I have been excited for quite a while about a book that Dr. Jana Riess and Dr. Benjamin Knoll have been researching and working on that is being released today, March 1, 2019.  The title is “The Next Mormons: How Millennials are changing the LDS church.”  The title does a good job summarizing the subject matter of the book.  Below is a transcription between myself (HH for Happy Hubby) and Jana Riess (JR).

HH: Thanks for agreeing to come and talk about your new book.  Personally I think this is going to be a very significant book that will be not only read by many, but actually studied by many. I couldn’t get past the cover without noticing a few things.  It has lots of pink and it looks like a young woman holding the book and she has black fingernail polish.  I have to assume this wasn’t just by chance.

JR – I love the cover, but I had nothing to do with choosing the design.  I approved it, but I didn’t come up with it.  What I love is that the book she is reading is actually the Bible because if you look at it carefully it has 4 columns.  So she is doing this very devotional religious thing, but she has black fingernail polish and the Bible is hot pink, which signals there is something different about her religiosity.  So I felt like the designer nailed a good part of the thesis of the book with the cover.  I really love it.

HH:  Yes.  It is very good.  It fits in well.  This is quite a significant survey.  This seems to be a bit unique – a major national study of 1,156 Mormons and 540 former Mormons.  Just from some of the leaks we know the church does survey members, but you also sampled former Mormons.  There are surveys such as the self-selecting survey from Why Mormons Leave.  I assume you studied those to help get a good set of questions?

JR: Yes.  In the sociology of religion and sociology in general, you can reuse questions that have been used in previous surveys in order to compare them to new populations or to discern change over time.  We reused some questions, and by “we” I mean Benjamin Knoll and I.  He was instrumental in designing, implementing, and analyzing the results of the survey.  I could not have done it without him. We reused questions from several different sources including Pew, Gallup, the Peculiar People survey that David Campbell had done about 5 years before, the General Social Survey, the American National Elections Survey, the 2011 Understanding Mormon Disbelief Survey, and the 2015 Mormon Gender Issues Survey.  We also created questions that I am not aware have ever been asked on previous national surveys of Latter-day Saints about things like garment wearing habits and food storage. So we had a blend of new and old.

HH: And what a time to be publishing a book!  As I was reading I kept thinking, I wonder if she wishes she could postpone to cover things like changes in the temple ceremony, missionaries being able to call home, etc.  I assume there is some feeling of that mixed with “get the book out of the door” also.  What are your feelings on this?

JR: It has been a fascinating time to be writing about this.  I joked when I turned in the manuscript of the book that although I am always eager for change in the church, right now let’s not have any particular change because I would like the book to not be outdated.  And then of course we unroll with the new president of the church one change after another. I am heartened by many those changes, don’t get me wrong. But it does make it challenging as a writer and a scholar to map the religious landscape of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a moving target. It is very much still in process.

HH:  If nothing else it gives a snapshot in a point in time where people in the future can look back to get a better understanding of how things were in this very moment as things were changing.

JR: It was particularly interesting for me with the temple chapter because many of the exact same things that women in interviews had pinpointed as problematic for them in the temple were changed in January. I don’t think there is any kind of causation here.  I want make that perfectly clear.  It is not that somebody read the book and said, “Hey, we need changes to the temple ceremony.”  It was that women have been making these same comments for many years and the church has been listening to that, and I hope praying about that.  So it is not the book causing change, but change is in the zeitgeist. 

HH: When I look at your previous works of What Would Buffy Do, The Twible, or Flunking Sainthood, they are all books with some really solid spiritual themes with some levity to make them much more readable to a larger audience.  You do have some more serious books such as The Prayer Wheel and Mormonism for Dummies, but “The Next Mormons” seems to be more statistical and academic than your previous books.  What drove you to take on this topic, and what were you looking to answer or shine a light on?

JR:  Well, thank you for reading those previous books which were all so different from each other.  I would say that when I was in graduate school I was trained to be a historian of American religion and I am grateful for that.  But if in graduate school someone would have shown me how fascinating the sociology of religion was, my career might have looked different. It is very interesting to study people who are dead, but it is even more interesting to study the living to find out about cultural shifts as they are happening rather than simply trying to interpret them with the benefit of hindsight.

