The New Mormons – Part Two

Part One

In the spirit of the ever-popular Top Ten List of ________, I will start with some brief statements describing the results of the New Mormon Survey. You can then decide if you want to read more.

Grumpy Summary

We are losing nearly 50% of young members.

GenXers and Millennials are more similar to each other than either is to older generations. (Secret: At about 50 years of age, I qualify as a GenXer. I feel younger already.)

New Mormons are more likely to be suspicious of institutions and authority.

Young Mormons are more inclusive of LGBTQ people, those of a different race, and women.

For young Mormons, especially Millennials, individual choice is valued over conformity.

Emphasis on individual choice, institutional distrust, and inclusivity can be seen in the relationship that many young Mormons have with the church. The top three issues are evidenced in the top five reasons young Mormons gave for leaving the church:

  • “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church.”
  • “I stopped believing there was one true church.”
  • “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.”
  • “I felt judged or misunderstood.”
  • “The Church’s position on LGBT issues.”

Some more interesting observations from the survey.

Young Mormons are more comfortable with “I believe,” than “I know.” Declaring certainty leaves little room for others.

GenXers and, even more so, Millennials are less likely to renew their temple recommend or attend after the first experience.

38% of current recommend holders had consumed one of the substances traditionally prohibited by the Word of Wisdom in the last six months.

Affiliation with the Republican party is significantly lower for Xers and Millennials.

93% of those who leave Mormonism indicate that they experience “freedom, possibility, and relief,” and not “loss, anger, or grief.”

From the Audience: “I knew it! You’re against the church. Reiss should be excommunicated and you need to read your scriptures more.”

(With sarcasm.) Yep, you caught me. And, every time your wife makes a To-do list for you, she’s saying that you’re a failure.

From the Audience: “Uhhh . . . no??”

Taking the air temperature on a summer day, does not make it hot.

So, let’s understand the measurement before staking a position.

Now, if you are really interested, let’s get on with a more in-depth look.

New Mormons

In 2016, Jana Reiss organized and conducted a large, in-depth survey of current and former Mormons. The results of the New Mormon Survey (NMS) are presented in he book “The Next Mormons – How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church.”

Previously, the LDS Church retained about 75% of its young people. That has dropped to about 50%. The intent of the NMS was to learn why many young Mormons are leaving the faith of their fathers. The reasons may not be as clear as you might think.

It’s tempting to fixate on things the LDS Church is or is not doing as the primary explanation for those membership losses, arguing that the church is alienating young people with its antigay rhetoric, its treatment of women, and its superannuated* leadership. While this book presents statistical evidence that some of those reasons do factor into why more Millennials are leaving the LDS Church, a major explanation for disaffiliation is the changing religious landscape in America. Mormonism is not an island.” (pg 6)

*”superannuated” means obsolete, antiquated.

Reiss seeks to take the sociological temperature and see what’s up with young Mormons in the US. How are they different from their peers and predecessors and how do we address their needs?

At the end of part one of this post, I asked the question:

Like the first Jewish Christians, are we willing to give up on some practices–even sacred practices–in order to adapt to a new audience?

Keep this in mind as you read the following.

Institutional Authority

The internet has now been a part of our society for 30 years. The effects are inevitable. Access to better communication and knowledge can lead to an empowerment of the masses and their questioning of established institutions.

Authority issues are far-reaching with the Millennial generation as a whole, since their trust in institutions is often lower than their elders’. (pg 20)

Without strong leadership telling one what to believe or do, we can expect that certainty and conformity will wane.

Generationally, Millennials show less absolutism than their elders, but they are still remarkably devout compared to their non-LDS Millennial peers. (pg 20)

While much of the book and modern handwringing is focused on Millennials, it should be noted that the trend is led by GenXers.

We will see this many times throughout the book: GenXers’ views and behaviors are often closer to Millennials’ than they are too Boomer/Silents’, and this finding is not just true for NMS, but other studies as well. (pg 19-20)

Personally, I find that I align more with the general values of Millennials than my elders. It’s not often that I get to throw myself in with a younger crowd.

Missionary Service

Young missionary experience was shown in the NMS to be a powerful indicator of ongoing church participation. Those who did not complete a full mission were more likely to leave the church later.

Only 9 percent of those who were active growing up and served a full-term mission are no longer Mormon today, compared to 29 percent who served a partial mission and nearly half, 45 percent, who didn’t server at all. (pg 46)

Of course, forcing kids to stay on missions is not the answer. Better preparation and more flexible options for mission service might help.

About a year ago, I proposed that allowing missionaries to self-select humanitarian over proselytizing missions might provide more valuable engagement.

Temple Rites

Temple attendance, the pinnacle of Mormon worship, is an interesting metric.

