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Review: The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church

Authored by Jana Riess

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Check out the 15 episodes Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series that aired September 30-October 18, 2019: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  Part 6  Part  7  Part 8   Part 9  Part 10  Part 11  Part 12  Part 13  Part 14   Part 15

Jana Riess, 49, is a popular LDS blogger who has degrees from revered school such as Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where she earned her Ph.D. in religion. She is a senior columnist for Religion News Service. MRM’s Viewpoint on Mormonism has produced shows on more than a half dozen of her articles, as she has an interesting perspective, even when we disagree.

Her newest book is titled The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church. It is a scholarly research book published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. While this book is not as “layperson” oriented as some of her other tomes–including Flunking Sainthood, What Would Buffy Do? and Mormonism For Dummies–Riess has compiled important research that will help the reader better understand the thinking of different age-group Mormons. The survey she helped coordinate is known as “Next Mormons Survey,” abbreviated NMS throughout this article.

With that as a background, I’d like to see how considering her research could help those in apologetics ministries better understand the Mormon mindset.

The Generations Discussed in the Book

Riess lists the five generational categories she uses throughout the book:

Greatest Generation: 1927 and before

Silent Generation: 1928-1944

Baby Boomer Generation: 1945-1964

Generation X: 1965-1979

Millennial Generation: 1980-1998

Although she doesn’t interview anyone after 1998, we can, for the purposes of classification, use “Gen Z” for anyone born 1999 and after.

Mormons’ Certainty about Specific LDS Teachings

A chart is given on page 19 to show the comparison with the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennials on unique LDS teachings. The chart explains what the different generations of Mormons believe, with the numbers indicating the percentages of those who “are confident and knew this is true”:

Boomers Gen X Millennials
Priesthood meant for men, not women 57% 46% 41%
Joseph Smith is a prophet of God 67 54 51
LDS First Presidency are prophets today 67 55 53
God is exalted person of flesh and bone 68 55 55
Book of Mormon is literal/historical 62 53 50
LDS Church is the only true church 56 49 48
Sealing ordinances are the only way for families to be eternal 56 49 49
Priesthood/temple ban on African descent was inspired by God 44 30 37

There seems to be a huge drop off in “true blue” beliefs between Boomers and the Gen Xers, even before the Millennials are considered. Granted, the Gen Xers are considered a little more spiritual (by a percentage or two) when put next to the Millennials, but there is much less of a drop off between the Gen Xers and the Millennials than the Boomers and the Gen Xers. The one exception is with the priesthood/temple ban on those with African heritage, as more than one out of three Millennials believe that this doctrine was inspired by God; I would have thought the Millennial number would have gone further down rather than beat the Gen X position by 7 percentage points!

These statistics are very troubling, as they are core concepts of the LDS Church that are denied by more than half of LDS Millenials. Take, for instance, the historicity of the Book of Mormon. A church manual seems to be very clear that this unique LDS scripture contains true history:

The Book of Mormon is a sacred record of some of the people who lived on the American continents between about 2000 B.C. and A.D. 400. It contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ (see D&C 20:9; 42:12; 135:3). The Book of Mormon tells of the visit Jesus Christ made to the people in the Americas soon after His Resurrection” (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 46).

Van Hale, an LDS apologist, agreed with this assessment, stating in 2005,

More than 20 years ago I concluded that my belief in the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired book of scripture did not require that it be an accurate, detailed translation of an ancient history (Van Hale, Host of Mormon Miscellaneous, radio broadcast that aired February 6, 2005).

Yet LDS scholars and apologists appear to disagree with Hale. For instance, former BYU professor Robert Millet stated,

The historicity of the Book of Mormon record is crucial. We cannot exercise faith in that which is untrue, nor can “doctrinal fiction’”have normative value in our lives. Too often the undergirding assumption of those who cast doubt on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, in whole or in part, is a denial of the supernatural and a refusal to admit of revelation and predictive prophecy (Selected Writings of Robert L. Millet: Gospel Scholars Series, p. 93).

Mormon apologist Louis Midgley explained,

There is no middle ground on the question of whether the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text. On this—but not of course on every issue—we are confronted with an either/or possibility . . . There is nothing in the Book of Mormon (or in Joseph Smith’s account of its coming forth) that suggests that it should be read as anything other than historical fact (Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, Paul Y. Hoskisson, ed., pp. 149-150. Ellipsis mine).

Amazingly, only 5 out of 10 Mormon millennials believe in a literal history of the Book of Mormon! Not much better is just 6 out of 10 Mormon Baby Boomers agree. Is it even possible to believe in a fictional Book of Mormon and still be considered a faithful Latter-day Saint? What this says is that nobody can assume that their LDS friends believe in a historical Book of Mormon. It thus behooves the Christian to ask, “Do you believe the Book of Mormon to be a historical book? Or is it possible this is a  fictional book with good moral teachings?” The answer that we receive can dictate the direction of our conversation. True history is everything for those who believe the Bible and the events it records. After all, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-15:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God . . .  