I also think that there have been very important studies of Mormonism from a sociological perspective, but not all of those have been accessible to a general audience.  That is not a fault of the authors, but for whatever reason some of the best research that already exists about Mormonism in America really hasn’t gotten the attention that it deserved.  So part of the excitement of this book was to not only contribute new research, but also to discuss some of the research that has already been done that needs more attention from ordinary Mormons.

HH:  I assume one of those would be Armand Mauss and some of his books.  I know I have read his books, or should I say some of his books, and have been enthralled at some of the things that come out of those books.  When reading them I often said that I think I already had that thought or observation, but he puts it down so clearly that I would think, “why couldn’t I have such a clear thought?”

JR: I think one of the gifts of Armand Mauss, especially in “The Angel and the Beehive” book, is the way that he is able to blend history and sociology to look at Mormonism with a big-picture lens that incorporates so much change over time.  The way that he is able to understand Mormonism as a pendulum swinging between assimilation and retrenchment was very formative for me, which you can see all through the book.  I think we are living in a time where church leaders are trying to find that optimal balance between assimilation and retrenchment.  How do we maintain enough distinctiveness from the wider culture to make Mormonism attractive and unique while not making it so distinctive that it is alienating, particularly to a rising generation?

HH: So you crowd funded the survey cost. That is fairly new.  How did that work and did you learn anything unusual with this?

JR:  It was a fascinating experience and very heartening to put my heart on my sleeve and write to total strangers for help.  I had tried to get traditional funding for this project and it wasn’t working. So going to Kickstarter enabled me to get funding very quickly and in a way that built a community around the book.  I wasn’t expecting that community aspect of the Kickstarter campaign to be so important, but it was clarifying for me in approaching the research questions.  One of the Kickstarter donors, for example, said she had donated because she wanted to understand why all 4 of her adult children had left the church. I kept that and some of the other Kickstarter donor comments in my mind as to why this research is important to ordinary people.  Not just to scholars, but to parents, to seminary teachers, to bishops, to young people themselves, to singles in the church.  A lot of people want to know more than just anecdotally what is going on right now that is new or different.

HH:  I have heard in some of the interviews and discussions you have had on this book you kept finding more questions to ask.  I know I would have callouses on my forehead from Dope slapping on things I wish I would have put in the survey.  I am sure you didn’t want to make the survey too long.  But it does appear that you presented a good selection of questions.  Where do you see this book fitting in the broader timeline of Mormon studies from a bigger picture?

JR: It’s hard for me to asses or predict that, but I’m excited that it would even be a question.  That’s very much an honor to me and to Ben. 

Back to your previous question about things we wish we would have asked.  I have a file called the “wish list” and basically it is research questions arising from the survey. Five years from the original survey, we would like to repeat the same questions and add some others and also add generation Z into the mix so we can understand what is going on with them.  There are already like twenty new questions on the wish list that I would like to know more about.

It is like a rabbit hole of wonderful opportunities when you ask one survey question.  We asked about how people were or were not observing the Word of Wisdom.  The question was worded so it was, “have you done any of the following in the last 6 months?” and that was the only question.  We were so shocked by the results of that question that we were kicking ourselves afterwards because we didn’t ask the obvious follow-up question: “How often do you do this thing?”  For example, we found out 40% of currently identified Mormons—some of whom, especially in younger generations, hold temple recommends—have had coffee in the last 6 months.  This was very surprising to me.  I would like to know more.  I would like to know is that something they have tried once and have not had since, or is that a daily habit where they are going to Starbucks.  There is so much more we could do to dissect that question next time.

HH: In the second section of the book you dive into 4 really big issues in the church. They are:

  • Single Mormons in a Married Church
  • Millennial Women and Shifting Gender Expectations.
  • Minority Mormons and Racial attitudes
  • Rainbow Fault Lines

Those certainly are some of the significant issues the church is dealing with.  I know all of these topics have often come up on the Wheat & Tares blog.  I would like to focus on the chapter you titled: Rainbow Fault Lines: LGBT Inclusion.

This to me seems to me where there is quite a huge divide.  Kind of THE question that is really causing many rifts in the church, many still under the surface and bubble up when it is someone close to them that is gay and they really have to confront what they believe. 

But the area of views on LGBT certainly is an area that I have done an about-face in some of the last years – bucking a bit of the trend in my category.  But I CLEARLY see a huge difference in my millennial and Gen Z kids compared to when I was their age.  I recall talking with each of my kids about the November 2015 policy dealing with gay members, and more specifically restricting ordinances to children of parents in gay relationships.  They all said, in just about as many words, “That’s stupid.  Why would they do that?”  I assume you don’t you find that surprising coming from that generation?

