framework, larger arguments inevitably blend and bleed into the results and findings in a way that is indistinguishable to readers. Like Whitney’s documentary, the two intertwined get presented (and embraced) as one undeniable reality.

I believe that is happening with The Next Mormons to a substantial degree.  Based on the book itself and associated reporting, the majority of readers will have a difficult time discerning and differentiating Jana’s own interpretations and arguments from the statistics themselves.

That’s partly because not a whole lot is said about Jana’s own narrative standpoint. By contrast, Jana raises extensive critique throughout The Next Mormons about the narratives within her own faith community – problematizing larger stories and narratives held to be true by orthodox members, including:

  • “the usual narrative [about] violating the word of wisdom”
  • “a popular narrative in the LDS church today that pornography…”
  • “a standard narrative that has been told and retold many times…that to exit the fold…”

She also points out how her own data “upends a common narrative within Mormonism [about singles]” or “complicate[s] the victorious narrative about Mormons’ remarkable rates of abstinence.” Elsewhere, she has discounted other orthodox narratives as straight-up “myths” embarrassingly at odds with empirical reality – insisting that “many of these explanations don’t hold water statistically.”

In order to encourage more balanced scrutiny of the narrative backdrop of The Next Mormons, I highlight below ten ways the larger worldview of Jana and her co-researcher, Benjamin Knoll, show up in research design, and interpretation of results. I’m grateful to Jana’s willingness to correspond with me about some of my questions. 

While raising concerns, this does not discount meaningful insights Jana raises – many of which can help us better empathize and minister.  Even so, I offer these observations as a believing Latter-day Saint who finds the kind of implicit narrative running throughout The Next Mormons as potentially destabilizing of sincere faith – especially when these conclusions are presented (and received) as an obviously-objective reality. 

1. Yielding to covenants as conforming. Survey participants were asked to pick from a long list of possible concerns that some have felt were “troubling to some extent” about the Church.  Included on that list was: “the Church’s emphasis on conformity and obedience.”

Could the phrasing of this question have contributed to the resulting statistical patterns in answers? When I asked her about that, Jana agreed that the question was “imprecise” – and remarked that she wished she had “separated out those two terms.” 

She went on to add, “based on respondents’ answers to other related questions, I think we can comfortably say that there is generational difference about obedience.”

I don’t disagree. The key issue is not whether a difference exists in attitudes, as much as the story we tell about that – and how we make sense of those differences.

And, how do we?  Here’s the graphic from one front-page Salt Lake Tribune reporting on the study:   

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

What story do you take from this kind of presentation?  Wow, this whole emphasis on “conformity” is pretty troubling – and getting more and more push-back…no wonder some people are walking away!   

Whatever nuance existed in the way the question was asked is undoubtedly lost to many readers digesting the results as mere facts about objective conditions causing someone to leave.

I want to point out that for the most part, I found the questionnaire pretty fair-minded – with a few notable exceptions.  And I do find Jana raising genuinely interesting and valuable things to talk about throughout.  For instance, she acknowledges real tensions worth exploring in the presiding and equality beliefs around marriage, in the dialogue between outer counsel and inner conscience, and a similar dialogue in working out the autonomy of local wards within the larger structure of authority. 

Rather than acknowledging these as workable polarities that can be navigated collaboratively, however, what I found disappointing was how often these were portrayed as aching, inherent tensions destined to cause suffering: between men and women, inner conscience and outer prophetic counsel, etc.

2. Walking away from covenants as courageous. Compared with her implicit critique of an emphasis on obedience, Jana paints a strikingly noble picture of the decision to step away from the Church – characterizing GenXers who “first tested the boundaries of belief” as “paving the way for their younger siblings to later do the same.”

She later describes a man walking away as “a pioneer of sorts himself: one of the first in his family to leave Mormonism.” Although not easy, she adds, “he’s not alone in blazing this particular pioneer trail.”

Departing individuals are described as “softening” and becoming more “flexible” or “elastic” – in contrast to the “stiffened” prophetic defense of the family.

3. A hapless picture of prophets. In contrast to the closeness and trust so many have worked diligently to foster between youth and prophet leaders, Jana paints the picture in her book of a fundamental division between youth and their prophet leaders. Alongside significant attention to their age and whiteness, words like “rigid,” “absolutism” and “all-or-nothing theology” are used to characterize their beliefs.   

