The impact of politics and geography on volunteer service callings in the LDS Church

by Margaux Curless and Benjamin Knoll

Does political party affiliation influence what types of volunteer service opportunities are given to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)? Data from the 2016 Next Mormons Survey reveals that it might, depending on whether they live inside or outside of Utah. Preliminary findings suggest that Mormon Democrats in Utah are less likely to be asked to serve in more time-intensive volunteer assignments in their congregations than Mormon Republicans—a difference that doesn’t seem to exist outside of Utah. Given that volunteer service is a crucial part of the LDS Church—providing the bulk of Church leadership, instructors, and program directors—which members are asked to serve can have important consequences on the culture and values of Church life.

To give some context: it is important to understand that in the LDS Church, formal congregational service opportunities largely depend on whether the congregation’s leadership asks you to serve—specifically, whether you are assigned a “calling.” Callings may range from teaching a Sunday School class, serving as a Bishop, i.e. congregational leader, serving as a formal “minister” to watch after and care for a specific family in the congregation, etc. Church leaders take inspiration from prayer when assigning callings and consider a member’s personal/family situation. They strive to ensure that every active member of the congregation has at least one calling, although some callings are much more time-consuming and central to the day-to-day operations of the congregation than others.

The Next Mormons Survey (NMS) asked self-identified Mormons in the United States how often they “volunteer time to serve in a church or congregation.” Attending church frequently, believing in the Mormon teachings, and considering “Mormon” to be an essential part of one’s identity are each positively correlated with serving more often. (More information about the survey’s sample and methodology is available here.) Given how volunteer service is strongly organized through this “calling” structure in LDS congregations, we can infer that these factors make it more likely that members are assigned more time-intensive callings by their congregation’s leadership.

Political Partisanship

In addition to these factors, the NMS also revealed that there is an interesting political pattern when it comes to service assignments: overall, Republicans say that they serve more frequently throughout their monthly and weekly lives than Democrats. This is not surprising, though, given that most Mormons in the United States are Republicans. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study estimated 70% of Mormons are Republicans or lean Republican, whereas 19% are Democrats or lean Democrat. Accounting for this difference in population shares, rates of volunteering become fairly consistent among parties. About 52% of Mormon Democrats surveyed volunteered their time at least once a week compared to 58% of Republicans.

Further analysis, though, reveals a wrinkle to this finding: geography. In a multivariate regression model that statistically controls for whether someone attends church services weekly, whether one is a native or convert Mormon, as well as traditional demographic factors (age, gender, education, race/ethnicity, LGBT identification, etc.), Democrats in Utah give volunteer services in their congregations less frequently throughout their day-to-day lives than those outside of Utah:


The graph above shows that whether or not a Mormon Democrat lives in Utah is significantly correlated to how frequently they volunteer service in their congregations (lower levels on the y-axis correspond to more frequent volunteering averages). The size of the effect and the width of the confidence intervals makes it challenging to interpret precisely how severe this pattern is, but we can confidently conclude that, in Utah, Mormon Democrats volunteer less frequently than Republicans. (The difference is roughly equivalent to someone saying that they volunteer “a few times a week” instead of “daily” or “a few times a month” instead of “weekly.”)


The above graph shows that the same is not true for Independents and Republicans: they report similar levels of volunteering regardless of whether they live in Utah or somewhere else in the U.S. (Again, lower levels on the y-axis correspond to more frequent volunteering averages)

Why might Democrats in Utah, even among those who attend church weekly, be assigned less time-intensive callings than those living elsewhere?

There are clear overlaps between traditional Mormon values and the conservative ideals of the modern Republican party, e.g. emphasis on the family unit, same-sex marriage, etc. While Mormonism and conservatism are certainly not interchangeable—Mormon Democrats clearly exist, not to mention further points of disagreement between Republican Mormons and Donald Trump’s Republican party—the points of shared belief might serve to make Republican Mormons appear more appealing to leaders when they are considering assignments for callings that require a good deal of investment in the community’s values and priorities. All other things being equal, this might lead to a preference for a Republican over a Democrat for these important callings.

Couple this with the reality that nearly half of self-identified Mormons in the U.S. live in Utah while in most other states they make up barely make up 1% of the state’s population. Outside of Utah, congregational leaders likely have far fewer active members to work with when assigning callings compared to many congregations in Utah where active members are plentiful.

In a situation like this, leaders in Utah may have the luxury of being more discerning in who they ask to serve in the time-intensive callings and opt for the Republican over the Democrat if they are otherwise both equally qualified. Outside of Utah, however, leaders have a much smaller pool to work with and thus are potentially happy to assign time-intensive callings to whoever will agree to volunteer their time, regardless of their political views.

It is important to note that even though the NMS shows that Utah Democrats are, on average, asked to serve in less time-intensive callings than Utah Republicans, this does not mean that Utah Democrats are more likely to not have any callings at all compared to Utah Republicans. Indeed, the NMS shows that the factors of partisanship and geography are not predictive of who says that they volunteer at least monthly (expected for most LDS congregation callings) vs. rarely/never. Thus, it seems that while congregational leaders in Utah are just as likely to assign callings to active members regardless of their political opinions, Republicans are somewhat more likely to be assigned more time-intensive callings.

Another explanation might be that Utah Democrats may simply be less faithful in carrying out the duties associated with their callings than Utah Republicans, even if they have the same assignment. This is unlikely, though, given that the same relationship holds even when statistically controlling for whether a member says that they believe in most/all of LDS Church teachings.

Further research could illuminate the nature of the relationship between political views, geography, and LDS church service. While differences in congregation size is one theory, other factors may contribute as well. Either way, the question of which members are assigned to serve in the more central and time-intensive callings matters because these volunteer roles are pervasive throughout the LDS Church. The values and priorities of these volunteers, in turn, influence the institution and its culture.

Margaux Curless is an Economics and Finance major at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.

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