JR:  No, that is pretty typical.  Millennials and Generation Z have grown up with the expectation that sexual orientation is one of many aspects of who a person is, and should be taken with no condemnation any more than you would condemn someone for their race or gender.  For older generations that isn’t necessarily true, and certainly for older Mormon leaders that has not been true. 

Mormon attitudes on homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed rapidly, which mirrors a larger trend in society. And this change is driven by younger adults, which also mirrors a larger trend in America. Mormons’ attitudes are still considerably more conservative than other Americans’, but we have passed a tipping point. Among younger Millennial Mormons (ages 18 to 26), about six in ten now believe that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.”

HH: I was a scoutmaster for quite a long time.  We had 3 boys that were gay – or at least 3 that I know of that it was fairly clear they were gay.  Other kids and adults noticed it.  I don’t recall any of them being harassed at all.  The boys were all just like, “Yep, I think Joey is gay and it isn’t a big deal.”

That finding that 60% of Younger millennials think homosexuality should be accepted in society is in contrast to an almost exact opposite of 38% in the combined Boomer/ Silent generation.  Do you assume the trend toward LGBT acceptance will continue, level out, or accelerate?

JR:  It will continue.  It has been fascinating in American culture more generally to see how quickly public option has changed about homosexuality and same sex marriage.  That binary choice of “homosexuality should be accepted by society” or “discouraged by society” is a longstanding Pew question.  So we have data stretching back years how Americans in general have responded into that and how that can be broken down generationally.  Mormon millennials are not as liberal as other millennials on this question, but they are certainly more progressive than Mormons who are older.  That theme we see throughout the book that they are kind of in the middle, which is a tense place to be on this issue.

HH: How do the younger generations feel when they hear some of the top church leaders discuss LGBT issues, then hear someone like Richard Ostler on his Listen Learn Love podcast as he lovingly interviews LGBT individuals while he stands fairly clearly as a faithful believer in Mormonism?  Do you have any understanding of how they are dealing with this?

JR: I think it is extremely difficult for them.  That is a very interesting example contrasting official church leaders with an unofficial church leader.  In the book I have a chapter contrasting institutional authority to relational authority.  I argue that for Millennials in general, but particularly in Mormonism, relational authority is very important.  And what I see Richard Ostler doing so well is relational authority.  In the spirit of conflict of interest I should say that I follow him on Twitter, he donated to this research, and I have been on his podcast. I have been supported by him and I am a fan of his.  I love what he is doing. I think he is demonstrating that genuine love does not easily coexist with the idea that you can “hate the sin.” And when he is SO kind, and welcoming, and loving, and willing to extend himself to young people who are on the edge—to young people that may be suicidal, for example—that speaks volumes to people who are struggling with this issue.  And they can be struggling whether they themselves are LGBT or they are heterosexual and cisgender but don’t understand the church’s adamant position on this issue.  So we need more “Papa Ostlers” in the church to show them that there is a way to make this a more loving and inclusive place.

HH:  I couldn’t agree more and I am a huge fan of Richard Ostler and what he has done.  And maybe I should be clear that I too contributed to the book and I have been excited about it for quite a while.

JR: Thank you.  My husband just came into the room and he is on his way to the post office with the next batch of books to send to donors so maybe yours is in that batch. [Ed note: at a certain Kickstarter contribution level Jana would send a signed copy of the book as a thank you.]  Sending books to donors has been our entire last week.  The dining room has been taken over by this massive shipping project.  We have like over 180 books total to send out to people and it is a bit of an enterprise.  When we walked into the post office on Saturday the poor postal worker was giving us the stink eye.  [HH – I don’t quite like it when authors brag about how glamorous and wonderful it is being an author, but I will let it slide this one time here 🙂 ]

HH: I would like to transition now to the chapter titled, “Exodus: Millennial Former Mormons.”I found this chapter the most interesting.  I don’t think it is incorrect to say that the bloggernacle is generally filled with a bit more nuanced members of the church.  So I think many of the readers would be interested in this chapter.  But I also would assume anyone very interested in retaining members would like to see a rather scientific dissection of those that leave. Given the way the respondents were selected in the Next Mormons Survey I would lean towards your survey to be one of the most accurate.  It wasn’t self-selecting.  It was focusing on both Mormons and ex-Mormons.  I found your table 11.4 “Former Mormons’ Top 10 Reasons for Leaving, by Generation” to be the most interesting.  Do you want to give an overview of that?

