Book Review—Jana Riess, The Next Mormons

41VNW2NVATLRichelle Wilson is a PhD student in Scandinavian studies and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is a talk producer at community radio station WORT 89.9 FM and a member of Dialogue’s editorial staff.

When I first heard Jana Riess was undertaking research about Millennial Mormons, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait for this book to be released. Given the heightened sense of generational divide in America right now, thanks in no small part to deepening political polarization and an ongoing series of culture wars run amok, research like this is vital for the health of our communities. 

The Next Mormons doesn’t disappoint. Riess writes in a clear, engaging style that is approachable to non-specialists and folks who don’t know much about Mormonism. In spite of its seemingly niche topic, I hope this book receives a wider audience since Riess’s findings are important and have broader implications for religion in 21st-century America.

The research in the book is based on the Next Mormons Survey, a Qualtrics questionnaire administered to 1,696 current and former Mormons, along with personal interviews conducted with 63 additional Mormons (not respondents of the survey). [1] Riess details in the final section of the book how they secured a fairly representative sample (and corrected for imbalances with a method called poststratification, p. 242), and she is quick to note throughout the book when a given sample size is too small to generalize or draw definitive conclusions from the results. While reading, I was impressed with how forthright she is in explaining her methodology, discussing how the findings compared with previous research undertaken by Pew and others, and pointing out any limitations or areas that could use further analysis.

Throughout the book, Riess is most interested in illuminating the experience of Millennials by comparing survey results across generations (Boomer/Silent, Gen X, and Millennial). She also does a lot of current Mormon/former Mormon juxtapositions, and given that the final chapter is “Exodus: Millennial Former Mormons,” it’s clear that another prevailing concern for her is disaffiliation. This is central to any discussion of younger Mormons because Millennials are leaving the church in greater numbers than previous generations, so issues of faith crisis and disaffiliation are key to understanding their experience. Even for those who stay, they are much more likely than their parents to have Mormon spouses, siblings, and friends who leave. This is one of the many reasons I think all Mormons, especially leadership, should spend some time with this book.

Many of the findings in The Next Mormons may seem intuitive and, therefore, unsurprising. However, I think it’s important to have supporting evidence for folk wisdom that circulates (and there’s a lot of that in Mormonism). But in other cases, prevailing  “common sense” beliefs are debunked by survey results. For example, though church leaders have long worried about the corrupting influence of college campuses, it turns out that more education correlates with greater church retention and even orthodoxy. (The one exception cited is women with an advanced academic degree, who are actually more likely to leave, see pp. 106–107.) Another striking finding is that Millennial children of stay-at-home mothers were more likely to leave the church as adults than those with working mothers (pp. 107–108). Of course, the point here isn’t to shame anyone for their choices, but it’s interesting to note that the fears surrounding mothers entering the workforce in the latter half of the 20th century turned out to be unfounded.

Other findings presented in the book are what you might expect, though often with a little twist. Even the headline issue—that Millennial Mormons are leaving the church in greater numbers—is paired with the finding that Millennials who do stay are both remarkably devout and more likely to express doubt than their elders (see pp. 20, 30–32). The key is not to misinterpret that doubt as necessarily signaling a lack of faith or commitment; rather, doubt is simply a feature of Millennials’ religious lives. Riess does a masterful job of describing such generational characteristics (some of which may immediately sound the alarms for many older Mormons) without resorting to clichés, offering the reader a path to sympathy and understanding for the reported beliefs and behaviors that may deviate from expectation.

Speaking of which, the most surprising thing for me while reading was how much uncertainty in LDS teachings was expressed in the overall survey results across all generations. Even foundational Christian belief statements like “God is real” had lower reported levels of absolute certainty than I would have expected: 86% of Boomer/Silents, 76% of GenXers, 68% of Millennials (p. 17). I’m not a social scientist, so I don’t know the best practices for extrapolating these statistics, but I think this means it’s possible that up to 30 out of 100 members of a given ward or stake aren’t 100% sure God is real. That’s huge. That matters. I’d say it requires a different approach to testifying and ministering than the current status quo.

