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?
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.
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.