In defense of the Pew survey: a recap

By July 2, 2008

This is, quite simply, the single most extensive canvass of American religious life ever achieved. It dwarfs noted Pew critic Rodney Stark’s Surveys of Religion; while Stark interviewed some 1,700 Americans (slightly over, actually, the industry standard), the Pew Forum reached 35,556. This means, according to the Pew, overall the margin of error was tiny.

Of those respondents, 581 were Mormon (see above link) – smaller, but still well within a relevant size. The margin of error here was +/-4.5%; about what you see in your average presidential poll. This means that not only can the survey assess American religiosity generally; it can also provide breakdowns of individual traditions.

Despite, then, what some (even I) have criticized as the unclear wording in a single question*, this is a wildly valuable and interesting resource, and extraordinarily worthwhile for anyone (like you, since you’re here) interested in what Mormonism means.

What does the Pew have to tell us about that?

(The full survey can be seen here; a summarized, merely 80 odd page version here).

Some larger trends:

1) In my assessment of the first numbers to trickle out from this report, I noted that Mormonism, along with virtually all the rest of Christianity, suffers from a gender gap. This is no surprise; as I said before, Jonathan Edwards was complaining about it back in the eighteenth century. The Mormons’ gap, however, remains among the most extreme; 56% of American Mormons are female, higher than any tradition other than the Jehovah’s Witnesses and black Protestantism.

The new survey, however, reveals that though the gap persists quantitatively, it is virtually nonexistent qualitatively. That is, Mormon men are dedicated to their faith at roughly the same proportions as are Mormon women: they consider religion to be important, pray, believe in God, and attend services at roughly the same rate women do. See pages 24, 29, 38 and 46 in the full report. This is not typical, generally such ratios among the practicing religious follow the gender gap. This may or may not imply something for the common Mormon meme about spiritual differences between the sexes; either it’s not true or giving the priesthood to men worked.

2) Mormons are simultaneously comfortable and ambivalent about the world around them. 77% believe that hard work will get you ahead in the world. Mormons are the only faith other than Jews to believe that the United States should be more involved in the world, and are less likely than any Protestant group to believe that there is a natural conflict between being devout and living in the modern world. On the other hand, we hate Hollywood more than any other faith in America, and along with evangelicals and Muslims are the only faith to believe that the government should do more to enforce individual morality.

3) Mormons are culturally, politically, and religiously conservative. Some of the first can be seen above.

Mormons identify even more strongly with the Republican party than you think if you live outside of Utah; less, perhaps, if you live inside the state. 65% of Mormons identify as Republican; that’s fifteen points ahead of any other faith group (though two-thirds of Jews and Buddhists are Democratic). Only 22% of Mormons identify as Democrats, less than anybody but the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and the Witnesses have faith-based obstacles to political participation). 60% of Mormons call themselves conservative; again, ten points more than any other group.

Interestingly, the survey correlates these attitudes with church attendance. The more often you go to church, they more likely the above describes you.

In policy terms, Mormons are the least likely of all faith groups to believe that the government should do more to help the poor (though nearly half agree), and they are more likely to prefer a smaller government. The environment might seem an interesting exception to conventional political leanings. 55% of Mormons believe more environmental regulation would be a good thing; however, this actually puts Mormons in the minority.

This conservatism bleeds over into our religious sensibilities; more than two-thirds of Mormons believe that their religion should stress preserving traditional beliefs and practices, far more than any other faith (even the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and somewhat incongruous in light of our theology.

4) Most interestingly, it’s been observed that Mormons do seem to be sensitive to the particulars of their faith. For example, while most Mormons oppose abortion, they fall heavily (and atypically) into the “abortion should be illegal in most cases” camp – reflective of official church policy. Only 9% of Mormons support an absolute ban on abortion, far fewer than their normal bell curve buddies, evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Similarly, when asked about scriptural literalism, only 35% (a healthy number, comparatively, though not overwhelming) of Mormons believe that their “Holy Book” is literally the word of God; fully half state that it is “the word of God, not taken literally,” as in the Eighth Article of Faith.

Other nuggets.

1) About half of all Mormons report sharing their religion at least once a month (or, as evangelicals call it, witnessing). This is roughly on par with evangelicals. Only seven percent of Mormons never do so. Three out of four Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, who again and again are out-Mormoning the Mormons, evangelize weekly.

2) More Mormons, 76%, disagreed with the notion that evolution “is the best explanation for life on earth” than any other group but Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only 21% of Mormons even “partially agree.” Like conservative political views, this is correlated with church attendance.

