Pew MormonsinAmerica550

For a graphic look at this survey go to the Washington Post.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a “Mormons in America” report  last week, examining something that shouldn’t be so remarkable, but nonetheless is. In this first-of-its-kind study ever published by a non-LDS research organization, instead of relying on people outside the faith to describe who Latter-day Saints are and what they believe, the Pew researchers actually asked members.  

This shouldn’t be so novel, but in this “Mormon moment” brought on by Mitt, the Broadway musical and others who have leaped into fame, Latter-day Saints are used to hearing their faith described in terms that range from the distorted to the disdainful and are left feeling like they are viewed by the media, and then subsequently their neighbors, through a fun-house mirror.

The report is titled a telling Mormons in America: Certain in their Beliefs; Uncertain of Their Place in Society.

It is too rare for Latter-day Saints to be given the opportunity to speak for themselves in describing their religion and experience in the public square-and this is a serious thing because when others speak for them, inaccuracies and caricatures abound. Indeed, Stephen H. Webb, wrote this week in a Catholic journal, First Things, “Mocking Mormonism is one of the last frontiers of verbal lawlessness to be untouched.”

The Pew report described their intentions this way: “The idea for this survey arose in the early summer of 2011, around the time that a Newsweek cover story and a New York Times article declared that the United States was experiencing a Mormon moment.’… But despite the sudden proliferation of Mormons in the mainstream, Mormonism itself isn’t any closer to gaining mainstream acceptance,’ the Newsweek article stated.

“That got us thinking. Over the years, numerous polls have gauged public attitudes toward Mormons, who make up about 2% of all U.S. adults. But what do Mormons themselves think about their place in American life? With the rising prominence of members of the LDS Church in politics, popular culture and the media, do Mormons feel more secure and accepted in American society? What do they think of other religions? What do they believe, how do they practice their faith and what do they see as essential to being a good Mormon and to leading a good life?”

This is not the only extensive survey Pew is doing of minority religions in America, as they have in the works studies on Jews and Muslims, but for Latter-day Saints it is an important step to help others-particularly academics and journalists-understand more about who they are.

In order to make sure they were asking relevant questions, the Pew Forum created a small committee of advisors for the study, largely made up of Latter-day Saints, including Alison Pond, deputy editor of the editorial page of The Deseret News.

Pond described the role these advisors played, “We helped brainstorm ideas for questions and helped get the wording right (LDS lingo can be confusing to outsiders). We also provided insight on the results and analysis as the report was being written.”

For the study 1,019 people who self-identified as Latter-day Saints, were polled and asked an extensive series of questions. The results showed some surprises, but many things that Latter-day Saints also know about themselves and seem to be a best-kept secret from the rest of the world.

The Latter-day Saints who were polled, for example, feel very confident and secure in their own faith. They are satisfied with their own lives, content with their communities and optimistic about the future-all this despite the fact that 62% of them say Americans as a whole are uninformed about their faith and 46% say that Mormons face a lot of discrimination–which is higher than the percentage that says the same about blacks (31%) and atheists (13%).

Those sturdy, secure feelings may perhaps be accounted for, however, because of Latter-day Saints’ confidence in their beliefs. Ninety-eight percent believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; 97% say their Church is a Christian religion. (We wonder who those other three per cent are), 90% express certainty about belief in God and a similar number believes the Bible is the word of God.

These beliefs are backed up by religious observance. According to the Pew Survey, 82 percent say religion is very important in their lives and that same number pray at least once a day (with 64% of those praying several times a day.) More than 75% attend meeting weekly and 79% tithe.

The survey noted, “Only one-in-fifty Mormons (2%) exhibit low levels of religious commitment, saying that religion is not too’ or not at all’ important to them and that they seldom or never pray and seldom or never attend religious services.”

Gregory Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Forum, said, “That is a level of religious commitment that is much, much higher than we see among the public as a whole, and is even higher than we see among other religious groups with high levels of religious commitment” including white Evangelical Christians.

Judging by their devotion to their religion and their practice of it, Latter-day Saints appear to be the most religiously committed of nearly any other group in the nation.

Gary Lawrence, an LDS pollster from California who has done significant polling of American’s attitudes towards Mormons suggests that these numbers suggest that “Pew has sampled the sweet end of our membership.  I don’t believe 79% of all members pay tithing, nor that 66% hold a temple recommend.”

Pond added, “Based on the high levels of belief and practice found by this survey, it’s pretty clear that not all people who are on the rolls of the church identify themselves as Mormons when asked. This doesn’t invalidate the results; self-identification is a widely used method of religious measurement in surveys.  But it is important to keep in mind when interpreting the results. This survey paints an interesting and accurate picture of most active Mormons, but should also prompt questions about those who don’t immediately identify themselves as Mormons, and why.”

Heidi Swinton, the author of To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, said, “Was I surprised by the results of the study? Frankly, yes. Not because of the answers but because of the willingness of the Pew Foundation to cast the Mormon people as something other than odd and eccentric.

“In a society where religion is treated with derision and disdain, I was grateful that those Mormons interviewed reflected a firm belief in Jesus Christ and a love and respect for our faith. II was not surprised that they identified themselves as Christians first and foremost because that is exactly what we are.

When others choose to describe us they take issue with our Christianity as if it is their prerogative to make that decision.

“It did surprise me,” she said, “that so many were forthright about themselves as being at peace with their lives and content in their communities. So often we are labeled with guilt, pressure and even exhaustion that others assume come with the burdens of belief, the expectations of attending services and the many aspects of living our religion.   Not so and it is nice to have a chance to say so.”