The reported uncertainty is even higher for LDS-specific teachings. For example, the statement “The LDS First Presidency members and apostles are God’s prophets on the earth today” has full confidence from 67% of Boomer/Silents, 55% of GenXers, and 53% of Millennials (p. 19). Those numbers seem low to me, even as someone who knows a lot of Mormons with varied beliefs, but it’s unsurprising that many would normally keep quiet about these doubts because of enormous pressure to perform faith and belief in a certain way, especially depending on one’s family, friends, and job/education (for example, being at a church-owned school).

This particular faith tenet—the authority of church leadership—is a recurring theme of The Next Mormons, as issues of authority and obedience appear to be at the root of Mormon doubt and disaffiliation, especially for Millennials. Even among LGBT former Mormons, who could readily cite LGBT issues as their primary reason for leaving, top concerns also included “the church’s lack of financial transparency; emphasis on conformity and obedience; strong culture of political conservatism; and excommunications of feminists, intellectuals, and activities” (142). “In other words,” Riess writes, “for LGBT Mormons, leaving the church is never ‘just’ about LGBT issues per se. It’s that those issues strike at the very heart of Mormon ideas of authority” (142).

The twin issues of authority and obedience were also relevant in the discussion of evolving gender roles. See chapter 5 for more on this. For now, I’ll just leave you with the money quote about the importance of having women in church leadership:  

“Why does women’s religious leadership matter? … [W]omen who attend congregations in which women make up at least half of the religious leadership have higher levels of religious belief, identity, and ‘efficacy’ (confidence that their opinions matter in their congregations) than other women. This effect is not limited to how women feel and behave religiously, but extends to other areas of their lives. For example, the presence of women as religious leaders in female respondents’ childhoods contributed to better educational and socioeconomic outcomes for those women as adults, even after controlling for other factors. The positive results were particularly marked for women with more liberal theological and political views—the very ones who may be, in Mormonism at least, more likely to simply leave the church than to continue to chafe at restrictions they feel within it.” (100)

Other major themes treated include missionary experience, the temple, race, religious practice, and social and political views. Each of these deserves a full-length review of its own. I was especially interested in the chapter on single Mormons (ch 4) because I’ve been swimming in those waters for a long time. [2] It’s a major site of resistance for young Mormons because of how never-married “singles” (who make up about 20% of the adult church) are treated and counseled by both membership and leadership, at the local level all the way to the top. The pervasive church message that single adults are “just biding our time until we get married, and that’s when our ‘real’ lives will begin” (78) is devastating to unmarried Mormons in their 20s, 30s, and beyond as they spend precious years and even decades in this “waiting” phase, wondering what their purpose is and making major life decisions (career, education, travel, geographic relocation) based on an anxious calculus of what is most likely to lead to marriage. Many single women in the church move to Utah or stay there long after their college education because they believe, or are told, that the dating pool is better there. Consider, though, that while there are more never-married Mormon men than women nationally, “[i]n Utah, never-married women who were active in the church outnumbered their male counterparts by more than two to one” (77), challenging conventional wisdom for single women to flock to Utah for marriage prospects within the faith.

In terms of marital status and disaffiliation: “Statistically, single people are more likely to leave Mormonism or become inactive than married people” (81). Both research and personal experience suggest that single people leave because they don’t feel like they have a place in Mormonism. This goes beyond any general social sense of feeling different or marginalized, damaging as that is in itself. It even goes beyond the insulting infantilization of young single adults (see p. 88). Single members are made to feel that they genuinely don’t matter as much in the church and, further, that their entire lives are inferior—an unhappy prelude to a more joyous, realized life with spouse and children, which we’re told in the church is our raison d’être. As one woman shared in her interview, “I was facing a life of not ever having love or companionship or sex or children. … I just knew that I couldn’t stay [in the church]. I did not agree with the expectation that if I was single, I had missed the boat” (78). There is so much more I could say about this topic, but I’ll leave it at this for now: This chapter is SO IMPORTANT for all Mormons to read and discuss. It’s not just about asking a few single people to “be patient” or “wait for eternal blessings”; Riess’s research indicates that this is a big enough phenomenon that Mormonism needs to seriously reconsider how we talk about families and what it means to live a happy, full life if we’re to make room at the table for the rising generation.

