Follow the Members

Where do ordinary Church members’ beliefs diverge from General Authorities’ beliefs? I think this is an interesting question that the latest Pew report on American religious belief and behavior can at least hint at some answers to. Of course the report only tells us about American Mormons, and it’s not a terribly big Mormon sample, but still, it’s fun to speculate using its results. I looked through the report and pulled out questions where I thought the responses for Mormons would be most out of line with the results you would get if you put the same questions to GAs. In this table, I also offer my guess as to whether the percentage for GAs would be higher or lower.

Item American Mormons GA
Absolutely certain about belief in God 87% Higher
Scriptures should be taken literally. 32% Higher
There are clear and absolute standards for what is right and wrong. 58% Higher
Abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 26% Lower
Homosexuality should be accepted by society. 36% Lower
Favor or strongly favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry 25% Lower
Having more women in the workforce has been a change for the better. 49% Lower
Humans evolved over time. 42% Lower
Republican/lean Republican 71% Higher
Describe political views as conservative 61% Higher

Note: Percentages are taken from the “Latter-day Saints” lines in the tables in Appendix C, except for the question about women in the workforce, which is taken from the “Mormon” line in a table in Chapter 4 (where there is no separate “Latter-day Saints” line).

I’ll explain briefly for each item why I guessed what I did for whether GAs’ percentages would be higher or lower.

  • Belief in God is probably pretty obvious. I don’t think a man can rise to the top of a hierarchical and fundamentalist-leaning church like ours while seriously doubting that God exists. At each higher level, there are far more candidates than there are open positions, and the more certain men are likely to be chosen over the less certain. I’ve seen speculation in post/ex-Mormon forums about GAs “knowing” the Church is a fraud and just playing along, but that doesn’t seem at all likely to me. I would bet GAs score 100% on this.

There are several other items like this that I didn’t select, because the pattern is likely to be similar for similar reasons. GAs are going to pray more, read scriptures more, and attend church more than ordinary members, both because they were selected for their devoutness, and because they are full-time clergymen.

  • On the question of taking scriptures literally, even though the alternative response is “not everything should be taken literally,” so a person only has to believe some scripture shouldn’t be taken literally to endorse it, I would be surprised if GAs wouldn’t score far higher than 32%. They oversee the writing of Church manuals, and although I haven’t studied them formally, my sense from teaching I hear in church is that there’s not much room made for any reading of scripture but the most literal. The same goes for how GAs talk about scriptures in Conference. For example, Elder Holland in his talk in April of this year took what felt like an odd turn just to emphasize the importance of believing in a literal Adam and Eve.
  • Joseph Smith seems like he might have been on the other side on clear and absolute standards of right and wrong (as he famously explained, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.”), but so much Church rhetoric now talks about the absolute standards of the Church versus the wicked shifting and flexible standards of the world that I think most GAs would endorse this. I think it would definitely be more than the 58% of American members.
  • Abortion has definitely taken a back seat to gay marriage recently, but I think it’s still likely that far fewer than 26% of GAs would agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. It seems clear from what they’ve said that, although they leave open a few exceptions, they oppose the vast majority of abortions.
  • The GAs’ position on homosexuality and gay marriage seems pretty clear. Although their rhetoric has softened over time, they still think homosexual relationships are wrong, and they’ve fought the legalization of gay marriage tooth and nail (in the US, anyway). If any of them are supportive of homosexual relationships or gay marriage, they’ve been silenced by the determined opponents in their ranks. I think they would score far lower than the 36% and 25% that US Mormons do for acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, respectively.
  • Jana Riess noted in a post on the Pew report that, at 49%, Mormons are the least likely of any denomination to believe that having more women in the workforce has been a change for the better. What struck me about the percentage, though, is that it seemed so high. I feel like Church rhetoric might have shifted toward more acceptance of women working for pay, but it has been grudging acceptance, and women working for pay is still always framed as a backup plan. Couple that with all the cheering we have for traditional gender roles–SAHMs in particular–and it seems unlikely to me that anything like 49% of GAs would think more women in the workforce has been a change for the better.
  • On human evolution, I feel like GAs who clearly don’t believe in it, like President Nelson, sometimes put in little jabs in their talks where they make their feelings known, and there’s really nobody in the ranks of the GAs who pushes back from the other side. Even though the question explicitly includes the possibility of God-guided evolution in the “humans have evolved” response (there’s a sub-question that asks whether it was natural processes or God guiding it), I would still be surprised if as many as 42% of GAs believe in evolution. This would also fall in line with their preference for scriptural literalism.
  • Political affiliation and ideology seem straightforward. It’s remarkable when a GA is not a Republican. If he had to be pinned on the US political spectrum, President Uchtdorf might be a Democrat, and I’ve heard that Elder Renlund might have been registered as a Democrat. Even so, that would be two of the top 15, making the other 13 (87%) likely Republicans. At the least, it’s probably far more than the 71% of American Mormons.

One last note on the title of this post: It’s not the case for all or even most of these issues, but I think for at least a few of them, it seems likely that the GAs will be following the members rather than the other way around. This could very well happen with acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, for example. It might even happen on scriptural literalism. There are clearly forces working against members’ ideas filtering up to GAs. Like I mentioned before, the men who rise in the hierarchy are probably those who have the fewest doubts. This is not only true of doubts about God, but doubts about any other Church doctrine or policy. And there’s likely to be a corresponding trend where members having more doubts about God or the Church are the most likely to leave, resulting in a membership that’s overall less questioning. But ultimately, even given these forces, the GAs come from the membership, and if an attitude like acceptance of homosexuality comes to predominate among members, it might be difficult to avoid having GAs called who also share this attitude.

Okay, so what do you think I have wrong (or right) about what GAs believe? Or what other questions in the Pew report do you think American Mormons answered differently than GAs would?



  1. There is a huge gap between WOMEN working for pay and MOTHERS working for pay. In my time in the church I have never heard counsel discouraging WOMEN from working for pay. A lot of us who champion the possibility of a mom being able to focus on parenting during a season of her life also rejoice that barriers to women’s employment have been removed.

    (Instead we have new barriers that disadvantage those who are not willing to be employed fulltime in a male-normative manner, but not to digress….)

    Most LDS women are going to be working for pay for most of their lives. At least that has been the experience of the women I knew at BYU who graduated around 1980.

    We were all home with little children for some years but then went on to new careers or return to the old professions, or public service (one served as mayor and another ran for school board).

  2. Part of the difference between the data and your guess about GA views is demographic. The data capture a wide age and gender range, whereas the GA cohort is all male and quite old. If you filtered the Pew data to include only Mormon men seventy or older, there might not be much difference.

  3. Ah, that’s a great point, Dave. It would be interesting to see how much difference (if any) remained after controlling for age and sex.

  4. Fewer than 71% of the Q15 are registered republicans in Utah. I do not know whether the many independents would lean R or D. I am sure that greater than 71% voted Romney over Obama in the last presidential election, but that is somewhat of an outlier in Utah and among mormons.
    Given the other options, I am not sure that more than 32% of GA s would agree that scriptures should only be taken literally.
    Agree with most other answers. There are probably less than 10% in agreement on the abortion and gay marriage questions. Maybe even zero among all in the US.

  5. Well, after the horrifying policy change announced yesterday, it’s clear that Church leaders have no intention of following members toward any kind of acceptance of gay people. You can print my theory out, crumple it up, and throw it in the trash.

  6. If we have one scriptural literalist among the Q15, that would be too many. If there is one, then he has not read the scriptures very carefully.


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