JR:  Sure.  I am just pulling that up.

While I am looking for it, you had talked about previous surveys of former Mormons and I think this is a good time to talk about the difference between a nationally representative sample and a snowball sample or convenience sample.  Snowball samples are very valuable for understanding a particular subpopulation.  You generally find the people who are going to be in a snowball sample through social media and in affinity groups.  The problem with it that those people tend to go to the affinity groups first because they have those particular questions or issues.  And so the results you come up with are going to be accurate for that particular subgroup, but not generalizable to the population at large.

In a nationally representative sample what we are aiming to do is contact enough people that we can legitimately say that this particular sample is representative of that population—in this case, former Mormons. Two caveats: because the NMS sample of former Mormons is smaller than is it is of current Mormons (540 respondents vs 1156), the margin of error is going to be higher.  I would also say that because less academic research has been done on former Mormons, we don’t have as many benchmarks against which to weigh the data as we do with current Mormons.  So with those two caveats, this is the best data I am aware of on former Mormons, but it is still laying the foundation for future work on this group.  It is an understudied population, and I think it is a very important population.  Benjamin Knoll and I have decided to write a book together about former Mormons, drawing on this data and other data as well as interviews.  That will be the next big project down the road.

Having said that, let’s talk about the overall reasons why people left.  What we see from this sample is that no one historical issue rises to the top as being THE reason why people left. It is not polygamy alone.  It isn’t seer stones.  It is not historical evidence for the Book of Mormon, although that at least made it into the top ten.  What we see instead are larger issues of trust, belief, and personal values.

The top three items overall were:

  • I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with the church.
  • I stopped believing there was one true church.
  • I did not trust the church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.

So it’s not that historical issues are unimportant. Rather, how they have been handled has led to some people feeling betrayed by the church.  Does that make sense?

HH: Yes.  Absolutely.  Even on a personal level that makes sense to me in my faith journey.

JR: Generationally there are some very interesting differences, one of which is what we have just been talking about – LGBT issues.  For millennials LGBT issues is third among 30 possible reasons for leaving the church.  For Boomer/Silent respondents, it didn’t make it into the top ten.  So that is an important thing to recognize.  And Generation X, as usual, was in the middle between these two groups at sixth.

We also see an issue of feeling of being judged or misunderstood.  For millennials that ties for first place.  I think that is very, very significant.  For older members, for Boomers/Silent, the feeling of being judged or misunderstood was seventh.  For Gen Xers it was third.  But for millennials it was tied for first.  I think we need to take a very hard look at the culture that LDS Church has created and think about what that means in terms of judgmentalism.  Because in the larger culture millennials have grown up in a nation where judgment is considered very wrong.  One professor told me that the favorite Bible verse of his students now is, “judge not lest ye yourself be judged.” I thought that was very apt.  If there was going to be a Bible verse that would be a signature for this generation, it would be that one.  They are very sensitive to other people’s negative criticism—which is not a criticism that they are overly sensitive.  Just to be clear, they have grown up in a different society than people who are older, particularly Silent Generation members.  The culture has changed and the church has not changed as quickly, and so that is a tension

This issue of feeling of being judged or misunderstood is particularly important for women. When you put all women together, that is the number one reason why women left the church.  So let that sink in for a minute.  I presented this research to an audience not all that long ago and a man raised his hand and said, “What is it about women that makes them feel judged?”  Which is a little hard to respond to because the whole question itself is judging women.  But if you look at the rhetoric the Church sends toward women, particularly young women—how they dress, how they act, the focus on being submissive—it is full of judgment. 

HH: You mentioned in this chapter:

Moreover, we have enough information about the broad strokes of America’s changing religiosity to say that Mormonism would need to be extraordinary in its ability to resist its environment in order for a majority of leavers to return.

Do you have any more thoughts on that, about those no longer associated coming back compared to other generations?

