Of all the numbers in the Pew Research Center’s recently released survey of “Mormons in America,” the highest, most overwhelming numbers are these: 98 percent of respondents said they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and 97 percent say their church is a Christian religion.
This comes on the heels of earlier surveys indicating that 32 percent of non-LDS U.S. adults say the LDS Church is not a Christian religion, and an additional 17 percent are unsure of LDS Christianity. The theological and semantic reasons for this can be complex, but for the 1,019 self-identified Mormons who participated in the Pew survey, their theological position is clear: Mormons believe in Jesus Christ, and they consider themselves to be Christian.
“Certainly in Latter-day Saint theology is this idea that if you understand who you are, you understand that there’s a purpose in life, you understand your connection to God, that certainly has an impact on how you live your life and what you do, but also how you feel about your life and what you are doing,” said Michael Purdy of the LDS Church Public Affairs office.
For the vast majority of Latter-day Saints surveyed, those life choices have much to do with their religious beliefs. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents indicate that religion is “very important” to them, 83 percent say they pray every day and 77 percent say they attend church at least once a week. Beyond that, a stunning 69 percent of respondents fit all three descriptions, saying that religion is very important to them, that they pray every day and that they go to church every week.
“By this measure,” the report says, “Mormons exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than many other religious groups, including white evangelical Christians.”
Part of the explanation for these high numbers may be that the survey focused only on those who self-identified as Latter-day Saints.
“The method they used tended to identify people who are strongly committed,” said BYU sociologist Marie Cornwall , who advised the Pew Forum on the new survey. “They don’t have the people who are kind of marginal. But that’s okay; we just have to be careful with the way we interpret the findings.”
One such finding is the relationship between religious commitment and education among Mormons.
David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame associate professor and another adviser on the survey, noted that the more educated respondents were, the higher their levels of religious commitment.
“I was a little surprised by that,” said Campbell, who is LDS and who has extensively studied on the role of religion in the public square. “The more educated a Mormon is, the more likely they are to be wholehearted in their commitment to the church and its teachings.”
That is different from other churches, he said, where more education tends to lead to more religious skepticism.
Pew Research Center officials also noted “a significant gender gap in religious commitment, with more Mormon women than men exhibiting a high level of religious commitment (73 percent vs. 65 percent).”
According to the Pew report, a similar “gender gap” is seen among the general public. A 2007 survey found 36 percent of U.S. women exhibited a high level of religious commitment, compared with 24 percent of men.
One series of questions asked about what it means to be a good Mormon. According to the respondents, in order to be a good Mormon it is “essential” to believe Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ (80 percent), work to help the poor (73 percent), hold regular family home evenings (51 percent), not drink coffee and tea (49 percent) and not watch R-rated movies (32 percent).
Combining those who said “essential” with those who said “important but not essential,” the order changes a little bit: working to help the poor (97 percent), holding regular family home evenings (96 percent), believing Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ (93 percent), not drinking coffee and tea (81 percent) and not watching R-rated movies (79 percent).
“I think that result is rather interesting,” said Cornwall. “Mormons are known for not drinking coffee or tea and not watching R-rated movies. But compared to believing that Joseph Smith saw God and working for the poor, Mormons don’t seem to focus on the coffee and tea as much as people probably think.”
Other manifestations of religious commitment in the survey included:
The number of respondents (65 percent) who say they hold a current temple recommend (a certificate from local ecclesiastical leaders, issued every other year, indicating that an individual has permission from the church to enter LDS temples and participate in temple rites and sacraments)
The number (79 percent) who say they pay tithing (donating 10 percent of their income to the church)
The number (27 percent) who have served full-time missions for the church (this number includes 43 percent of men and 11 percent of women and varies significantly according to the age and education of the respondent, as well as whether or not the respondent was raised Mormon)
The number (82 percent) who keep food in storage for emergencies or disasters, as they have been counseled to do by LDS Church leaders (This number includes 23 percent who say they have three months’ worth, 35 percent who say they have more than three months’ worth and 23 percent who say they have less than three months’ worth)
The percentage who pay tithing is especially interesting to break down. According to the survey tabulations, “tithing is most common among Mormons with the highest levels of religious commitment (96 percent) … fully 91 percent of college graduates say they pay tithing … compared with 66 percent of those with a high school diploma or less education. And among those whose family income exceeds $30,000, 83 percent say they pay tithing, compared with 69 percent of those with incomes of less than $30,000.”
While previous surveys have clearly established LDS agreement with certain key Christian doctrines — 90 percent of Mormons believe in God, 91 percent believe the Bible is the word of God and 98 percent believe in life after death — the new survey explores Mormon confidence in points of doctrine that are unique to LDS theology. And in these points of doctrine, Mormons proved to be unified and believing. They believe overwhelmingly that God and Jesus Christ are separate physical beings (94 percent), that the president of the LDS Church is a prophet of God (94 percent), that families can be bound together eternally in temple ceremonies (95 percent) and that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets and translated by Joseph Smith (91 percent).
Overall, 77 percent say they believe “wholeheartedly” in all of the teachings of the LDS Church. That number increases to 82 percent among Mormons ages 18-49, and to 85 percent among Mormons who are college graduates.
“Ultimately, I suppose other Americans will judge our church — and perhaps all churches — by their relevance in how they touch and improve human lives right here on Earth as well as what they offer in the life to come,” wrote Michael Otterson, Public Affairs director for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in his “On Faith” blog in the Washington Post. “Meanwhile, we welcome the friendship and regard of all groups, even as we retain our commitment to a unique identity. In the end … Latter-day Saints will strive to be good Mormons, true believers, kind neighbors and faithful friends.