The book showcases multiple instances of leader words or actions that collectively paint a picture of prophets as sadly judgmental and naïve. For instance, President Ezra Taft Benson is described as having linked working mothers to what Jana calls “all kinds of disastrous outcomes for their children”– citing his expression of concern in 1981 that active families were “experiencing difficulties with their children because mother is not where she ought to be.” In retrospect, she insists time has proven him wrong, stating with surprising confidence “we can see that many children of working Mormon mothers appear to have turned out just fine.”

Jana’s overall word choices, highlighted interview quotes and direct critiques paint a cumulative picture of leaders engaged in a mixture of hapless fumbling and self-interested strategizing – at one point describing President Packer’s language as “coming straight from the Kimball playbook” (135). Efforts of the Church to encourage more consistency in teaching the pure message of Christ are likewise framed not as understandable “standardization” (as would be praised in math education), but instead, “sweeping corporatization.”

4. A glowing picture of former members. In significant contrast to this picture of power-preoccupied prophets, former members are portrayed in a remarkably glowing way. While acknowledging the acute pain of walking away, personal accounts portray individuals feeling closer to God now in their life and more “free and whole” after stepping away.  In what Jana describes as “one of the survey’s most significant findings,” she reports 93% of former members reporting that “freedom, possibility and relief” best described their feelings after leaving the Church. 

Given the strong social desirability bias former members understandably have for their departure from the church to be seen by loved ones in a certain way, it seems especially important to craft a question that would allow the true complexity of this experience to be documented and explored.

Jana acknowledges this isn’t what happened, describing in the book how they required respondents to choose between only two options of what best described their feelings after stepping away: “freedom, possibility, and relief” or “loss, anger, or grief”?

Is it really that surprising most respondents picked the former option? 

Not really. 

In our correspondence, Jana did advocate for the value of binary questions for certain inquiries, namely as a way to assess “what people would choose to do when push came to shove.” I agree, but would still add that when such an approach is used, it would seem especially important to qualify findings and explain the unusual conditions that generated the data.  Instead, this 93% number has been widely shared as an empirical finding “at odds with a standing narrative in the LDS Church that to exit the fold is to leave warmth and happiness behind.”

5. A narrative about millennials. A big focus of The Next Mormons is illustrating through numbers and stories how old and young people differ in the Church – which, on one level, is not super surprising given dramatic social changes around us. 

Rather than exploring varying ways to interpret these interesting differences, however, Jana lays out a fairly consistent narrative explanation.  For instance, although “more than 90 percent of each generation believes in God,” Jana notes that “this belief may be softer around the edges for Millennials” – going on to describe what she calls an alarming “erosion of certainty” between generations: “What we see here is a notable drop in certainty on every theological measure, with an average decline of eighteen points.” She also speaks of a “decline in certainty” and later notes a “double-digit drop” between those who pray every day and those who don’t (emphasis added).

“Notable drop in certainty”…”decline in certainty”…“erosion of certainty”

Rather than seeing the different perceptions of Millenials and older Latter-day Saints as perhaps somewhat predictable for different stages of development (especially in the challenging world today), Jana consistently portrays these differences are reflecting an alarming divide indicative of a fundamental transformation underway.

At one point, Jana does acknowledge that “Millennials may grow into greater theological certainty with time,” a possibility she has discounted in public appearances.  Instead, she points back to her own preferred interpretation: “Millennials just have a different relationship to authority – and that is, I don’t think something that is simply an age effect. I don’t think that is something based on the lifecycle of the stage they are in. It is a cohort effect that will follow them. If that’s the case, how will that change the Mormon experience?”

In speaking of what she portrays as a real, significant, fundamental decline, drop and difference between generations, Jana uses generalized language, telling Doug Fabrizio, for instance, that young people are “not as enthusiastic about the temple…Millennials aren’t necessarily returning to the temple…Millennials are kind of caught between values of the church and older generation – and the values of peers.” She writes in another piece, “Millennials are a different breed. They are not practicing your grandmother’s Mormonism” (emphasis added).

As reflected above, the broad language connotes fundamental conflict.

Following Jana’s dire narrative into the future, one reviewer even forecasted a near extinction of young Latter-day Saints in North America:  “It may be that the ‘Next Mormons’ are more likely to be youth from the developing world, and that millennials from developed nations will become a statistically insignificant minority of the LDS church in the coming century.”

Jana does acknowledge that not all of the differences illustrate less faith in millennials.  In addition to being more consistent in scripture study, she highlights numbers illustrating higher home teaching and missionary activity.  Some might see this data as evidence for an impressive level of dedication, given how hard it can be to share the gospel in the world today.  Perhaps this even suggests signs of a bright future in the future of their leadership in the Latter-day Saint tradition?