Both Millennials and GenXers ordered temple worship dead last out of nine possible favorite aspects of being Mormon. For Boomer/Silents, the temple was sixth, which is hardly a ringing endorsement, but still more positive than younger Mormons’ assessment. What are we to make of this? Something about the temple is not “clicking” with Millennials and GenXers, and both data and interviews suggest that concerns center around exclusion and women’s roles. (pg 55)

It should be noted that the survey was conducted in 2016. Changes to the temple endowment and sealing ceremonies were implemented in January 2019.  These changes specifically addressed the role of women. The fact that the Church is aware of such issues and is moving to correct them is a positive sign.

Time will tell whether this change will be beneficial.

Families and Singles

Many Mormon singles can feel judged or shamed or express frustration that the church seems to be worshiping the nuclear family instead of Christ. For some . . . the grief has been strong enough that they’re no longer active in the faith. (pg 72)

Because marriage and children are so central to the Mormon concepts of happiness in this life and exaltation in the next, living without them can be acutely painful. (pg 72)

Exacerbating the judgement by older generations is that the average marriage age has been increasing. Often singles are treated like children, when, in fact, they may be fully independent, working professionals.

Many Millennials and GenXers who marry are not doing so until their thirties, meaning that . . . Marriage has moved from being a “cornerstone” foundation to a “capstone” aspiration. Marriage is something many young adults view as desirable after other goals, like education, have been achieved. (pg 73)

Single members are a vulnerable population; they are much more likely to separate from the church than married members.

The church must find a way to speak to the growing percentage of never-married Mormons, who often feel great strain in a church that has taught them that marriage is fundamental not only to their happiness in this life but also to celestial exaltation in the world to come. (pg 76)

For one, they shouldn’t be sidelined as second-class, juvenile members.

Gender Expectations

Reiss augmented the survey with dozens of interviews. Anecdotes and experiences like the following demonstrate the reading the numbers isn’t as clean as we would like.

Miranda, thirty-five, discovered the huge budget disparity that existed between the amount spent on boys’ Scouting activities and the much smaller amount allocated to the Young Women. “It was like, ‘Here’s a dollar figure attached to how much less I am valued than the Young Men in the ward,'” she says. “Throughout adolescence she was a square peg in the round hole of meekness and motherhood. “Everywhere but church, the message was focused on achievement and careers.” The focus at church rankled her since she was academically oriented (she would go on to become an attorney). As a stay-at-home parent now, though, she has a somewhat different perspective. The church is the only environment she is part of where focusing solely on family and home is seen as a valid life choice by those around her, and she appreciates that. Right now she is struggling with very mixed feelings about women’s roles in Mormonism.” (pg 96)

Balancing competing roles for women can be challenging for the women themselves. Doing so from an institutional level isn’t any easier, especially, when it is primarily men that are delivering it.

There is a perception that the children of working mothers are more likely to stray from the church.

Only 67 percent of Millennial former Mormons had mothers who worked outside the home, compared to 75 percent of those who remain self-identified as Mormons. In fact, Millennials and GenXers in the former Mormon sample were more likely to have had a stay-at-home mother than those same generations in the current Mormon sample, while among Boomers and Silents the percentage was almost exactly the same. (pg 107)

So, if you want the greatest probability of your kids staying active in the church, the mother should work. (Obviously, this is a tongue-in-cheek statement.)

Certainly the hardline rhetoric of former LDS leaders like Ezra Taft Benson, who linked working mothers to all kinds of disastrous outcomes for their children, does not bear up under scrutiny. As Benson told the sisters of the church in 1981, when the oldest of our survey’s Millennials were in diapers, many active LDS families were “experiencing difficulties with their children because mother is not where she ought to be–in the home.” Several decades later, we can see that many children of working Mormon mothers appear to have turned out just fine. (pg 107-108)

Racial and Minority Attitudes

I highlighted very little in this chapter and the next. Not because the subjects are not important, but just the opposite. As with LGBT issues, I have little room to speak. My life is so insulated from these issues, I have no credibility to speak.

Even though I have never engaged in any overt bigotry or violence, the racial bias of the church culture was also mine. Like so many Mormons I once held the belief “that the reason some people were born outside the United States in non-LDS families was because they were not righteous in the premortal life.” (pg 112)

Fortunately, quasi-authoritative justifications for the church withholding priesthood and temple ordinances from those of African descent have been retracted. Yet, there are still members that hold to these teachings. I suspect that the reason for most of these members is because the alternative, calling prophetic leaders wrong, is a more proximate, troubling concern.

I did find it astounding that over 60% of members (both white and non-white) still hold the view that the priesthood ban was “inspired” or “probably inspired” of God. This points to member ignorance and over confidence in church leaders. Or, just a desire to be obedient and respectful.

We need to do better.

Rainbow Fault Lines

Religions typically set boundaries on sexual expression. As such, LGBT positions are challenging for conservative churches.