In my opinion, the Latter-day Saint who sacrifices history is in a very precarious position.

What keeps Latter-day Saints faithful?

Although there are a number of Latter-day Saints who have lost (or are losing) their unique LDS faith, it seems remarkable that so many are staying put in their church. Riess provides several reasons why so many Mormons hold on to their faith:

  • Family

Something that those of us in the apologetics ministry have known for quite some time is that family attachments help keep many Latter-day Saints in the fold. After all, many Mormons are very careful not to anger or disappoint grandparents, parents, and siblings. Family heritage can take precedence over truth. Riess writes on page 24,

While there is no perfect formula for raising children who remain devout in adulthood—especially given the unprecedented rapid disaffiliation of the Millennial generation as a whole—sticking with the beliefs of the family provides the best chance for a successful transmission of a religious identity from one generation to the next.

  • A college education

According to Riess,

a college education appears to provide a modest boost toward greater belief and religious activity. . . . For example, nearly two-thirds of Mormons with a college degree are confident that “the LDS First Presidency members and apostles are God’s prophets on the earth today,” but under half of those with a high school education agree (63 vs. 48 percent). . . . An even wider gap separates those groups on the question of whether Jesus Christ was literally resurrected from the dead. Seventy-four percent of Mormons with a college diploma say they know this is true, compared to just 57 percent of those who did not attend college (pp. 24-25. Ellipsis mine).

Riess says she was surprised at this finding, but when we consider how the higher achievers in the family usually go to college and generally are more conforming, it seems sensible. There just seems to be a shut-off valve when faith is concerned, even with well-learned people.

  • Seminary attendance

Seminary is the 4-year program run by the church to educate high school students. For most Latter-day Saint teens, a one-hour daily class usually held at a local LDS building before the school day is available for interested students throughout the country; in Utah and Idaho, however, “release time” classes are available throughout the school day at a church building located near the high school. Students go off the public school grounds to participate in the approved class. This program has been very successful for the LDS Church, as reported by Riess:

Seminary attendance is positively correlated with a number of outcomes Mormon leaders would consider desirable: people who attend seminary regularly are more likely to later serve a mission, for example, and to get married in the temple. When they reach adulthood, they report higher levels of church activity and stronger levels of belief than Mormons who did not attend seminary. . . .  Six in ten Mormon Millennials participated in seminary when they were in high school, compared to just a third of former Mormon respondents of the same generation. . . . Among high school students who are already Sunday worshipers, seminary appears to provide something extra that helps to cement a Mormon identity (p. 26. Ellipsis mine).

  • Geography

Where the Latter-day Saint lives makes a difference to the averages as to whether or not the person is in line with the church and its teachings. Riess explains, “In a nutshell, Mormons are often, but not always, more theologically orthodox” (p. 28). Utah Mormons were about 20% more likely to agree with the statement “I believe wholeheartedly in all of the teachings of the LDS Church” (56 to 46%); attend seminary all four years (67 to 57%); be active in the church (62 to 52%); hold a temple recommend (63% to 47%); and say “families are forever” is one of three favorite parts of being LDS (64% to 47%).

Another interesting statistic is “that 37 percent of non-Utah Mormons chose ‘the strong community I enjoy at church’ as one of their favorite aspects of being Mormon, but only 15 percent of Utah Mormons did” (pp. 28-29).

  • Doubters

The vast majority of current Latter-day Saints don’t doubt when it comes to their faith, or at least that’s what they say. Riess writes,

Only about 17 percent of respondents who still identify as Mormons express even a moderate degree of doubt in the teachings of the LDS Church . . . while about one in six self-identified Mormons in the United States claims a degree of doubt, only about one in ten active members who attend church weekly and about one in twenty of those with current temple recommends express doubt in some, most, or all of the church’s teachings (pp. 30-31).

Millennials in the Mission Field

Compared to Boomers and Gen Xers, the Millennials are more likely to have served missions. In fact, “more than half of Mormon Millennials have served a full-time mission (55 percent)” compared to Gen Xers (40%) and Boomers/Silent generation (28%). In fact, “two-thirds of LDS young men” in the 1990s did not serve. Perhaps because the age for females was lowered to 19 in 2012, close to half of Millennial females served a mission compared to 13 percent for the Boomers and 28 percent of the Gen Xers. As Riess writes, “Before the age change, about one in six young missionaries was female; today it is closer to one in three” (p. 40).

