The Mormon Advantage

Leaving theology aside, what can we learn from the Mormons?

With even New York Times columnists and distinguished social scientists like Andrew J. Cherlin reinforcing the core truth that the retreat from marriage is causing core inequalities in the opportunities of millions of American children, it is worth asking: Who is doing a better job at sustaining a marriage culture?

A fascinating data dump by the Austin Institute sheds unique new light on this question.

Research on the relationship between religion and family has been complicated by the fact that, today, religious affiliation tells you relatively little about what people believe or how they behave. Many people are cultural, not religious, when it comes to their religious affiliation, which makes it harder to see what impact attendance and the teaching that takes place in houses of worship has on marriage and family behavior.

But the scholars who produced the Austin Institute’s newly released Relationships in America interviewed 15,000 people, and by most measures of belief and practice, the winner is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormons).

Take casual sex, for example.

Just 1 percent of Mormons who attend services at least three times a month agree that casual sex can sometimes be okay; 89 percent disagree (with 10 percent “neutral”). This is the highest level of rejection of casual sex of any practicing religious group in America. “Fundamentalist Protestants” who attend church regularly are eight times more likely than Mormons to agree that casual sex is okay, for example, as do 10 percent of self-described “traditional Catholics.” Evangelicals are the largest category of Protestants in America today, and they are five times more likely than Mormons who attend church at least three times a month to say casual sex is okay. When you flip and look just at those who say they firmly disagree that it can be okay for two people to get together for sex with no further expectations, churchgoing LDS top the list with 89 percent disapproval, compared with 86 percent of evangelicals, 85 percent of fundamentalist Protestants, and just 65 percent of traditional Catholics who attend services at least three times a month..

Or consider responses to the idea that it is “a good idea” to cohabit before you marry. Just 4 percent of Mormons agree, compared with 7 percent of evangelicals, 17 percent of fundamentalist Protestants, and 24 percent of self-described traditional Catholics who attend church at least three times a month.

The pattern doesn’t always hold. On opposition to adultery, Pentecostals who attend church three times a month or more win the day, with zero percent saying it’s sometimes permissible to have sex outside your marriage, closely followed by evangelicals (1 percent), fundamentalist Protestants (2 percent), and LDS members (3 percent), with mainline Protestants and traditional and moderate Catholics following closely at 4 percent.

But by every measure, including belief in hell, LDS church members are either at the top or near the top of the list when it comes to adhering to traditional Christian religious ideas and practice.

What about practice?

The Austin Institute looked at currently married people and asked if they had had sex with their spouses before marriage. Do they do what their churches teach?

Among regular churchgoers (three times a month or more), 57 percent of evangelicals had premarital sex with their future spouse, as did 64 percent of traditional Catholics, and 66 percent of fundamentalist Protestants. Just 14 percent of Mormons did.

More than any other group in America, and despite very large theological differences with orthodox Protestants or Catholics (Mormons are not Trinitarians, to name just one basic belief), the LDS church is far more effectively passing on classic Christian cultural beliefs, attitudes, and practices about marriage.

Why is that?

Only God knows for sure, but I was struck by the similarities between what President Henry B. Eyring of the LDS First Presidency (who spoke at the interfaith Colloquium on the Family held at the Vatican) said, and what was posited by Marshall Chalverus and Michael A. Thomas in their master’s thesis for the Naval Postgraduate School, “Growing an Ideology: How the Mormons Do It.” Chalverus and Thomas were trying to learn from the LDS experience how a countercultural minority can thrive and grow in order to learn lessons for counterinsurgency nation-building. Among their conclusions: Mormons do not convert by preaching. They do help ensure uniformity in what their church teaches by centralizing curriculum and materials, but these materials are used mostly to “preach to the converted.” Instead they focus on building social bonds, inviting the former stranger into a network of ever-growing belonging, before broaching theology or ideology. Preach incessantly to those in your pews, but reach out with love, affection, Boy Scouts, and practical help to the unconverted. It sounds a lot like the way the Catholic Church used to evangelize.

The other big truth that jumps out from the data is that the Catholic Church is now doing a remarkably bad job not only at practicing what it preaches, but even at preaching it. What we can learn from this survey about divisions within the U.S. Catholic Church is a subject for another day.

— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at


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