Accommodating gender attractions outside of the heterosexual norm requires theological positions that are especially difficult in Mormonism. Gender (typically meaning sexual identity) is considered part of our eternal natures. God–as a physically human, heavenly father–is believed to have a female spouse. This implies that anything else is not divine. The requirement for heterosexual marriage in the temple in order to qualify for eternal exaltation creates a tension with non-normative attractions that is almost impossible to resolve.

Nevertheless, love may ultimately win in spite of official position.

The PRRI survey … found that among all Mormons, opinions about same-sex marriage had reached a tipping point between 2015 and 2016. In 2015, two-thirds of Mormons (66 percent) opposed same-sex marriage, and in 2016 barely half did (55 percent). This eleven-point erosion of opposition, and corresponding eleven-point spike in support (from 26 to 37 percent), occurred during the exact period in which the church’s official position against same-sex marriage was made abundantly clear through its November 2015 policy changes. Even as the church stiffened its posture, the rank and file softened theirs, contributing to a growing disconnect between the leadership and the membership. (pg 145)

One Mormon researcher pointed out that had the population at the time of Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith welcomed blacks and opposed the policy excluding them, it is likely that it would have never been institutionalized. At the time, however, few Mormons had opportunities to interact with different races; converts and immigrants were overwhelmingly of European origin.

Now, however, many members are aware of, related to, or associated with individuals who are LGBTQ. Since experience trumps doctrine and policy, this may mean that the church will have to create a more nuanced space for sexual expression or risk alienating a growing part of the church.

Now, however, many members are aware of, related to, or associated with individuals who are LGBTQ. Since experience trumps doctrine and policy, this may mean that the church will have to create a more nuanced space for sexual expression or risk alienating a growing part of the church.

Note: In the midst of writing this post on 04 April 2019, the retraction of the policy on exclusion of children of LGBTQ families was announced.

Faith and Doubt

While some may see the relaxed practices of Mormon Millennials as also a lack of spirituality, the data does not support this. Personal prayer and personal scripture study are quite high. They also have the highest level of literal belief in the scriptures. (However, this may be more representative of their stage of faith development rather than spiritual maturity.)

Some of the interesting generational differences among active Mormons pertain to temple observance and worthiness.

Nearly four in ten current temple recommend holders (38 percent) say they have consumed at least one of the substances forbidden by the Word of Wisdom in the last six months. . . . Some people may be less than truthful in the recommend interview, or they are interpreting the Word of Wisdom with a certain amount of flexibility. Another possibility is that some of these individuals have temple recommends that are technically still current . . . but they have begun distancing themselves from full Mormon activity since the time of their last recommend interview. (pg 159)

Given that this survey was conducted within a year after the November 2015 policy of children of LGBT families, there may have been a significant number of members who resolved to begin separating themselves from the church. The “flexibility” reason may also be quite valid.

[The observation]–that church leaders have vacillated on which Word of Wisdom standards to uphold and which to discard–is particularly interesting, because the “pick and choose” accusation so often goes the other way, with older Mormons complaining that younger ones only keep commandments that suit them. When it comes to Word of Wisdom compliance, there is reason to believe that younger Mormons are less rigid in their practice than older ones, less likely to tie its observance to their Mormon identity, and more apt to question the rules even if they do choose to follow them. (pg 162)

Tithing is similarly “adapted” by younger Mormons. They are much less likely to pay tithing on gross pay. GenXers and Millennial Mormons are nearly identical in this regard.

Social and Political Views

In general, Millennials tend to be significantly more liberal than prior generations. They are less likely to associate with the Republican party and more likely to be Democratic, Libertarian, or Independent. This correlates to their greater inclusivity of feminist and LGBTQ views.

The problem with Millennials’ greater liberalism on these social issues is that the church has often staked its claim in the opposite direction, such as with repeated public opposition to same-sex marriage or Equal Rights Amendment for women. (pg 188)

Religious Authority

The charts ranking different sources of moral authority were quite revealing. For all generations, “own conscience” and “promptings from the spirit” were considered the highest moral authority. This is good to see.

Older generations, GenXers and Boomers, were more confident in “own conscience” than Millennials. This is to be expected due to age and experience differences.

With Millennials, family members ranked third, just below spiritual prompting. Next, local church leaders, scriptures, and general authorities carried about the same moral weight. Even so, LDS general authorities were sixth place.

Baby Boomers ranked LDS general authorities as the third most important moral authority, whereas local authorities were in the weeds, barely ahead of “coworkers” and “philosophy.” This makes sense from the perspective of age and life experience. A 35 year old bishop is not likely to carry much credibility with older members.

When confronted with a conflict between ones’ own personal revelation and direction from a priesthood leader the same generational pattern is evidenced; Boomers favor obedience to leaders while GenXers and Millennials are almost evenly split.