We have heard many Latter-day Saint young people tell us that they are motivated to go on a mission because of “duty.” This is interesting because “duty” would seem to not be as big of an incentive for Protestant missionaries who are more apt to say, “I want to communicate God’s truth to those who do not have it” or “We should love people with the Gospel.” Serving a mission is directly proportional to a Latter-day Saint remaining faithful, especially if they had a good experience. On page 46 Riess writes,

Among respondents who had less-than-weekly church attendance in childhood, only 19 percent who completed a full-time mission are no longer Mormon. In other words, eight in ten people who had been less active as kids were still Mormons in adulthood if they had served a full-term mission. Retention is even stronger among those who were weekly attenders during childhood. 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 serve at all.

The Temple Experience

Fewer Mormon Millennials hold current temple recommends when compared to the older age groups. Less than half (47%) have their recommend, which is fewer than the Boomers (58%) and Gen X generations (52%). Riess explains on pages 54-55:

A related area of concern for church leaders is how few Millennials hold a current temple recommend. In fact, they are the only generation of Mormons for whom fewer than half (47 percent) are fully qualified to enter the temple. It’s not just because they’re young, either, given that four out of five (83 percent) say they’ve held a temple recommend at some point in their lives. That’s actually higher than GenX (79 percent) or the Boomer/Silent group (75 percent). But Millennials are more likely to have allowed that temple credential to lapse.

Mormon Millennials are more likely to have held a temple recommend but no longer have it. She writes on page 54:

Whereas almost nine in ten Boomer/Silent responders (87%) had returned to the temple on behalf of the deceased, just over half of Millennials (56%) had, and six in ten GenXers (59%). For the Boomer/Silent respondents, temple attendance appears to be more of a priority. It seems that a number of Mormons under fifty-two have attended the temple once for their own ordinances, possibly to get married, but have not returned.

Perhaps the reason why so many Millennial Mormons have had a temple recommend at one point in their lives is because more than half went on a mission and a recommend was required. Could this is the reason why church leaders made a decision in April 2019 to no longer deny those who decide to get married outside the temple the ability to get married for eternity right away? Previously there had been a 1-year waiting period for those getting married outside the temple before they could get sealed in the temple. It could be that many LDS couples were too busy a year later and never got around to doing their temple duty. This policy change now erases the excuse that “we want to let everyone experience our wedding” and procrastinate their temple work. We have no statistics to support this theory, but I’m sure there are more couples who participate in an outside ceremony who are now getting sealed inside the temple, probably within the week.

Marriage

When it comes to marriage, American Mormons are still more likely to be married than the rest of the population. About 65 percent of Mormons are married, compared to 48 percent for the US adults. Riess writes, “Mormons, then, are about a third more likely to be married than members of the general population, which is statistically very significant” (p. 74).

However, the percentage of Mormons who are married has gone down from 71% in 2007 to the mid-60s today. In addition, more Mormons have never married, going from 12 percent in 2007 to 19 percent today. Meanwhile, “the median age for Mormons to marry is holding steady at 22%. In other words, Mormons who do get married waste no time in typing that knot. They are bucking the larger national trend of delayed marriage” (p. 75).

When it comes to traditional complementarian marriage compared to egalitarian marriage set-ups, younger Latter-day Saints are preferring the latter. Riess writes on page 78:

While a majority of Mormons prefer a traditional marriage, it’s more popular among men (65 percent) than among women (58 percent). Generationally, there is change afoot: nearly half (48 percent) of Millennial women want the egalitarian marriage, and we see movement toward the nontraditional even within that generation of women: for younger Millennial women (eighteen to twenty-six), egalitarian marriage carries the majority at 54 percent. But six in ten younger Millennial men prefer the traditional arrangement, creating a gap between what young Mormon women want from their prospective marriage partners and what those men appear willing to offer.

A few paragraphs later, she explains the isolation that some single LDS men may feel. For those who are older single males, this causes problems. One Latter-day Saint man said that he “rarely receives invitations to social events that involve families; some people ‘don’t want you to be around kids because they think you’re a pedophile or something,’ while married women ‘can’t be friends with you because that would be inappropriate.’ This means that overall, ‘if you are an older single man in a family ward, you are likely pretty isolated’” (p. 79).

As Riess reports, “single people are more likely to leave Mormonism or become inactive than married people. Whereas two-thirds of married adult members report having attended church in the last month (64 percent), fewer than half of unmarried Mormons have attended (48 percent)” (p. 81). Meanwhile, “daily scripture reading is claimed by 42 percent of married Mormons but only 31 percent of singles, an eleven-point drop. . . . Married Mormons are sixteen points more likely to believe ‘wholeheartedly in all’ LDS teachings (54 percent, compared to single Mormons at 38 percent) and twenty points more likely to have seen General Conferences in the last six months.”

Could this dissatisfaction with those who are single stem from the fact that Mormon leaders highly stress marriage to their followers? With the temple not being fully accessible until a couple gets married, how many Latter-day Saint singles just “give up” and become less interested with their faith when a suitable partner never makes a grand appearance? We must also wonder if those singles who like being single no longer feel wanted and lose much of their self-esteem.