3) 91% of Mormons read scripture to their children, easily the most. Only 6% homeschool, among the least.

4) 69% of Mormons claim to have witnessed a divine healing.

I’ve gone on for too long already; suffice it to say that this survey deserves far more credit than the beating it’s taken. If we are lucky, it will facilitate the sort of interdisciplinary and social scientific studies of Mormonism that we need in the future. Much has been done, but what we’ve got here indicates that there are far more opportunities in the future.


* I do want to say that though this characterization is, I think, accurate, I don’t think it invalidates even the worth of the question itself. For the uninitiated: the question asked (in a more, I am sure, survey appropriate way) whether one believed that his or her religion was the only way to eternal life. Now, while those of us who care about such things can draw out the nuances between ‘eternal life’ and ‘salvation’ and point out Mormonism’s well-known affinity for psuedo-universalism, it’s not at all implausible to me that many of the survey responders (57%, even) translated this into a one-true-church question. For example, 59% of Mormons said they believed in hell (and a whopping 95% in heaven). Many budding Mormon universalists may be startled at that, but it’s seems plausible to me that Mormon responders understood the questions in their own terms. See my first #4 above.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Current Events Polls/Surveys State of the Discipline


  1. half state that it is “the word of God, not taken literally,” as in the Eighth Article of Faith.

    Umm. What?

    I don’t recall anything about literalism in the articles of faith.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 12:38 am

  2. Sorry, that was too brief. I think the 8th article of faith suggests translation problems which I’d suspect the vast majority of Mormons take as meaning translation in the usual modern sense of the term. (I think Joseph used it in a more expansive sense) The reason for thinking there are broader errors beyond translation comes out of Nephi’s vision and not the 8th article of faith – although to be fair they are often discussed together.

    However literalism seems to imply either a way of reading scriptural language or a claim about inerrancy. I just don’t think those get discussed much in Church. I wish they were discussed more but they aren’t. The main popular LDS commentaries – especially JFS and BRM – tend to read scripture in a fairly literalistic sense. Even Nibley does. That’s changed somewhat of late. (Elder Oaks, for example, has promoted a scriptural hermeneutic quite at odds with literalistic readings)

    But overall I’m surprised both at how you discuss this as well as the fact so few answered they adopted literalism.

    Of course to me this is one of those questions that just doesn’t quite fit into the way Mormons think and so is almost certainly misleading from the statistics.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 12:41 am

  3. BTW – I actually was pretty surprised at the Evolution statistic. I think that means we need to do a better job of explaining what Evolution actually claims and why it isn’t a problem. I suspect that a lot of this is the remnant from strongly anti-Evolution GAs despite official Church neutrality.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 12:43 am

  4. Clark – I’m not sure I completely follow; you seem to be going back and forth between abstract definition and popular practice. I think it’s entirely reasonable to attribute the survey results to the sort of popular conflation you mention in the last clause, particularly given the nature of the question. It’s clearly the best option for Mormons of those offered, and I’d fully expect them to home in on the sentence structure (inspired, with a caveat).

    Anyhow, though I do agree that the eighth article of faith does not in its particular wording say anything about literalism, I don’t think translation (and related issues of inerrancy) and literalism are as neatly separable as I’m reading you to be implying, particularly given the ways conservative Christians (like Mormons) have historically treated scripture. When they claim the Bible is accurate in all that it claims, they mean event as well as assertion. There is some fuzziness around the corners here, where the two collide, but in general the two go hand in hand.

    I also agree that Mormons tend toward something like what’s been called a naive inerrancy, particularly with regard to the Book of Mormon. Even though our theology and the book itself is counter to it, we prooftext like mad, disregard issues of context, assume each verse is functionally of equal worth as every other, and so forth. All classic inerrant reading styles. We do it even though we don’t believe it.

    Comment by matt b. — July 3, 2008 @ 2:24 am

  5. Clark,

    Re: #1/#2 — I actually think it’s rather interesting that even when the response options aren’t necessarily tailored specifically to Mormons, survey respondents map their own understandings onto the choices and pick the one that fits best, and that you can see specific doctrinal threads reflected there. I think it does tell us something.

    And I’m not surprised that so few answered that they take a literal approach, for the reasons you cite but also because the question asked only about the Bible, not about scripture generally, and used the language “should be taken literally, word for word.” (And every seminary student who’s snickered at the Song of Solomon or read through even the book of Genesis knows there’s some wacky stuff in the Bible.)

