Editor's note: Part two of a two-part series on the Pew Forum's "A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S."
In comparing Mormon beliefs with those of other Americans, the pollsters have to use the same questions for everybody. This can lead to some pretty strange results, since our rejection of the neo-platonic tradition of mainline Christianity makes some questions very hard to answer.
When asked whether the Bible is the word of God or written by men, 91 percent of us declare it to be the word of God. But what about taking it literally? There we drop to only 35 percent, because of that "as far as it is translated correctly" clause in the Articles of Faith.
But that does not mean we take the Bible metaphorically — we merely see it as only one source of the word of God, and not necessarily the most reliable one.
We are way ahead of the general population in our belief in life after death and in miracles — but we all know perfectly well that what we believe about life after death is radically different from anyone else, while the kinds of miracles we believe in are definitely not of the image-of-a-saint-in-a-potato-chip variety.
In fact, our miracles tend to be very down-to-earth and practical, a part of everyday life, and in a sense not miraculous or unusual at all!
When they ask about how often we share our faith with nonbelievers, our numbers are grossly distorted by the fact that in Utah, most Mormons never even meet nonbelievers — there just aren't enough of them to go around.
Why do 54 percent of us say that "there is only one true way to interpret the teachings" of our religion, while 43 percent say there is more than one way? The question is simply inapplicable to Mormons.
If you concentrate on the belief that only the general authorities are entitled to speak authoritatively, you give one answer; if you concentrate on the simple observation that in any class or quorum of Mormon adults you will find dozens of different views on many doctrines, including lots of folk doctrine and private speculations and conclusions, you'll give the other. Both answers are truthful.
Likewise, when they ask us whether we're committed to the traditional beliefs and practices of our religion, rather than adjusting our beliefs and practices to fit modern times, how can we answer? We believe that the Lord adjusts our beliefs and practices for us and with us!
We see constant change in our practices and clarification and growth in our beliefs — but we make these adaptations as a group, so they instantly become part of our tradition. So our answers may make it seem that we reject change, when in fact one of our greatest strengths is our collective adaptability.When we're asked whether religion causes more problems than it solves, we have to sort out whether we are speaking of religion in general — or our religion. It's simply not a well-worded question, for Mormons, anyway, because we are such profound exceptionalists. Few of us believe that statements about religion-in-general apply to us.
One of the few absurd results from the survey came with the question of whether we believe that our religion "is the one true faith leading to eternal life or whether many religions can lead to eternal life." Why in the world would only 57 percent of Mormons say ours is the one true faith, when it is firm doctrine in the church that there is only one path to exaltation?
The question simply doesn't fit us, that's the problem. Because we also believe that God has provided a way for every child born into this world to receive all the blessings of heaven. So no, we don't believe that people who don't join our church are going to hell. And we believe that almost every living soul, regardless of belief, will be resurrected and live in glory.
So it's no wonder that we seem to be nearly evenly divided on the question — it doesn't allow us to report our actual beliefs.
Nobody comes close to Mormons in our degree of personal involvement in the religious education of our children. Maybe that's why we have such an astonishingly low level of "churn" — most people who start out as Mormons stay Mormon.
Not that we're satisfied with our ability to hold on to our youth — we'd like the number to be much closer to 100 percent. Specifically, I think of the young men and women I have known who decided that the world offered better answers (or gave them more rewards), and I think of each of them with sorrow and frustration, because I wish I had known a better way to teach them so they would not have made such mistakes.
They are not numbers to us, they are our children, and we miss them deeply when they leave; we never lose hope of their return.
At the same time, it is fascinating that unlike every other religious group, our commitment rises with our educational level. The more educated Mormons become, the more likely we are to be active, believing Latter-day Saints.
This may come back to my earlier observation that to be an active Latter-day Saint requires that you have the skills of middle-class life. Precisely the same skills help you thrive in college.
Whether it's that the church prepares our young people to do well in college, or our young people with the right skills to thrive in college also do well in the church, is beyond my ability to discern. But I think it's fair to say that the young people we hold on to are the ones who approach college as a practical step on the road to founding a well-provided-for family, and not as the place where they find their most important intellectual stimulation. (How we deal with our intellectual and artistic young people, however, will have to be the subject of another essay.)
Even though by most measures we're doing better than other churches in America — and this doesn't even take into account the astonishing growth of the church in some other parts of the world — the fact remains that by our own measure, we are not doing well enough.
The Pew report is largely reassuring. We may not be close to where we need to go, but we're pretty much on the right road.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. "In the Village" appears Thursdays in the Deseret News. A longer version of this column can be found at MormonTimes.com. Leave feedback for Card at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.