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Maurine Proctor
Friday, January 20 2012

Latter-day Saints Reflect on Pews’ Mormon Poll

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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.


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