American Grace: The Mormon Moment

Let's start with an exercise. Can you rank the following countries in order, from "highest percentage of the population attending church services" to lowest? (Answer at the bottom of the post)

Brazil, China, France, India, Iran, Italy, Jordan, Sweden, US.

The ordered list will, I suspect, surprise you and cause you to think deeply about your assumptions regarding the religiosity of various countries. This answer is just one of the fascinating nuggets I gleaned recently from a groundbreaking study of religion in the United States during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. One year ago--in April 2011--Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cited American Grace as evidence that "Latter-day Saint women are unique in being overwhelmingly satisfied with their role in Church leadership. Furthermore, Latter-day Saints as a whole, men and women, have the strongest attachment to their faith of any of the religions studied." I loved Elder Cook's talk, not least because it highlighted the relationship between LDS women and the priesthood--something I've been thinking about myself.

But I was disappointed that his talk didn't elaborate further on the ways in which this book illuminates what has come to be called "the Mormon moment" in American religion (even if that is a phrase the Church wants to move past). American Grace provides all sorts of interesting insights on what it means to be Mormon in the United States today. For instance:

  • Most American religions have a strong positive correlation with race. Italians and Poles tend to be Catholic; Swedes are generally Lutheran; and African Americans are overwhelmingly associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church or other denominations referred to collectively as Black Protestants by Putnam and Campbell. But the LDS church is what Putnam and Campbell describe as a "post-ethnic religion" (273), an interesting observation given all the recent hullaballoo about allegations of Mormon racism (on which more someday soon). 
  • Religious Americans are more charitable and volunteer more of their time than secular Americans, but "Mormons are strikingly more active [even compared to other religious Americans] in giving and volunteering of all sorts" (452). 
  • Despite their active engagement in the community, Mormons are disliked by a majority of the nation: “Three groups stand out for their unpopularity—Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. All three are below the overall mean and also below the neutral point of 50 degrees" (507) Others rated Mormons a 48 on a 100 points scale, compared to  Jews (59), Catholics (58), Protestants (58), Evangelicals (53), Buddhists (47), and Muslims (45). The most interesting aspect of this study, however, was the fact that Mormons are generally disliked--despite the fact that they rated every other religion more highly than other religions rated one another! In other words,“Mormons like everyone else, while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons. Jews are the exception, as they give Mormons a net positive rating”--perhaps because of a shared history of persecution, and in spite of some controversy over proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims (509).
  • Mormons may have such positive feelings for members of other religions because they almost universally believe that individuals of other faiths are eligible for heaven. 98% of Mormons surveyed agreed that “People not of my faith, including non-Christians, can go to heaven,” as compared to 83% of Catholics, 79% of Mainline Protestants, 62% of Black Protestants, and 54% of Evangelicals (539). The Mormon heavens are open to individuals of other faiths despite the fact that they believe--more strongly than any other group--that "one religion is true and others are not" (539). 

American Grace deserves the attention of anyone interested in better understanding the current "Mormon moment," but it is also filled with observations about more general topics, such as current trends in religious conversion as well as the relationships between religion and politics or religion and race. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in American religion, and if you read this blog regularly--that might be you.

Jordan—92%; Brazil 48%; India—44%; US—37%; Iran—36%; Italy—31%; China—16%; France—8%; Sweden—4%.


Anonymous said…
Very enlightening. Part of the unpopularity or misconception, I think, comes from folks who don't look past the news stories of the polygamist sects. But extremists from evangelical or holiness Christian sects are in the news, too. The doubters may cling to the Old Testament, which is ironic if they really have read it, and seem to forget where the practice came from. -- my 2cents from klm

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