by Margaux Curless
Do foreign mission trips with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints change views on immigration? Evidence from the 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS) indicates that these trips may have a real impact. Members from the United States who serve missions abroad are more likely to believe that immigrants strengthen the U.S. rather than seeing them as a burden. Moreover, this effect appears to make a difference specifically for young men but not young women.
As of 2016, a 60% majority of current U.S. Mormons surveyed agreed that “immigrants today strengthen our country” rather than seeing them as a burden. The LDS Church generally looks favorably upon immigrants. In response to President Trump’s immigration policies, the LDS Church issued statements condemning the forced separation of families on the U.S.-Mexico border and supporting the principles of DACA. The Church also frequently notes that much of its membership has immigrant ancestry and celebrates that aspect of its history; much of its present-day support for immigrants may be a consequence of that heritage.
While Latter-day Saints as a whole are generally favorable toward immigrants, political party lines also shape individuals’ opinions. Mormon Republicans surveyed are split at about 50%-50% on whether immigrants are a burden or a support; however, this is much more even than for Republicans on the national level (65% considered immigrants to be a burden around the same time in 2016). For their part, Mormon Democrats are widely favorable toward immigrants (75%), similar to Democrats nationwide. Although immigration has become an incredibly partisan issue in recent years, the divide is less severe for Mormons than nationally.
In considering what else might impact views on immigration, direct experience outside of one’s home country could also be a factor. Working with and forming relationships with people from other nationalities could result in greater respect for their talents, as well as increased sympathy for harsh situations abroad or lack of opportunity. LDS missionaries volunteer their time and are assigned to a mission location around the world. They are typically young (often under the age of 25); women serve eighteen months and men serve for two years. While the chief goal of many missions is to spread the gospel, some missions also have an exclusively humanitarian focus. Missionaries, by nature of their work, are in direct contact with locals. In the case of humanitarian missions, missionaries are confronted with some of the challenging conditions that could motivate immigration.
In the NMS survey, serving a mission in general does not appear to impact one’s views on immigration. However, serving a mission abroad (about a third of all mission experiences for NMS respondents) does appear to positively impact immigration views, even when controlling for political party affiliation, how frequently one attends church, and other demographic factors. This effect is specifically pronounced for men:
There are several differences in missionary experiences between men and women. Not only do men serve longer missions than women, but they also serve more missions in general. About 40% of Latter-day Saint men surveyed in the NMS had served a complete mission versus only 17% of women. Men can also begin their missions younger than women can—today, men can start at age 18 while women wait until 19. (Prior to 2012, women had to wait to be 21, while men could go at 19.) Although the gender gap in mission involvement has closed some in the past decade, it’s still pronounced today.
The gender gap itself, though, does not easily explain why serving missions abroad impacts men’s views toward immigrants much more notably than for women. There is not a substantial difference between men’s and women’s view of immigrants: overall, close to a 60% majority for both groups agree that immigrants strengthen the U.S. One potential explanation is the nature of the missionary expectation in Latter-day Saint culture. It has historically been widely understood that missionary service is a duty and obligation for young men but an optional opportunity for young women. Perhaps, then, young women who choose to enlist are those who are already more global-oriented in their views and thus less likely to have their views about immigration changed by a mission experience. Further research, though, would be needed to confirm this possibility one way or the other.
Despite being one of the most politically conservative religious groups in America, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also one of the most pro-immigrant. Thus, the Church’s stance on immigration moving forward is very relevant to contemporary political issues and party coalitions. Understanding what impacts members’ views on immigration is therefore crucial, especially when considering that the Church utilizes lay-leadership. The NMS shows that there has been a slight recent uptick in the proportion of Latter-day Saints who have served missions abroad when comparing Baby Boomers/Silents (15%), GenXers (12%) and Millennials (19%). Young missionaries will very likely be the future leaders of the LDS Church, especially given their early display of commitment. We may expect, then, the Church’s pro-immigration culture to possibly strengthen in coming years and decades.
Margaux Curless is an Economics and Finance major at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.