LDS Women vs. Men

It should not be a surprise that the poll revealed how women are stronger in their Mormon faith than the men. According to the NMS,

LDS women are a bit more likely than LDS men to pray and read their scriptures daily, watch General Conference, steer clear of R-rated movies, see sacrament meetings as “uplifting and interesting,” and hold a current temple recommend. Mormon women are also nine points more likely to strongly agree that being Mormon is an essential part of their core identity, and more likely to feel proud if a fellow Mormon were elected president of the United States. In multiple measures of belief and belonging, then, women appear to be more orthodox than men (pp. 92, 94).

When it came to questions about the authority of women in the church, the Boomer/Silent LDS generations disagree with the Gen Xers and Millennials. Responding to the question that asked, “The fact that women do not hold the priesthood sometimes bothers me,” only a quarter of the older generations (55 or older) strongly or somewhat agreed, while almost half (48%) of the Gex X and more than half (59%) of the Millennials agreed, which is more than double! Responding to the question “Women do not have enough say in the LDS Church,” fewer than a third of the older Mormons agreed but more than half (52% Gen X, 61% Millennial) agreed.

Racial Diversity in the Church

While the LDS Church presents itself as racially diverse, it remains a very white religion in the United States. According to the NMS, 87% of all Latter-day Saints are white, with only 4% who are black and 4% are Hispanic/Latino. However, there is more diversity in the Mormon Millennial generation; while 93% of the Mormon Boomer/Silent generations are white, only 81% of the Mormon Millennials are.  However, even that number pales when all Millennials are considered, as four in ten nationwide are nonwhite. Riess explains,

It’s in politics where we see the greatest divergence. Nonwhite Mormons are significantly to the left of white Mormons. Sixth-eight percent voted for or supported Barack Obama in 2012, versus 31 percent of white Latter-day Saints; two-thirds also backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Consistent with thee election patterns, a majority of nonwhite Mormons say they vote Democratic or lean toward the Democratic Party (58 percent) (p. 116).

When it comes to the pre-June 1978 ban on blacks holding the priesthood, about a third of all Latter-day Saints—regardless of their generation, sex, or skin color—think that this doctrine was not inspired of God or was God’s will for the church before 1978. Riess wrote:

Mormons’ faith in this particular LDS teaching was significantly lower than the credence they attached to every other testimony statement. . . The fact that only 37 percent of current Mormons said they knew it was true is downright lukewarm compared to their certainty on other testimony statements, like the number who know confidently that “God is real” (76 percent) or “Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and died to reconcile humanity to its sins” (74 percent). Compared to that, a far lower number of Mormons are certain that the priesthood/temple ban was inspired (p. 120. Ellipsis mine).

Perhaps one of the most fascinating findings was the breakdown between races. According to the NMS, more black Latter-day Saints are confident that the ban was God’s will compared to the views of whites! Riess explains,

There is a slight difference in certainty when we break the data out by race, but it’s more modest than I was expecting. Whereas 37 percent of white Mormons say they know the ban was God’s will, just under a third (32 percent) of nonwhite Mormons view it this way. When we add together those who know with confidence that the ban was God’s will with those who believe it was, more nonwhite Mormons than white ones actually support the ban: 70 percent of nonwhites, compared to 61 percent of whites. That also remains true when we consider only African American respondents in a group by themselves: 67 percent of African Americans know or believe that priesthood/temple ban was God’s will, which is six points higher than the rate for whites (p. 121).

Homosexuality and Sexuality

Since 2013, Latter-day Saints have become more accepting of homosexuality at an exponentially quick rate. Based on whether “homosexuality should be accepted by society,” Riess explains,

Overall, Mormons’ acceptance of homosexuality grew from 24 percent in 2007 to 36 percent in 2014 and 48 percent in the 2016 NMS. The view of homosexual marriage 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 in its posture, the rank and file softened theirs, contributing to a growing disconnect between the leadership and the membership (p. 145).

The trend with Mormon believers is toward more acceptance of homosexual behavior and marriage. As Riess writes,

So while acceptance doesn’t command majority support, that support has doubled in less than a decade. This movement is driven in large part by Millennials, more than half of whom say homosexuality should be accepted. And among younger Millennials like Ellis (those in the eighteen to twenty-six age bracket), six in ten believe it should. By contrast, only 38 percent of the combined Boomer/Silent generation feels homosexuality should be accepted by society—a view that is reinforced by many statements from LDS Church leaders, who are themselves of the Silent Generation or even older (p. 131).

When it comes to sexuality, 95% of all Mormons (ages 18-88) consider themselves heterosexual, with 1% saying they are homosexual and 3% claiming bisexuality. If Millennial Mormons (ages 18-36) are the only group considered, 90% say they are heterosexual, 2% homosexual, and what seems to be a very high 7% who are bisexual. When former Millennial Mormons were polled, 83% are heterosexual, 5.5% are homosexual, and 9% are bisexual. Certainly these higher homosexual/bisexual responses may be primary reasons why these folks left the church. Riess writes that “it proved difficult to find LGBT Millennial Latter-day Saints who remain fully active in the church” (p. 138).

