By Margaux Curless and Benjamin Knoll
As an institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unquestionably opposed to same-sex marriage. Its membership supports this stance, with a majority (55%) in opposition, more than just about any other American religious group except for white Evangelicals. Certain members, though, are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than others. The 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS) can help shed some light on who they are.
Statistical analysis of the NMS shows that opposition to same-sex marriage among American Mormons is structured by factors similar to those of the wider population. Members are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage and discourage homosexuality if they are Republicans and/or attend church more frequently. As would be expected, identifying as an LGBTQ member is associated with greater support for same-sex marriage and societal acceptance of homosexuality. Age also makes a difference, with older members being more conservative than their younger counterparts on this issue.
Among younger members, however, opinions on LGBTQ political issues are structured by the importance they place on following church authority.
In the NMS, individuals were asked which of the following statements they most agreed with: A) “Good Latter-day Saints should obey the counsel of priesthood leaders even if they don’t necessarily know or understand why,” or B) “Good Latter-day Saints should first seek their own personal revelation on a matter and act accordingly, even if it is in conflict with the counsel of priesthood leaders.” 56% of Latter-day Saints said that they agreed more with the first statement that prioritizes institutional authority while 44% agreed more with the second statement that prioritizes individual conscience. The NMS also asked respondents their views on same-sex marriage and societal acceptance of homosexuality.
The following graph shows predicted likelihood that a Latter-day Saint in the NMS will agree with the phrase: “Homosexuality should be accepted by society.” It is based on a logistic regression that simultaneously controls for the effect of gender, income, education, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ identification, frequency of church attention, convert status, and political partisanship. Whatever effect is identified here is therefore not a result of correlation with those other demographic, religious, or political attitudes.
Younger members who answered that good Latter-day Saints should obey church leaders above their own conscience were more likely to say that homosexuality should be “discouraged” by society (rather than “accepted”) compared to younger members who said that personal revelation trumps institutional authority. This was the case for both Millennial and GenX members. Older members, however, were more likely to say that homosexuality should be “discouraged” regardless of whether they value institutional or personal authority.
It is important to note the effect shown in the graph above. Prioritizing individual conscience over institutional authority increases the likelihood of acceptance of homosexuality by 17% and 25% for Millennials and GenXers, respectively. Even among younger members who prioritize individual conscience, more than a third are still likelier than not to say that homosexuality should be discouraged by society. At the same time, however, more than a third of members who prioritize institutional authority are also more likely than not to say that homosexuality should be accepted.
The NMS shows that this same pattern also holds true in terms of attitudes toward support for same-sex marriage: younger members who prioritize their personal inspiration and conscience over church leaders are more likely to say “I believe that same-sex marriage should be legal in all fifty states” than their peers who prioritize institutional authority. For Latter-day Saints of the Boomer/Silent generation, however, their attitudes toward same-sex marriage were the same regardless of their view of institutional vs. personal authority.
This overall pattern fits other social science research that finds that Latter-day Saints opinions on political issues tend to “follow the leader” but only when LDS General Authorities are united in their views and public pronouncements about an issue. In this case, LDS Church leaders have consistently been loudly and publicly opposed to same-sex marriage for a number of decades, even as church teachings and policies toward the morality of homosexuality itself has shifted in a more tolerant direction in recent years.
Of course, this raises the question: what if the views of LDS General Authorities and their public pronouncements on this issue change in the future? Currently, governing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints range in age from 60 to 94. Surveys have consistently shown that younger Latter-day Saints are more supportive of same-sex marriage and more tolerant of homosexuality than older members. As GenXers and Millennials continue to age and slowly are integrated into the Church’s highest governing councils, they may likely bring their more supportive and tolerant views on LGBTQ issues with them. This may also eventually serve to influence toward similar attitudes among Latter-day Saints as a whole.