And honestly, that’s kind of the takeaway of the entire book. The famed “The Family” is getting in the way of, you know, actual families. We’re facing big changes in how Americans (including American Mormons) approach family life. Think, for example, of the shrinking size of Mormon families (which is both reported in this book and highlighted in a recent Religion News Service post by Riess). Neither Riess nor I would characterize this as a “decline” in American family values or a sign of national moral failing (at least not for the reasons lamented by traditionalists), but a basic social and economic reality having to do with deferred marriage timelines, changing notions of work and career expectations, stagnant wages, decreased access to homeownership, the list goes on. All of this is paired with a more capacious definition of what “family” is to Millennials (especially unmarried ones), including extended family, church congregants, colleagues, neighbors, and friends—and we want to invite all these people to our weddings, by the way (see p. 57).

Instead of clinging to its post-WWII branding and commitment to the “ideal” nuclear family, the church has an opportunity to do what it did back then and respond to the cultural realities of its members at this crucial time in American and religious history. I suggest reading The Next Mormons regardless of your family situation or views, as it offers valuable insight for members, leaders, and researchers of the LDS faith community looking to the future.

Jana Riess. The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 328 pp. Hardcover: $29.95.

* * *

[1] The survey was available from September 8 to November 1, 2016, with the majority of responses collected in September (p. 238). Given that this was prior to the results of the 2016 presidential election, I would wager that some of the generational differences Riess observes have only widened in the intervening two-and-a-half years.

[2] It was brought to my attention by my wonderful mother that it’s unclear in this section if “singles” includes widows/widowers and those who have divorced. A great deal of the research presented in Next Mormons seems to be about never-married Mormons, and that’s the group I’m primarily talking about in these paragraphs. But yes, we need much more research, analysis, and insight about and from other currently-unmarried/single Mormons as well because they are so important to the community and to this discussion.

Comments

  1. Jeff Stewart says:

    REALLY smart review. Thank you!

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the review. I loved the book. Jana gave a great presentation based on findings from the book at the recent Mormon history Association conference in SLC.

  3. Happy Hubby says:

    I am sure this book will be referenced for decades, even if there are other follow-up books by Riess or others. I have already read this once a few chapters twice. Your review was very good and bought out a few interesting thoughts.

  4. Bryan Westover says:

    Fascinating research. I love to learn about individual beliefs and social trends but I tend to get hung up on the intricacies of surveys. For example the question “is God real?” relies on the definitions of both “God” and “real.” As people will answer based on their personal or perceived definitions I see answers as only indicating a level of personal confidence – without a good indication of what that confidence is actually in. Limitations aside I do appreciate the research and review.

  5. I’m anxious to read this book and see more of the details of the data and interpretation. I’m glad Riess has approached this seriously, including, it sounds like, looking carefully at sample quality (I see Yelpification as a huge problem with any online survey today, unless there are serious efforts to ensure the “silent middle” is reached).

    Just from the flyover of some surprising results and trends noted in the review, I have to wonder if we’re in danger of heading down the path the Community of Christ has taken–or at least toward conflict between that path and the more traditional path our leaders are walking. Gradually, but in a relatively short time (mostly, in about the last 25 years), the C of C has abandoned any serious truth claim and any serious claim to revealed direction, becoming essentially Presbyterians who include the B of M in their pews.

    I know some in the Church would welcome the C of C’s highly democratic process of setting doctrine and policy via representative legislation. And, I feel many of the frustrations that come from the inherent tension between our emphasis on authority from a real God and our strongly valuing personal revelation–especially in an era of rapid social change.

    But, who are we if our leaders in fact have no authority, or if there is no revelation beyond individual spirituality? What then does the Church have that we can’t get from the Presbyterians or Episcopalians or even the Unitarians?

  6. Margaret Blair Young says:

    Such an important book! As I was getting dressed this morning, I had the thought that I am in a generation of Mormons which will be the last who follow particular standards, such as abstinence from coffee. Jana’s research has influenced that idea and others.