Perhaps most surprising is the current Mormons’ support of the church in its policy concerning the homosexual issue. A total of 71% agreed that members who are involved in same sex-marriages are apostates who should be automatically subjected to a disciplinary council. The number was consistent across the board, for all ages, including Millennials. In November 2015 the LDS Church decided to ban children of LGBTQ parents from being able to get baptized or blessed until they turned 18. This angered many vocal Latter-day Saints, with the church rescinding this policy in April 2019. It turns out that those Latter-day Saints who were angered are not the majority. In fact, 61% of all current Mormons strongly or at least somewhat agreed with the policy, with the average speeding over all the generations (p. 144). For Gex X, it was 62% and for Millennials it was 60%, both of which were consistent with the Boomer/Silent generations (63%).

There seems to be no doubt that the church made changes to that policy in 2019 in hopes of appeasing disgruntled members, but according to this survey, those most unhappy with the policy had already left the church. In fact, of those who remain members, there were a higher number who “strongly agreed” (37% males and 35% females) versus those who “strongly disagreed” (18% males and 28% females). The question is, will this change that was made in 2019 convince those former Mormons to return to the fold? It is highly doubtful.

Spirituality and Evangelism

Mormon Millennials are very spiritual, with 84% praying at least once a week and 70% reading the scriptures at least once a week, both of which were higher than Gen Xers. As far as their beliefs, the Mormon Millennials  are surprisingly orthodox in many ways. Riess writes,

Millennials also have the highest rates of literal belief in the scriptures of any generation: 45 percent agree that “the scriptures are the word of God and are to be taken word for word,” almost a ten-point jump over the Boomer/Silent group. This is an interesting and somewhat surprising development, given the clear downward generational trend on this same question in research by Pew and Gallup. In those studies, the oldest respondents profess the most literal belief in the scriptures, and Millennials the least (p. 152).

Both Gen Xers and Millennials say they are evangelistic minded. In fact, 64% of the Mormon Millennials share their faith daily or once a week, compared to 56% of Gen Xers and only 45% of the Boomers/Silent generations. Riess says the high number for Mormon Millennials might be due to the fact that they served their missions in the last two decades. “So for them, sharing their faith may simply feel more natural because doing so all day, every day was a recent experience,” she writes on page 154. However, she did admit that the survey did not ask what it meant in “sharing your faith,” as she theorized that “it’s possible that social media comes into play here; Millennials might consider reposting an inspirational meme to count, for example” (p. 154).

What is very confusing is church attendance. Eight out of ten Millennial Mormons say they “attended religious services at least weekly,” yet only 47% reported that they attended Sunday Mormon church meetings in the last 30 days. Such a discrepancy doesn’t make any sense at all unless they are attending other churches.

Word of Wisdom

The health code as described in the LDS scripture D&C 89 is not something adhered to by many Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that abstaining from tobacco, hot drinks, and alcohol is still demanded by ecclesiastical leaders. For instance, four out of ten temple recommend holders consumed at least one of the Word of Wisdom’s banned substances in the past six months. As Riess writes,

This is especially noteworthy because Mormons are required to report to a church leader that they are faithful keepers of the Word of Wisdom to qualify for a temple recommend. 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 (p. 159).

The stats for those who have partaken of banned substances seem to be very high:

Our survey data shows that about a third of current Mormons report consuming coffee (35 percent), while a quarter (25 percent) have drunk alcohol or nonherbal tea (25 percent). . . . 26 percent of LDS respondents reported that they have not wholly abstained from alcoholic beverages . . . nearly 17 percent of Mormon respondents in the NMS smoked or chewed tobacco, which is slightly higher than the GSS result of 13 percent among Mormons. About one in ten consumed marijuana (p. 159).

Here is a chart published on page 160 that shows the the “Word of Wisdom noncompliance among current Mormons” who partook in the past 6 months:

Generation Caffeinated Coffee Caffeinated tea Alcohol Decaf coffee Marijuana Tobacco
Boomers/Silent 24 24 14 8 4 9
Gen X 40 23 30 14.5 7 18
Millennial 39 27 28 17 16 23

Gex X and Millennials Mormons have the highest usage rates of banned substances, causing Riess to conclude that the younger Latter-day Saints “don’t tie Word of Wisdom observance with their Mormon identity as closely as older Mormons do” (p. 160). Meanwhile, “coffee alternatives such as decaffeinated (14 percent) or Postum (4 percent) have lower rates than regular coffee (35 percent).”