JR:  Yes.  At the end of that chapter I am profiling a young man that left and did return.  He is the minority – people who left that then decided to come back.  He was talking about how returning isn’t easy.  The church has not welcomed him back with open arms like the father in the prodigal son story from the gospel of Luke.  The church instead has treated him with suspicion.  If he weren’t as thick skinned as he says he is, he probably wouldn’t have stuck it out.  I thought that was an instructive interview.  He was the only person of the more than 5 dozen interviewees that I talked to that have left and then decided to come back.  In fact since I conducted the interviews, at least two, actually I think three, of the people who were involved in the church when I had talked with them have since left.  If anything we are going in the other direction, toward further disaffiliation. 

The church does not make it easy to return.  One of the reasons that is the case is that it tends to only assign blame for the leaving to the people who left without any type of introspection or self-analysis of how we may have contributed to that departure.  And by “we” I mean those still sitting in the pews.  If we are to become a more welcoming place for this more diverse generation of young people then we need to think carefully about what we say and how we treat everyone – not just those in the inside group.

HH:  AMEN!  I really think you did a great job on the entire book and I especially liked your conclusion. 

JR: Thank you. Conclusions are so hard to write.

HH: It seemed through most of the book you gave context and framing, but were not driving past what the data said.  But your conclusion brought in a bit of your personal insight.  One of your comments to me seemed to mirror what I have heard Patrick Mason espouse:  that the church going forward could either “loosen up a bit” and be more accepting, or it could go the opposite and drive off the more accepting members, leaving a church that is more insular and ultra-conservative.  As mentioned before Armand Mauss would suggest it will be a tug of war somewhere between the extremes.  The church wants to be different, but not too different.  From what you have learned from writing this book, does the church have a period of time where it needs to make changes, or is there always going to be another issue that keeps it in tension?

JR:  Well that’s a great question. I have some ideas, but I don’t have any definitive answers.  I am not a prophet and even as a historian who can look to the past for insight, the future is very difficult to anticipate.  The present situation is that we are at a terrible place with organized religion right now.  We have more young people leaving than ever before.  We have 4 in 10 of the youngest millennials identifying as no religion at all.  Nonreligious is the only category of American religion that is growing with any significant measure.  Every time there is a national survey is done, the Nones—those that are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are the growing category. 

So I don’t know what will happen in the future. In the conclusion I give two options, where the first is that the church will become an entrenched subculture that has pushed out the people who were on the margins and become an echo chamber of its own making. The second, echoing what Patrick Mason was saying, is where the church might loosen up and have a bigger tent and embrace those people.  I think we are heading towards the former and not the latter, even with some of the changes that are happening at the institutional level. There are programmatic changes, curriculum changes. They are positive institutional steps, but they are not going to be enough to help people on the margins feel that the church is relevant or interesting. 

HH: This book is a fairly detailed picture, a snapshot in time, on the topic of Mormonism and changes between various generations. You hinted already, but are you considering doing a follow up in a decade or so to better understand trends and have more of a longitudinal study of these topics?

JR: We do.  For the immediate future, we’re looking at data on the former Mormons. In “The Next Mormons” book I wrote 10 chapters on current Mormons and just one chapter on former Mormons.  But the reality is that we have as much data on former Mormons as we do on current Mormons, but I didn’t focus on that in writing this book because Ben and I are going to be doing that separately.  And in the longer term as I said, we dream about doing a follow-up survey that includes Generation Z. We would be repeating some of the same questions so we can get longitudinal data as well as asking some of the questions we wished we had asked in the first place.

HH: Great! I am very excited to hear that.  I am definitely ready and eager to read those next books coming along.  Thank you not only for your efforts to write this book, but for sharing time and your thoughts.  Best of luck with the book.  In closing do you have any other comments?

JR:  Just thank you for reading and supporting.  It is tremendous pleasure to write a book that is useful to people.

Additional notes:  The book is available starting today at Amazon and at Oxford University Press.

Jana is a senior columnist for Religion News Service and Benjamin is a political science professor at Centre College.  If you want to geek out even more, you can get more detailed information at the book’s website https://thenextmormons.org/ including more about Jana and Benjamin. https://thenextmormons.org/about/

Jana will also be doing book signings at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake on Tuesday March 5th – 5:30 gathering, 6:00 book talk and signing (Facebook Event) and also at Writ and Vision in Provo on Thursday March 7th – 7 p.m. book talk and signing (Facebook Event)

Have any of you already read this book and if so, what what did you find the most interesting?