  7. The Word of Wisdom results interested me. A higher number of active LDS use alcohol than I would have guessed. Also Gen X was closer to Millennials than to the Boomers in most results which also surprises me. The book seems to point the direction that the average LDS churchgoer is headed. I recommended the book to my stake president but he blew it off.

  8. I love the idea of remaking ourselves based on a more expansive vision of “family”

  9. Aussie Mormon says:

    Bryan, It’s all well and good to discuss semantics of who/what God is in a belief sense, but the survey results also show some members outright denying the possibility of some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. For example in relation to the statement “Jesus Christ was literally resurrected from the dead”, 4% of millennials said they are “confident and know” that the statement “is not true”[1].

    The other issue is that the book is based on data from USA members. It’d be interesting to see the results on a country by country basis too. Unfortunately that will require a new survey.

    [1] https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2019/02/25/coffee-gay-issues/

  10. Ryan Mullen says:

    Aussie Mormon,

    For me (a millennial Mormon), “literally” makes that statement difficult to parse. When no one can explain the (meta)physics about how a spirit enters a body at birth, leaves a body at death, or re-enters a body upon resurrection, I have a hard time knowing what a “literal” resurrection means. I suspect the author of that statement wanted to convey that the resurrected Jesus had a physical body without getting into any of the specifics that such a claim entails. Did Jesus’ resurrected cells respire? Undergo mitosis? Have telomeres? Could Jesus have been literally resurrected but not have been physically present during his post-crucifixion appearances? Why, or why not? Since the ancient witnesses of the resurrection share little of a modern, scientific worldview, I don’t really consider them reliable witnesses when trying to answer these types of questions.

    For the statement “Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead” I would easily mark “I am confident and know this true”. But for “Jesus Christ was *literally* resurrected from the dead”, I could have marked any of the five possible responses to this question with complete sincerity.

  11. Such a great review. Thank you for putting in the time and work to write this.

  12. Such a great review. Thank you for putting in the time and work to write this.

  13. The Church is changing rapidly. I think the changes President Nelson are implementing are crucial for the Church’s survival. It won’t be long until millennials and younger will become the majority in the Church. If the Church is slow to adopt changes, they may quickly become irrelevant. I am excited about recent changes and look forward to more changes. I can’t wait to see what the new youth program is going to be, what changes to the hymnbook will be, or other new surprises the Church has in store for us. I am glad that they seem to be more proactive in asking for feedback and I hope we can respond accordingly.

  14. shysaint says:

    Reflecting on the higher number of single adults who leave the church, it seems to me that they are freer to act on the conclusions of their own lives when they’re unencumbered by the expectations and, in effect, salvation obligations of someone else.

    Did Reiss’ work isolate whether there was a difference in the actual level of their belief and commitment in relation to whether or not they left the church? Was there any data concerning who may remain in the church primarily out of family complications as opposed to their personal level of conviction? There may be landmines still to explode along with the attendant chaos to families and I hope her work was able to shed some light on that.

    It’s a personal observation, but, as a Boomer, I think the void of leadership has been a real phenomenon and not an interpretation for a significant time. Mere declarations and changes don’t constitute leadership. To an important extent, recent changes have struck me as more “followership” than leadership. I’m all for many of the changes but it’s hard to ignore that the membership has carved out a lot more of this real estate in response to their personal revelation and it’s only now that the inevitable has overcome the stasis, that “leaders” have been willing to take a position.

    I am also interested in what Reiss’ findings on what the transparency (or lack thereof) of the church has been that provokes the various generations. The church’s financial opacity is certainly a big problem. But then so is who is calling the shots. Too many times it was the Newsroom and not the Fifteen who waded into the various crises during the Ordain Women years. I hope you’ll do future discussion of Reiss’ work in this particular area.

  15. I’m frustrated by a belief out there that the Church needs to continue to grow at a certain pace to remain relevant – I don’t feel that must necessarily be.

    I also believe that we may need to define a different standard for Church activity. Even the Church decides that it’s attend one meeting a month or a quarter – we might need to redefine in terms of actual activity (endowment, active recommend, tithing status, etc.)

  16. salty tribune says:

    Desgusting book write by un faith trash that knows nothing of generation z we hate you millianl weaklings