Is Mormonism declining in the 21st Century among educated Americans?
Guest Post: By Michael Terence Worley
Recently a number of people have claimed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is struggling. A common recitation of the claim is that once members learn about certain facts about the faith, gain “thinking skills,” or learn about the Church’s positions on social-political issues they will leave. For instance, a noted critic of Mormon teachings on women, Kate Kelly, said recently: “The Mormon faith has become a place that incentivizes the survival of the least fit. … [O]nly the least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people thrive in the Church today.”
This claim is frequently repeated in a variety of ways. But what do the statistics show? Are the more learned Latter-day Saints leaving the religion of their childhood while the less educated remain affiliated with the Latter-day Saint faith? By and large, not so. Let me explain.
The Pew Research Center has released a 2011 study stating in part:
“Mormons who have graduated from college display the highest levels of religious commitment (84%) followed by those with some college education (75%). Mormons with a high school education or less exhibit substantially lower levels of religious commitment (50% score high on the scale) than their more highly educated counterparts.”
This shows that whether or not the church is growing or shrinking as a whole, its shrinking isn’t coming from the most educated. In fact, it seems the more education one has, the more likely they are to be a faithful Latter-day Saint. While some educated latter-day Saints some do leave, many conversations are taking place about how to help deal with such issues. More importantly, the data is showing many more educated Latter-day Saints stay than leave.
Some could argue that the groups of people most likely to leave the faith are intelligent young adults, influenced by cultural norms and the available information of our day and age. Thus, the argument could contend, the group Pew was looking at was by and large too old to capture the problem. Statistics seem to be skeptical of this claim as well.
Admission records at Brigham Young University are instructive. Brigham Young, a school run by the LDS Church, admits more than 90% of its student body from among faithful Latter-day Saints. The students—some thirty thousand of them—are renowned in numerous nationwide polls. If the narrative of Mormonism’s decline was true, one would expect that admission criteria for BYU would fall relative to other universities. However, admissions data reveals not only that more students want to come to BYU, but also that BYU is taking more academically qualified students each year. Students accepted to BYU are more likely to attend there than students admitted to Yale or Stanford—and some years Harvard—are likely to attend to their respective schools. This shows students want the lifestyle BYU offers.
There are other reasons to suspect most Latter-day Saints who are “smart” stay in the faith. Graduate programs that require LDS standards may be another measure of LDS faithfulness, because (the narrative goes) many leave the LDS Faith in their undergraduate years or shortly thereafter. The statistics dismiss this hypothesis. While some undoubtedly leave, many more stay. LDS-based graduate programs are among the top 30 in the nation, and some are in the top ten. The LDS Faith’s support of many programs indicates it wants its members to be talented, articulate, nuanced thinkers, ready to stand against abuse and full of courage.
The narrative sometimes stated in the media as one of individuals being pressured to leave the LDS Faith is misleading on many levels. One level on which it is misleading is the narrative that those leaving are the educated. In addition to pointing out accomplished and educated Mormons who choose to be faithful Latter-day Saints, one can point to statistics that show many, many intelligent people are Latter-day Saints. If anything, the concern should be the opposite of the one raised by Ms. Kelly—how do Latter-day Saints make sure they are not, as the Book of Mormon says, “distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning?”
Thankfully, while BYU becomes elite, other LDS-based programs are seeking to provide educational opportunities for eventual millions of others worldwide who cannot for whatever reason attend BYU. Surely education level should not be a criterion for being a faithful Latter-day Saint. If anything, individual Latter-day Saints need to do a better job of reaching out to those who lack educational opportunities.
Those who choose to believe differently than us have our respect and love; we believe that, regardless of educational achievement or choice of religion, each human is a son or daughter of God with infinite worth and dignity.
Michael Worley is a graduate of Brigham Young University’s Law School. His work has appeared in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion and other publications.
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