Editor's note: Part one of a two-part series on the Pew Forum's "A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S."
Sometimes we Mormons feel a bit defiant and declare we don't much care what the world thinks of us.
But of course we always do.For one thing, the ability of our missionaries to teach people the gospel is strongly affected by what people think they already know about us.
Controversy isn't always bad for our purposes — when we take a stand and become known for it, there are those who are drawn to us because of it.
But our mission is to take the gospel to all people, including those who disagree with us, and especially including those who are devoted to activities we regard as destructive to their souls. Christ said that it is not the healthy but the sick who need a physician.
So it is always a matter of great concern to all of us what our image is in the eyes of the world. Few of us can affect the overall image, but all of us can affect the impressions that individuals have of the church.
Friendship and kindness to strangers can easily tip the balance from "I've heard such awful things about those Mormons" to "I know a Mormon family and they're nothing like what people say."
That's a matter of image — what people think they know about us. And let's remember that we also have an image of ourselves, which may or may not conform to reality.
That's why it's so fascinating to read the Pew Forum's "A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S." (See pewforum.org/docs?DocID=427.)
It's easy for Saints in the West, particularly in Utah, where we form an overwhelming majority, to forget what a small minority we are in the country as a whole.
Still, we're not an insignificant minority: Our numbers are comparable to Jews, and there are a lot more of us than there are other small minorities like Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Because Jews tend to vote as a bloc and they are concentrated in a few states, most notably New York, they have political influence far out of proportion to their numbers. They're swing voters — if they ever abandoned the Democratic presidential candidate, that candidate probably wouldn't carry New York, and without New York, it's hard to see how such a candidate could win.
We Mormons don't have that clout in any major state, because in the Rocky Mountain states where we have majority or large minority status, our nonmember fellow-citizens vote quite similarly to us. And in California, our vote is usually steamrollered into insignificance — except on issues where we can forge alliances with groups that share our values.
Still, when you go by the raw numbers, there is no demographic reason why we could not have the same kind of cultural influence in America that Jews have. It is interesting that in the Midwest and South, we represent about the same proportion of the general population, while we are about half as numerous in the Northeast.
Assuming that Americans who already belong to the church would be equally likely to move anywhere in the U.S., the discrepancy suggests that the missionary work is more successful in the South and Midwest
But the Pew report is not just confined to how many we are — it also examines who we are, what we believe, and how we behave, in comparison with members of other faiths. Keep in mind that there are going to be inaccuracies. Though the sample size is sufficient for the numbers to be meaningful, the poll can only deal with self-identified Mormons, defined as "persons who see themselves as following in the religious tradition of Joseph Smith."
Who knows how many people whom we maintain on our rolls did not tell the Pew pollsters they were Mormons, because they long since ceased to think of themselves that way?
There are oddities. Why is the church even more disproportionately female than Catholics and Evangelicals (56 percent, compared to 54 percent and 53 percent)? Is it because we convert more women, or lose more men, or both? It's no surprise that, with our higher-than-average birthrate, we are markedly younger than the surrounding population; but why are converts to the church older than lifers?
Maybe it's because converts who joined the church when their children were young continue to report themselves as converts their whole lives, while their children quite naturally report themselves as lifers.
Only Hindus are more likely than we are to be married, and, along with Hindus, we're the most likely Americans to be married to someone of the same faith.
Only 7 percent of Mormons were born outside the U.S., compared to 12 percent of the overall population, but it's not hard to see why: Mormon converts in other countries are encouraged to stay and build up the church where they are.
When it comes to education, we enter college at a markedly higher rate than the population as a whole — but then graduate at only slightly higher than normal levels.
I think this can be completely explained by the commitment of so many Latter-day Saints to have only one working parent, usually the father; Mormon women who enter college in high numbers are somewhat less likely to graduate than men; but, speaking from my own observations, most of them continue to self-educate so that college degrees do not measure the real educational level of the church.
When it comes to income, fewer of us are poor or working class; but fewer of us also make more than $100,000 a year. However, in the middle range of income ($50,000 to $100,000 a year), we are strongly ahead of the general population.
This is one of the most important things about our culture, in my opinion. It is not that Mormonism appeals to middle-class people, it's that Mormon culture leads more of us to make the choices that bring us into, but keep us from rising out of, the middle class. Here's why:
First, no matter what your income or education are when you join the church, active membership means that you will hold a calling. Those who thrive in the church, then, are those who have or can develop the ability to fulfill a job we did not choose, and do so effectively week after week, without someone checking up on us all the time.
Anyone who can do that is going to do well in middle-class jobs, period. We are, in effect, training all our active members for well-paying jobs.
Why, then, don't we rise in greater numbers above that $100,000 mark? First, because so few of us, relatively speaking, are two-income families. I suspect most Mormon couples would be perfectly capable of conducting two $75,000 careers — but instead, one of them stays home and makes sure that the family and the household are well taken care of.
This division of labor keeps our financial totals lower — but our effectiveness as families much higher.
In addition, Mormons in middle management are far more likely than others to refuse promotions and raises that would require them to relocate when their children are of high school age.
Our ambitions are not as likely to be centered on our careers, but rather on our families, so that we aren't as willing to make the sacrifices of time and inconvenience that rising to the very top of most professions requires.
These are good things, in my opinion. I'm proud of us that enough people are making good choices that it shows up in our middle-class demographics.
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.