    Incidentally, the points you make about literalism not being a meaningful framework for thinking about scripture probably apply to Catholics, Buddhists, and other groups in the survey. Literalism makes the most sense to certain fundamentalists, so the answers to this question are going to make more sense for those religious traditions.

    Comment by Sveta — July 3, 2008 @ 2:26 am

  6. Matt, I took one look at the survey and decided I wasn’t up to wading through it all. Thanks for culling some very interesting results for this post.

    I think your #3 is the among the most surprising points. Sometimes homeschoolers AND anti-homeschoolers are so passionate that they both claim “everybody is doing it!”

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 3, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  7. Matt I find that often “what is the best answer” type questions when neither fully fits are amazingly frustrating and can be answered differently by two different people who believe the same thing. (It’s also one reason I hate multiple choice tests – the more you know about the subject typically the harder they are)

    Sveta is right in that these questions can still tell us something if we know the culture in question. I worry more about what they tell people who don’t know our culture.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  8. The gender gap cannot be emphasized enough. This is one nugget headquarters would never willingly publish themselves. That means out of 13 million members, there are 5.7 million men and 7.3 million women nationwide, leaving an excess of 1.6 million women. This is probably very close to the truth, as it fits closely with other Christian denominations.

    Somewhere else I read that 75% of members are born into the faith, while 25% are converts. If so, and if the sex ratio of members at birth is close to 50 male/50 female, then that means something close to 80% of converts are women.

    I can only imagine these numbers are similar or even more disproportionate in other countries. And could we say, if we sneak into the numbers those worthy of temple marriage, and those who are not, that the numbers might be even more disproportionate still?

    To me the numbers don’t look pretty. We face a future in this church that will not be orthodox to marriage, to say the least.

    Comment by cadams — July 3, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  9. I think the gender gap does not mean that the percentage of baptized members is 60-40 female, but rather the percentage of “self-identifying” members is 60-40 female. This may well reflect that more males sufficiently distance themselves from the Church that, while not formally resigning, they no longer self-identify as Mormon.

    Comment by DavidH — July 3, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  10. Matt,

    Great write-up, thanks. I do think this survey is enormously valuable for the reasons you cite.

    This may or may not imply something for the common Mormon meme about spiritual differences between the sexes; either it’s not true or giving the priesthood to men worked.

    I nominate this as the most provocative statment in the bloggernacle this week.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 3, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  11. Somewhere else I read that 75% of members are born into the faith, while 25% are converts.

    In general conference, Elder Pieper cited a figure of 64% of church membership being first-generation mormons.

    Comment by jose — July 3, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  12. Jose,

    I think that 75%/25% number came from the first release of the Pew report back in February. The Pew report only covers the U.S.; Elder Pieper’s figures presumably refer to the church worldwide.

    Comment by Sveta — July 3, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  13. DavidH it would be interesting to see if “heavily inactive members” (say people who haven’t been to church in 4+ years) are more apt to self-identify Mormon if they are women rather than men. That is do women continue to identify themselves as Mormon even if not ascribing to many of the basic beliefs or practices while men are more apt to just distance themselves entirely.

    I think that’s a useful distinction you bring up.

    Having said that though I suspect it will simply turn out that women tend to be more religiously Mormon than men rather than it just being an artifact of how they self-identify.

    Comment by Clark — July 3, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  14. Somewhere else I read that 75% of members are born into the faith, while 25% are converts. If so, and if the sex ratio of members at birth is close to 50 male/50 female, then that means something close to 80% of converts are women.

    I have certainly seen this potential statistic born out in my ward. Upwards of 2/3 of our converts are female. Giving the priesthood to men may keep our current members active, but it doesn’t seem to be attracting new male converts.

    Comment by Katie — July 5, 2008 @ 2:16 am

  15. […] a massive survey on American religious life conducted by the Pew Forum were released. Matt B. at JI summarizes some of the results: 581 Mormons were included in the survey population; the LDS Church has a surprisingly sharp gender […]

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  16. Matt,

    Thanks for this post. Now I don’t have to write it. I also criticized the eternal life question, and then I felt bad after realizing how the whole survey really is quite valuable.

    I still stand by what I’ve said, though, about the eternal life question. The main comparative finding could be nothing more than that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses see “my religion” and “my faith” in a more narrow way than other groups. This is important, but not quite what the Pew survey was aiming for, I think.

    Comment by Dennis — July 8, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  17. […] the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (discussed previously by Matt B. here and here). We discussed various issues, laughed at others, and expressed mild shock at still others. As […]

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