Editor’s note: The following is the second article exploring findings from the 2023 Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey. The survey was conducted by the B.H. Roberts Foundation, an independent organization not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Are there any meaningful patterns in how Latter-day Saints respond to questions about their beliefs and practices?
In our previous article, we provided an overview of the 2023 Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey, a large representative study of over 3,800 current and former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These came from national Facebook ads and postcards sent to a representative distribution of households within counties that had populations that were at least 15% Latter-day Saint based on the 2020 U.S. Religious Census estimates. (You can read more about the methodology here).
In this article, we will dig more deeply into what Latter-day Saint respondents told us about what they believe and how they practice their faith. We asked three types of questions: basic demographics to understand potential generational effects, questions about beliefs and practices to better understand adherence to the faith, and questions related to some debated topics to better understand various ideological dispositions.
We used a method known as k-means analysis to detect natural groupings among the survey respondents. What we found was a distinct clustering of responses to questions about fundamental beliefs and practices, which represent two distinct statistical clusters.
The first cluster is made up of the majority (about 80%) of the Latter-day Saints surveyed, which had very similar answers that align with traditional views and practices within the faith. These respondents have a strong belief in God, in the veracity of the Book of Mormon and in the institution of the church. They support the church’s teachings on marriage and the priesthood. They are also active in their participation in the faith.
Many of these findings align with earlier research showing high levels of religious commitment among self-identifying church members, such as the Pew Research findings in 2012. Pew found 83% of Latter-day Saints pray every day, and 77% attend religious services at least once a week. The same survey documented firm belief in the teachings of the church, with 8 in 10 (80%) saying that a belief that Joseph Smith actually saw God the Father and Jesus Christ is essential for being a good Latter-day Saint.
The second cluster is made up of about 20% of respondents, who reported less certainty about the existence of God, Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the Book of Mormon. This second group also reported less engagement in their level of personal devotion and participation in the faith, while still identifying as Latter-day Saints.
We found these differences in religious belief to be correlated with other social beliefs. For instance, the first group of respondents generally support the church’s practice of male priesthood ordination. Similarly, for example, scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their own American religious survey published in the 2010 book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” found that 90% of Latter-day Saint women opposed female ordination in the church. Only about half of Latter-day Saint men opposed female ordination.
In our research, we anticipated potential separation along generational lines, with older members in the first cluster and younger members in the second. However, we found that both clusters encompass members of all ages. Interestingly, Gen-Z Latter-day Saints are not significantly more or less likely to be in the second cluster, while millennials are overrepresented.
It’s important to note this data relies on the ability of respondents to answer questions with candor and honesty. But in queries about religious practices, research has shown that there is a tendency for individuals to embellish levels of observance. This might mean that on average, both those in Cluster 1 and Cluster 2 may be somewhat less adherent than they claim, but this is unlikely to change the statistical clustering, assuming similar levels of embellishment between groups.
This data suggests there are, in some sense, group differences in beliefs and practices among those with a common identity as church members. These results, however, do not tell us anything about whether or not there is migration between these bodies, an area that merits further analysis.
Josh Coates studied computer science at UC Berkeley and is the executive director of the B.H. Roberts Foundation.
Stephen Cranney is a data scientist with a joint Ph.D. in demography/sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.