As people begin to look at this study, a paradox emerges. Latter-day Saints report themselves as confident in their beliefs and optimistic about their futures, while 68% of them say that Americans do not see Mormons as part of the mainstream.

Michael Otterson, director of public affairs for the Church, wrote in the On Faith blog in The Washington Post, “I suspect my fellow church members are not much bothered by that,” Otterson wrote. “Because ‘mainstream’ is a modern term, it isn’t found in scripture, and the scriptural inference of what God truly values is quite the opposite. God appears to be more interested in using the word ‘peculiar’ to describe his people … It is this sense of distinctiveness that Mormons cherish.”

Pond says, “I think Mormons are a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, they desperately want to be accepted and mainstream, but on the other, they want to maintain their separateness as a “peculiar” people with specific standards.”

Swinton enlarged the question, “Is Mormonism mainstream? I am not sure any religion is mainstream any more. Worship of the Lord Jesus Christ is so under attack. But for people to say they pray, they teach their children to pray and they attend Church services says this is a religion with depth, purpose and results. People feel the love of God because of what they are doing with their lives and that makes for people, as the study suggests, ‘satisfied with their lives and content with their communities.'”

Indeed, Mormons are very much out of the mainstream in some happy ways. On the question of how important it is to be a good parent, 81% of Mormons said it is one of the most important things compared to 50% in the general population. On how important it is to have a successful marriage, 73% said it is one of the most important things in life vs. 34%. On the issue of sex between unmarried adults 79% of Mormons think it is morally wrong while only 35% of the general population thinks so.

Still, Grant Hardy, professor of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina, found some surprises in the sections of the study on family and morality. “It came as no surprise that Mormons are much less accepting of premarital sex and alcohol than Americans as a whole, or even white evangelicals. I was not expecting, however, that we are more accepting of divorce than either group. Similarly, I would have guessed that Mormons would be more inclined toward marriages where the husband works and the wife stays home (58% vs. 30% of the US public), but the difference of opinion on this question among college graduates is startling: 71% of LDS college grads felt that a single-career marriage (husband working)  was more satisfying than a two-career marriage, while only 23% of non-Mormon grads agreed.”

He said, “It was interesting to track the effects of college education and missionary service on Latter-day Saints. Higher education was correlated with higher levels of religious commitment, current temple recommends, religious certainty, and conservatism. Mormons who have served missions are more likely to see evangelicals as unfriendly, but they also find more similarities between Mormonism and Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam.”

Dr. Hardy also noted, “A study like this gives us a chance to reflect on who we are and who we want to be. At places where we diverge from American culture in general, or white evangelical culture in particular (since in many ways we most resemble that group), we can ask whether those differences are central to our religious faith or peripheral, and whether they assist or detract from our mission to spread the Restored Gospel. For instance, the poll shows that 88% of Mormons are white and 74% are either Republican or lean Republican. No surprises there, and I understand the historical reasons for these characteristics, but the Gospel is more important than race or politics, and we need to make sure that minorities and Democrats will be welcomed in as converts and can feel at home in our congregations.”

Painting an Accurate Picture

According to the survey, “A majority of those polled (54%) say that the way Mormons are portrayed in television and movies hurts society’s image of Mormons in general,” but nearly that same percentage says media coverage is fair while 38% say it is unfair.

Still, whether it is media that fuels the fire of discrimination or not, 46% of Latter-day Saints say there is a lot of discrimination against Mormons in the United States today and 56% say there are misperceptions about them.

That number seems low, because for so many who are unacquainted with Mormonism, the first image that leaps to mind is polygamy. It is the subject of jokes on late night talk shows and predominates in entertainment with people looking for a quick gag.

Here’s news. Only 2% of the Mormons surveyed found polygamy morally acceptable, fewer than those who found sex between unmarried adults wrong (7%) or having an abortion unacceptable (4%). In other words, according to this poll for Latter-day Saints polygamy is the bottom of the barrel of moral acceptability.

Will this news make it very far? It may provide some interesting analysis for a few, but is not likely to make a dent on the broad stroke misperceptions of the American public.

Heidi Swinton noted, “I wasn’t at all surprised that Mormon are still misunderstood by society. Having sons who recently have lived in less populous areas of Mormonism on the east coast and in the Midwest, I have heard their accounts of being considered curious and their Christ-like devotion confusing to coworkers and neighbors. I think there is still prejudice in some circles who look askance at any religious beliefs, particularly Mormonism.”

Who We Are

Still despite the glare of the spotlight that has been on Mormonism for the last few years, Mormons say that acceptance of Mormonism by the broader society is on the rise, and most Mormons think that Americans are ready to elect a Mormon president.

For Grant Hardy the study illustrated another plus and minus. “I was somewhat disappointed that Mormons are only slightly more likely to believe that immigrants–not just illegal immigrants, but immigrants in general–are more of a blessing than a burden to our country. I would have thought missionary experience in foreign countries and working with immigrants here would have made Latter-day Saints more empathetic on this issue, but it turns out that our attitudes are pretty similar to the rest of America (though we are much more positive than white evangelicals). On the other hand, I was delighted to learn that 73% of us believe that “working to help the poor” is essential to being a good Mormon.”

Still, with 94% of Mormons believing that the president of the Church is a prophet, 95% believing that families can be sealed eternally in the temple, and 92% saying that a mission is a positive experience, we see a faith that is living and vibrant in the lives of its members.

And Gary Lawrence, who knows first hand what it takes to do these polls summed it up this way, “All in all, I tip my hat to Pew for sampling a group that constitutes only 2% of the population.”