With this information, one could wonder what tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith would have thought at this epidemic of ignoring D&C 89. He once wrote,

SALVATION AND A CUP OF TEA. You cannot neglect little things. ‘Oh, a cup of tea is such a little thing. It is so little; surely it doesn’t amount to much; surely the Lord will forgive me if I drink a cup of tea. Yes, he will forgive you, because he is going to forgive every man who repents; but, my brethren, if you drink coffee or tea, or take tobacco, are you letting a cup of tea or a little tobacco stand in the road and bar you from the celestial kingdom of God, where you might otherwise have received a fulness of glory? (Doctrines of Salvation 2:16).

Popular culture

Over the past few decades especially, the LDS Church has battled popular culture. The ban of activities labeled inappropriate by the church appear to be more ignored by the younger generations. Consider those activities “deemed unacceptable” by the church but heavily participated in by Mormons in the last six months, including:

Generation Violent/graphic video games Profane/sexually explicit music R-rated movies TV with mature rating Soft porn Explicit porn
Boomers/Silent 6 6 28 37 7 5
Gen X 26 25 40 43.5 14 11
Millennial 35 37 42 40 19 18.5

While it is true that a majority of all Latter-day Saints do avoid these types of behaviors, the numbers for the younger generations show a higher propensity for ignoring the guidelines set by the church. Rationale for the higher numbers for Millennials compared to the Boomer and Silent generations is obvious. For example, most Boomers and Silent generations did not grow up with a culture saturated with violent/graphic videos or profane/sexually explicit music–unless “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles would count in that genre! But these things certainly have been prevalent in the 21st century, which is why seven times more Millennial Mormons are likely to have participated in those activities when contrasted to the Boomer/Silent generations.

In addition, pornography for those who are now over 50 years old (with fewer hormones today!) was usually limited to magazines with plastic wrap and kept in full eyesight of the liquor store owner. Or, if  one’s parents had money, there may have been access on a risque cable television channel. Today,  however, it is possible to find pornography on a home computer or cell phone, giving a person more privacy to indulge in their lusts than ever before. This has to be why Millennial Mormons were almost four times as likely to deal with this temptation than their elders and even 50% more likely than Gen X.

TEMPLE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

Meanwhile, when it comes to tattoos, close to a quarter of the Mormon Millennials say they have at least one tattoo. While more than a third of non-LDS Millennials  have been inked, this is still “higher than the rate the LDS Church would presumably like to see, which is zero” (p. 162).

Social and Political Views

Generally, Mormons are more conservative in their political views than the rest of American society, as the majority of Latter-day Saints vote or lean Republican. However, the younger generations are more likely to be more liberal and Democratic. Riess writes, “Mormon Millennials are actually almost as likely to lean or vote Democratic (41 percent) as Republican (46 percent), whereas in Gen X the GOP carries the day by a nearly two-to-one margin (59 to 29% ) and the Boomer/Silent cohort trends even more decisively Republican (68 to 25 percent)” (p. 171).

When it comes to the Mormon views on issues facing Americans, Millennials disagree with their fellow Boomers/Silent/Gen X generations. For  example, the combined category “poverty/hunger/homelessness” is the largest concern for Millennials, with 30% saying it is a crucial issue. It is only the sixth most important issue for the Boomer/Silent generations as well as the Gen Xers. Meanwhile, the older generations said the top problems are moral or religious decline (41% and 34%, respectively), whereas it was only the third issue on the table for Millennials at 27%.

Another major difference included healthcare as the second most important issue for the Boomer/Silent generations (31%), while it was only seventh for Millennials (22%) and eighth for Gen X (21%). Healthcare issues are more of a concern for the older respondents, which makes sense since these folks are in the last half of their lives and need affordable medical care to survive.

As far as changing moral and social views, Millennial Mormons are more likely to not think certain behaviors are immoral compared to the older generations. Perhaps their favorite go-to verse is Matthew 7:1, “judging not” whenever possible. This chart shows how many Mormons thought it was morally wrong to do the following things:

Generation Have an abortion Have an affair Have baby outside marriage Have more than one wife Have a sex change
Silent/Boomer 83% 95% 74% 76% 78%
Gen X 75 93 66 68 69
Millennial 65 79 58 63 62

Still, in another survey, “Mormon Millennials proved to be the least accepting of any generation.” Consider the numbers for those who think it is morally wrong to do the following things:

Generation In Vitro Fertilization Wear Fur Stem cell research Get a divorce Have a vasectomy Death penalty
Silent/Boomer 15% 17% 37% 26% 17% 27%
Gen X 25 27 41 41 29 38
Millennial 33 45 47 43 33 46

Certainly the high Mormon Millennial responses to wearing fur and the death penalty could have been easily predicted, but the other high responses–including stem cell research, having a vasectomy, and getting a divorce–are surprising.

