The two kinds of American Latter-day Saints: a Mormon typology

The Pew Research Center recently published a fascinating report on the religious contour of the United States. Based on answers to 16 different survey questions about religious practice and belief, researchers identified seven dominant religious “typology” groups in America including “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Relaxed Religious,” “Diversely Devout,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.”

Using results from the nationally-representative Next Mormons Survey that Jana Riess and I designed and fielded in 2016, we used the same statistical procedure used by Pew to analyze the number and nature of dominant Mormon religious typologies in the United States today. While using many of the same questions that Pew used in their analysis (frequency of church attendance, belief in God, etc.), we also added several uniquely Mormon measures, including levels of belief in the LDS Church as the one true faith and levels of observance on things like tithing, the Word of Wisdom (LDS dietary law), and whether someone has a current temple recommend.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a reputation for being active in their religious observance as well as somewhat monolithic in their culture and opinions. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the analysis revealed only two dominant types of American Mormons:

GROUP 1: “FAITHFUL AND OBEDIENT

The “Faithful and Obedient” group makes up 62% of self-identified Latter-day Saints in our survey. They are very active and orthodox in their beliefs. Nearly all (94%) report that they attend church at least weekly.

In terms of private religious practice, 80% say that they pray daily, and more than half (55%) say they read scripture daily. Three quarters say that they feel God’s presence and love on a daily basis, and half say the same about feeling a deep sense of wonder and connection with the universe. Two thirds say that they fully observe the Word of Wisdom (with only 10% and 18% reporting that they’ve had either alcohol or coffee in the last six months, respectively), and 91% say they regularly tithe 10% of their income (either net or gross) to the Church.

When it comes to belief, almost all (98%) say that they fully believe and/or have faith in most or all of LDS Church teachings. Four in five (82%) say that they should obey their leaders even if it conflicts with their individual conscience, and another four in five (78%) currently hold a temple recommend. More than nine of out ten believe that the LDS Church is the only true faith (92%), that Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind (97%), and that God has a plan for their lives (98%).

A little over a third of this group lives in Utah (37%) and this group is strongly politically conservative: two-thirds are Republicans and a quarter are Democrats. They tend to be a little higher on the socioeconomic scale, with 55% earning at least $50,000/year and 40% having earned a college degree.

GROUP 2: “RELAXED BUT ENGAGED”

The “Relaxed but Engaged” group makes up the other 38% of American Latter-day Saints. While they are diverse in both religious activity and belief, most still attend church either weekly (46%) or monthly (31%), and two thirds describe themselves as either very or somewhat “active” in their attendance and participation.

Half (48%) of this group say that they pray daily and only 14% say they read scripture daily. About a third say that they feel God’s presence and love (41%) or a deep sense of wonder and connection with the universe (34%) on a daily basis. Only about one in ten (14%) say they keep the Word of Wisdom faithfully (with 46% and 58% saying that they’ve had alcohol or coffee in the last six months, respectively). Only a third report that they regularly tithe on their income (either gross or net).

In terms of belief, a little over half (60%) say that they believe or have faith in most or all of LDS Church teachings. They are more likely to value individual conscience over counsel from their leaders (79%), and only 10% have a current temple recommend (although 46% had one at one time in the past but no longer do). About a third believe that the LDS Church is the one true faith, but strong majorities believe in basic Christian teachings such as that Jesus is the Savior of the world (71%) and that God has a plan for their lives (69%).

This group is less likely to live in Utah (only 22% do so) and are more politically diverse, with about two-fifths identifying as Republican and the same proportion as Democrat. They also tend to be a little lower on the socioeconomic scale, with 44% earning more than $50,000/year and a quarter (26%) earning a college degree.

The goal of analyses like these are to aggregate and summarize large amounts of information into general patterns, trends, and categories. There are, of course, those who would not fit neatly into either category.

Also, Latter-day Saints often categorize their members as either “active” or “inactive” based on their attendance and participation in the LDS community. It is important to note that both typology groups in our survey are “active” in the sense that they regularly participate, although the Relaxed but Engaged Mormons tend to be less orthodox and orthoprax than the Faithful and Obedient Mormons.

What then of “inactive” members who rarely or never attend? It is important to note that in our survey, only about 15% of self-identified Mormons say that they attend church less than monthly (nearly identical to the rate found by the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey). From other sources, we know that activity rates of those the LDS Church claims as members are low, similar to other American religious organizations. Thus, this strongly implies that when members become “inactive” in the LDS Church, they often stop identifying as Mormon altogether. Perhaps they represent a third typology group: inactive members who no longer identify as Latter-day Saints. Indeed, according to the 2014 Pew RLS survey, roughly a third of those who grew up LDS no longer identify as such, many (if not most) of whom are still claimed and considered “inactive” by LDS Church records. Whatever the measure, the bottom line is that Mormons who slip into inactivity often leave their Mormon identity behind as well.

Finally, the LDS community should keep in mind that about a quarter of those in the pews every week are Relaxed but Engaged. That means that there is a sizable minority who find value in the social aspect of the Church but who don’t believe wholeheartedly in LDS church teachings, don’t pay tithing, don’t hold a temple recommend, and who drink coffee and alcohol and take the counsel of church leaders with a grain of salt.

As secularism increases and younger generations are increasingly more likely to disaffiliate from formal religious identities, how the LDS community manages the productive tension of its Faithful and Obedient members as well as Relaxed but Engaged members is perhaps one of the most important questions for LDS leaders to grapple with in coming years and decades.

More information about the methodology and results of this analysis can be found here.

 

 

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