With respect to church callings, diminishing value of institutional authority also leads the younger generations to feel empowered to turn down callings.

Exodus

Often the orthodox Mormon opinion is that people leave the church because of sin or because they want to sin. Broadly speaking, this is not the case. Nevertheless, those that are moving to separation or have separated from the LDS church will often engage in practices that were once forbidden, such as drinking coffee or alcohol. For temple-endowed members, removing the sacred garment is often an early step when they can no longer reconcile their tensions with the church.

Statistically speaking, there are common characteristics of those most likely to leave the church.

In general, leaving Mormonism is often correlated with being male, politically libera, less educated, never married, from a divorced family, and/or LGBT. In all my conversations I did not find a single former Mormon who personified all of those categories simultaneously, though many . . . Embodied two or more. These various factors are considered “additive,” which means that the more of these traits people have, the greater the likelihood becomes that they will be former and not current Mormons. (pg 214)

While members who leave they church may be accused of losing their faith, this may not be totally accurate. They may have lost their faith in the church and its foundational stories, but they often retain a belief in God. Although this belief may be more broadly defined.

In our sample of former Mormons, 86 percent say they believe in God, though they may have doubts at times or feel God is more like a “higher power” than a personal deity. It is therefore not accurate to characterize former Mormons as having rejected all religious belief. For most, the reality is far more nuanced and complicated. (pg 215)

One narrative that is often heard in the Church is how much more happy members are than those outside. However, this may not be the case.

One of the survey’s most significant findings is about happiness. When asked to make a binary choice about which better described their feelings after leaving Mormonism, “freedom, possibility, and relief” or “loss, anger, or grief,” 93 percent of former Mormons chose “freedom, possibility, and relief.” This finding is at odds with a standing narrative in the LDS Church that to exit the fold is to leave warmth and happiness behind. Despite any difficulties that their decision to leave may have caused them, the vast majority of former Mormons—more than nine out of ten—do not seem to be looking back with regret. (pg 219)

One interviewee, Rob, after leaving the Church, recognized that he gained a new perspective on humanity.

Over time . . . the . . . realization of his own nonspecialness “actually became empowering: I am like everyone else, and that’s a good thing. We all have so much to give. I shouldn’t have been on that pedestal to begin with.” Rob now says he finds beauty in approaching new people by focusing on what he might learn from them, not what he might teach. (pg 220)

The top reasons GenXers and Millennials selected for leaving the church include:

  • “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church.”
  • “I stopped believing there was one true church.”
  • “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.”
  • “I felt judged or misunderstood.”
  • “The Church’s position on LGBT issues.”
  • “I engaged in behaviors that the Church views as sinful.”
  • “The Church’s emphasis on conformity and obedience.”
  • “I drifted away from Mormonism.”
  • “Lack of historical evidence for the Book of Mormon and/or Book of Abraham.”
  • “The role of women in the church.”

Often, concerns of struggling members are dismissed as trivial. We see this in messages from general authorities, such as the husband-wife talk from Elder and Sister Renlund (Youth Fireside, 13 Jan 2019). While it is understandable that they were trying to be relatable to the youth, they compared troubling issues regarding Church history to a game of Wack-A-Mole, which avoids recognition of real issues.

People I spoke with expressed frustration that legitimate grievances with the LDS Church were too often hastily dismissed by orthodox members who shut down or took over the discussion, refusing to listen as they tried to describe the reasons for their loss of faith. (pg 228)

The demand of orthodox members for others to gloss over troubling topics makes it difficult for struggling members to participate. This same problem exists within families when one of them leaves the Church.

Because Mormonism is such a high-sacrifice religion, leaving its orbit can be shattering. Everything changes when a formerly Mormon leaves, from diet and clothing to decisions about how much money to donate to charity and which charities to choose. (pg 230)

With the passage of months and years, former Mormons seem less and less interested in rejoining the fold. Some expressed to me that they look back on all the time they once invested in Mormonism–including, in some cases, a two-year mission—and are amazed by the free time they have now by comparison. (pg 231)


What can be done to make returning to church activity a valuable experience?

Conclusion

Two of the observations that I have seen in LDS congregations are:

  1. Leadership musical chairs; ward and stake positions are filled by a limited set of leaders. The nature of the process for calling leaders is inherently restricted to those that are familiar, known, and trusted to the responsible authority.
  2. Church classes and committees often become a contest of conformity and certainty rather than an exploration of viewpoints and questions.

Reiss makes the same observations:

What should worry LDS leaders is not simply that the church will lose ground numerically—though for any institution of course that is a valid concern—but that it will become an echo chamber of its own making, a dogged remnant whose followers retreat to their own safe subculture. (pg 234)

The LDS Church is changing. I expect that some changes will be effective and some will not. Hopefully, this will all lead us to greater focus on personal transformation through the teachings of Christ.

Eugene

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