Sources of Authority

LDS leaders are very clear that what they say should be taken seriously. However, when individual Mormons were polled, the general authorities came in fifth on the list of authority. The top five were

  1. Own conscience
  2. Promptings from the Spirit
  3. Family members
  4. Scriptures
  5. LDS General Authorities

It would seem that “one’s own conscience” and “promptings from the Spirit” are closely related, with both based on one’s feelings. Yet the Bible says that trusting in feelings should be avoided. Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Proverbs 28:26 says, “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered.” And Proverbs 14:12 adds, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” For more on this, click here.

When it comes to the general authorities finishing in a distant fifth place, Jana Riess explains that “half of the respondents didn’t have LDS general authorities in their top five. As we might expect, highly orthodox Mormons were the most likely to do so, and doubters the least . . .” (p. 194).

Perhaps respondents may have thought, “I’ll accept the brethren whenever my personal conscience and the promptings from the Spirit to my soul agree,” moving themselves (and their opinions) into a higher position than the GAs–these men are apparently not in the position of power that they might think they are in! Even family members landed above both the Standard Works AND the general authorities!  Riess agrees how shocking this is:

Given how essential the counsel of LDS general authorities is considered for Mormon life, I was expecting to see church leaders at the top of the list for Mormons in general, with some possible dilution of their importance in the lives of younger respondents. . . . Prophetic counsel is one of several sources they consult when making moral decisions, but it is hardly the only one. In fact, half of the respondents didn’t have LDS general authorities in their top five (p. 194).

When it comes to the General Authorities, the Boomer/Silent generations were much more likely to put LDS General Authorities higher (number 3, behind conscience and prompting of the Spirit), at 17% compared to less than 10 percent for the Millennials.

Regarding watching General Conference, fewer than half of the Millennials tune in to the biannual sessions (44%) compared to Gen X (51%), Boomers (65%), and Silent (78%), even though the wards pretty much shut down those two weekends a year so the congregations can participate. Why are most Millennial Mormons not tuning in while the majority of other ages groups are? Riess gives her analysis,

One possibility is that they don’t see themselves represented. When members of the Silent Generation watch, they are guaranteed to see and hear men from their own generation . . . Baby Boomers too can find kindred spirits of their own age in the members of the Quroum and a majority of the Seventies and auxiliary leaders, who also speak. This is not the case for GenXers and Millennials, who will be hard pressed to find any leaders from their generations (pp. 198-199).

Mormons who leave the church

Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey for me was the former Mormons’ religious beliefs. According to page 215, 42% of those who leave the church still believe in God with no doubts. This seems to be a very encouraging number, especially with the number of former members we meet who no longer believe in God or, at the least, say they are agnostic. Meanwhile, 20% believe in God but sometimes doubt, 18% believe in a higher power, 8% are agnostic, 6% are atheist, and 6% believe sometimes. (How does that work? Things are going well and you believe in God, then things go south and then you deny God’s existence?)

In reality, it has seemed that a higher number of former Mormons have headed to atheistic/agnostic ways. Could that impression come mainly because those types of dissatisfied people are more adamant in stating their opinion? To see that close to half of former Mormons believe in God with no doubts is very encouraging to those of us who want to see Latter-day Saints not only leave their church but also come to a personal relationship with Christ. In effect, we don’t want disgruntled and disaffected Latter-day Saints throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

While many former members still believe in biblical teachings such as Jesus Christ was literally resurrected (53%), Jesus is the Savior of the world (58%) and God is real (63%), most of them denied essential Mormon teachings. A third did still hold to God being comprised of flesh and bone, but less than a quarter believed other important teachings. Consider the following that is found on page 217:

Doctrine Confident this is true Have faith this is true
God is an exalted person of flesh and bone 16% 17%
Joseph Smith was a prophet of God 8 15
The Book of Mormon is literal 7 13.5
LDS Church only true church 6 10
Temple ordinances unite families for eternity 6 10
Priesthood for men, not women 8 13.5

Again, more than half of all Latter-day Saints seemed to want to include the reality of God and Jesus while rejecting unique essential LDS teachings that have no basis in biblical fact. Perhaps some of this skepticism in LDS teaching should be credited to the Gospel Topics Essays, a series of 13 articles that has been eye-opening to many once-serious Latter-day Saints. Once they began to doubt some of the essentials of the faith, as listed in the chart above, it appears that their doctrinal world crashes down.

Fewer than half of former Mormons have not become involved with another religious tradition since they left their faith. A total of 21% consider themselves “just Christian,” while 10% moved to Evangelical Protestant and 7% Mainline Protestant. Those who have chosen nothing in particular is 27%, with only 18% choosing Agnostic and Atheist.

