Something novel happened this morning.
Over the years we’ve learned quite a bit from opinion polls about how Americans view Mormons. Clearly, there is a big knowledge gap about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, complicated by a lot of erroneous assumptions.
But this morning we saw something different with the release of an important study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which put questions to Mormons themselves about how they see their place in the religious and secular world, and what they think is important about their own faith. It delivers some fascinating data.
First, the self-identified members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that Pew surveyed appear very confident and secure in their own faith. Ninety percent express certainty about belief in God, and about the same number believes the Bible is the word of God. Ninety-eight percent believe in life after death and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ninety seven percent believe that their faith is a Christian religion. (That is in striking contrast to the view of Americans looking from the outside in --a 2011 survey showed that nearly half of the American public is either unsure or doesn’t think Mormons are Christian. And, by the way, most Mormons will wonder genuinely why these numbers aren’t 100 percent).
The same high numbers appear when looking at Latter-day Saint worship habits and religious observance. Eighty-two percent say religion is very important in their lives and about the same percentage prays every day. More than three quarters of the sample attend religious services at least once a week.
These are far higher numbers than found among the general public when asked the same questions (Pew says 38 percent of the general population pray daily, and 39 percent attend weekly services). Mormons also give generously to their church - 79 percent of the sample said they pay tithing, the charitable contribution that is generally taken to be ten percent of a person’s income. And almost half of Mormon men have served full-time, unpaid missions for their church (43 percent).
The other striking statistics about where Mormons place their priorities is found in the questions about family. Two thirds of Mormons are married compared to just over half of all Americans, and eighty-one percent of all members say being a good parent is one of the most important life goals. Only half of Americans in general say the same. Almost three quarters of Mormons put the same high priority on marriage, compared to one third of the general public.
So in general, Mormons appear to be religiously committed and very family oriented compared with Americans as a whole. Other data in the study suggests that two thirds identify as conservative, and just under a quarter as moderate. The survey did not address the eight million Mormons who live outside the United States, however, where I suspect these numbers might be significantly different. Institutionally, the church is neutral and entirely non-directive in terms of party-political affiliation.
More strikingly, American Latter-day Saints according to Pew are unimpressed about how well they are understood by others. Some 62 percent of Mormons believe the rest of the country knows little or nothing about their faith. (Other studies suggest that only about half of the American public believes that). Fully half of all Mormons believe that evangelical Christians are unfriendly towards Mormons - possibly the result of relentless claims by the news media to that effect - yet Latter-day Saints see many similarities between their own faith and that of Catholics, evangelicals, other Protestants and Jews. And about two thirds of Mormons think social acceptance of their faith is on the rise.
The title of Pew’s report, interestingly, is “ Mormons in America: Certain in Their Beliefs but Uncertain of their Place in Society. ” It will certainly fuel the ongoing debate about the so-called “Mormon moment” and whether Mormons have become a part of the American religious mainstream.
It is a strange debate. The terms “mainstream” or “mainline” may mean something quite specific to religious historians and theologians, but not to the general public. In the generally accepted use of the word, mainstream carries with it a sense of being part of the majority, or even of acceptance in popular culture. No one has satisfactorily defined what “mainstream” actually means in a pluralistic, highly complex and diverse society of countless subcultures, and so it remains diffuse and imprecise.
Interestingly, the Pew data suggests that only 28 percent of Mormons believe their church has entered whatever they think the mainstream is. I suspect my fellow church members are not much bothered by that. 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. That word is not used in scripture with its modern inference of odd or eccentric, but of something special, even unique. When God covenanted with the children of Israel, the Hebrew word segullah is rendered in Deuteronomy 7:6 as “special” and in 14: 2 as “peculiar.” In the New Testament the apostle Peter tells the early church members, “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness to his marvelous light:” (1 Peter 2:9).
It is this sense of distinctiveness that Mormons cherish, and in that sense I suspect we have something in common with committed evangelicals or with our Catholic brothers and sisters who show special devotion to their own understanding of the Christian faith. Mormons are deserving of acceptance and respect as part of the complex fabric of American society, not because they have passed some ill-defined test of orthodoxy, but because that is what America is at its core. Mormons want acceptance, but not assimilation. No church leader I have ever heard preach has suggested that Mormons should drop their distinctiveness -- the very characteristics that the Pew study identifies -- in order to become more popular with the world at large.
Ultimately, I suppose other Americans will judge our church - and perhaps all churches --by their relevance in how they touch and improve human lives right here on earth as well as what they offer in the life to come. Meanwhile, we welcome the friendship and regard of all groups, even as we retain our commitment to a unique identity. In the end, social currents will flow the way they will flow, but Mormons won’t follow the course of least resistance. In the mainstream or out, Latter-day Saints will strive to be good Mormons, true believers, kind neighbors and faithful friends.
Michael Otterson | Jan 12, 2012 8:18 AM