Rather than a reflection of greater conviction regarding the truth of the gospel, however, Jana suggests this greater participation in ministry and missionary work may simply reflect a desire for more social engagement.  Channeling her own conclusions, another person summarizes that millennials “define their ‘Mormon’ identity more in terms of social integration and participation with the Saints than in terms of strict compliance with church rules and requirements [as the preceding generations did].”

Translation:  they’re just here to hang with their friends!

6. A narrative of race and gender. Similar to her take on generational differences as fundamental and problematic, Jana also writes about racial and gender differences as an inherent, aching barrier. Admittedly, like all communities with a connection to American history, ours acknowledges a complicated racial and gendered past. Over many centuries of human history, mistreatment of both women and racial minorities has more often than not perpetuated heartbreaking, even vicious levels of neglect, inequality and abuse. That is a bitter heritage and legacy we all bear and share (no matter where we live in the world) – and from which we all need to heal.

From that painful past, it’s not hard to look at many of the advances in racial and gender equality as divinely inspired – even arguably part of the restoration itself (concurrent and simultaneous with the unfolding of religious restoration). Rather than brothers and sisters coming to experience a new unity within the human family, however, Jana paints a different picture, illustrated by one interviewee talking about nonwhite Latter-day Saints struggling with having only “white Utah-based leadership talking to us and explaining different principles of the gospel.”

In a similar way, The Next Mormons paints a picture of substantial gender discrimination as endemic to Latter-day Saint culture. After recounting a woman being dismissed decades ago from an educational opportunity at BYU, she argues, “Elysse’s experience of sexism in Mormon culture is dramatic, but it differs from other women’s more in degree than in kind.”

Rather than reflecting anything divine, what Jana calls “the strictly gendered division of duties” in Latter-day Saint teachings about gender are portrayed as a unique pattern arising from an earlier time, and becoming “a hallmark of Mormonism after World War II.” These teachings about marriage and family involve, in her words, an expectation that women will “submit easily to being groomed for marriage and motherhood” (emphasis added). 

Modesty is portrayed as asking women to “not attract attention to themselves.” And within this accepted way of doing things, she describes priesthood callings as meaning “women are still excludedfrom most leadership positions.”

Jana goes on to assert that what she calls “segregation by sex” or “gender segregation” is “important in Mormonism” and something that “begins early,” insisting that most members have accepted this “segregation” because they’ve never known any other way.

Of course, gender distinctions are real, and sometimes involve unfortunate disparities that deserve real discussion. But by Jana’s telling, women continue to live in a “subordinate role” in comparison to priesthood holders – “expected” by the church to “deepen their relationship with God in a more passive way that is unspecified.” When not actively subordinating women, the picture is one of long-standing neglect, noting at a public talk, “we’ve taken for granted women for a long time.” 

The optimism Jana does have comes from larger societal change, noting how these “significant shifts” have “altered young Mormon women’s lives, potentially expanding their opportunities in the world.” By contrast, Latter-day Saint culture is described as stubbornly resisting these trends, as she tells the Tribune: “the church has become really the only place where some of these women that I’ve talked to experience what they consider to be discrimination – where their opportunities feel circumscribed or someone is telling them because of their gender, you are this, and not this and you have to behave this way, and not that way.”

The Church is the big problem in this telling – not larger society.  In fairness, Jana does give space for a counterexample of one woman who describes the church as “the only environment she is part of where focusing solely on family and home is seen as a valid life choice by those around her, and she appreciates that.”  Despite this, Jana paints a larger picture of women – especially younger members – as dissatisfied, talking matter of factly about the Church’s “treatment of women” as one reason people are leaving.

An alternative explanation for some of this dissatisfaction is not considered: namely, that once you have adopted a progressive narrative of gender, sexuality, and other matters, it’s hard not to experience frustration about virtually any orthodox religious norms (see elaboration here). One African-American interviewee does hint at this – recounting being preoccupied with race issues while investigating the church, before speaking of a “spiritual experience where he felt like the Holy Ghost commanded him to let it go.”  He added, “I heard the Spirit say, ‘Stop using racism for all your answers. It’s keeping you from all the blessings.’ Something came over me.” Jana notes that he was baptized with his family shortly thereafter.

The remainder of this essay will be available tomorrow, in Part II.