A list of reasons why Mormons leave the church is given on page 224. Respondents were allowed to provide more than one response. The results were fascinating:

  1. “I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church” (38%)
  2. “I stopped believing there was one true church (36.5%)
  3. “I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues” (31%)
  4. “I felt judged or misunderstood” (30%)
  5. “I drifted away from Mormonism” (26%)
  6. “I engaged in behaviors that the Church views as sinful” (25%)
  7. “The Church’s positions on LGBT issues” (23%)
  8. “The Church’s emphasis on conformity and obedience” (21%)
  9. “Lack of historical evidence for the Book of Mormon and/or Book of Abraham” (21%)
  10. “The role of women in the Church” (18%)

Based on my personal experience, the two reasons current Mormons often assume for why most people leave the LDS Church is they couldn’t keep the commandments (#6 above) or #11 (“I was hurt by a negative experience at church,” 17%). Neither made the top 5. In his day eleventh President Harold B. Lee as he explained:

PEOPLE APOSTATIZE DUE TO IGNORANCE OR SIN. In nine cases out of ten—I’d say in every case—those who apostatize from this church do it from one of two reasons, either because of their ignorance of the doctrine or because of their sinfulness and falling away from the truth (Remarks made in Paris, France, March 29, 1960. Cited in The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, p. 390).

I’d take exception to the idea, even in his day, that Mormons left the church due to ignorance. Instead, it is knowledge and understanding that causes dissatisfaction and divorce from the church.

Meanwhile, other doctrinal or historical issues included:

  1. Joseph Smith’s polygamy
  2. Issues with the First Vision
  3. Teachings on the possibility to become gods
  4. Blacks and the priesthood
  5. Seer stones
  6. DNA evidence that Native Americans do not have Middle Eastern ancestry.

Let me return to #2 (“I stopped believing there was one true church”). It appears that many Latter-day Saints are not entirely convinced that there was ever a need for a restoration for biblical Christianity, although the leaders certainly thought there needed to be one due to the corruption of biblical Christianity soon after the death of the apostles. Consider that LDS Seventy and church historian B.H. Roberts explained,

Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (History of the Church 1:XL).

This is because there was no authority after the Great Apostasy, as Joseph Smith himself was supposedly told by God the Father in the First Vision. Thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson taught,

God the Son told Joseph Smith not to join any of the churches. Joseph was to learn that the Lord’s true church was not on the earth; that living prophets of God, who were the foundation of the church, had not walked the earth for centuries; and that with their deaths, the rock of revelation on which the church was built ceased; and so there was no new scripture” (“Listen to a Prophet’s Voice,” Ensign (Conference Edition), January 1973, p. 58).

Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith may have assumed too much when he explained,

Every Latter-day Saint knows that following the death of the apostles, Paul’s prophecy was fulfilled, for there were many “grievous wolves” that entered the flock, and men arose “speaking perverse things,’ so that the doctrines were changed and the true Church of Jesus Christ ceased to be on the earth. For this reason there had to come a restoration of the Church and a new revelation and bestowal of divine authority. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures are, therefore, not responsible for the changed doctrines and unscientific teachings of those times, when uninspired ecclesiastics controlled the thinking of the people (Joseph
Fielding Smith, Man, His Origin and Destiny, p. 467).

Meanwhile, the third most popular answer was that the former Mormon “did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.” Earlier I referenced the Gospel Topics essays. I wonder if ex-Mormons are using this reason more often in recent years because they realize how their leaders had been lying to them about issues such as Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the Book of Mormon’s seer stones, and the Book of Abraham’s illegitimacy, among other topics.

Conclusion

This is an important book, as I think the information will be helpful to Christians’ evangelistic efforts. The survey clearly shows that the Gen X and Millennial generations are much different in a number of ways when compared to the older generations. It will be interesting to watch how the perspectives of the Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z generations affect future decisions of the LDS Church leaders as they try to not allow thorny societal and doctrinal issues alienate many of their core believers.

It is obvious that this church is hemorrhaging, with many members continuing to exit out the back door while having the lowest rates of conversion percentages in modern history. Church leaders in the past have appeared to be reactionary. For instance, it seems apparent that reversing that 2015 restriction to baptism/blessings for children of homosexual parents in 2019 (listen to Viewpoint on Mormonism’s “Reversing a Revelation” Part 1   Part 2  Part 3  that aired April 15-17, 2019) was based on the many complaints the leaders received rather than revelation from God. (Otherwise, how could God have changed His mind so quickly!) Also, policy changes such as turning the three-hour Sunday service to just two hours while allowing young missionaries to call home weekly are nothing more than feeble attempts to appease a fickle membership, especially the younger members of the church. Is this the way the New Testament apostles ran the early church? I hardly think so.

I predict that this pragmatic approach, apparently preferred by the leadership, cannot be successful in the long run. If this church is supposed to be a restoration of original Christianity–as LDS scriputre and countless leaders have taught–then it seems doubtful that God would care about society’s changing ways or the opinions of His followers. If nothing else, this book ought to cause current members to wonder who is running the program, God or the men who claim to be His leaders.

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