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Who’s not watching Mormon General Conference

A guest post by Benjamin Knoll

In a recent RadioWest episode, Doug Fabrizio interviewed Jana Riess about the “Next Mormons Survey” that she and I designed and fielded in the fall of 2016. Jana noted that the results showed that less than half of Mormon Millennials watched General Conference in the last six months.

Age undoubtedly makes a difference, but what about gender, education, race/ethnicity, or other important demographic factors? Using the “Next Mormons Survey” we are able to dig deeper into patterns of viewership of LDS General Conference.

Using a statistical tool called a “multivariate regression analysis,” we can identify the unique effect of each of these factors on General Conference viewership among our survey respondents, controlling for each of the other factors. Here we analyzed age, gender, race, education, income, political partisanship, geography, and activity level in the Church.

The analysis showed that those with higher levels of income are no more or less likely to report watching Conference than those with lower levels of income after controlling for other demographic factors. These factors, however, made a difference: [FN1]

This graph shows the likelihood of each demographic group reporting that they viewed General Conference in the last six months, statistically controlling for each other variable described above.*

Age: We continue to see a clear difference between older and younger active Mormons when it comes to General Conference viewership. Millennials and GenXers are about 48% and 51% likely to watch General Conference, respectively, compared to 63% for their older counterparts. Perhaps this is because there has never been a wider gap between the average age of Mormon General Authorities and rank-and-file members as there is right now. Younger Mormons may have a more difficult time relating to the speakers who are two to three times their age.

Some of the largest differences, though, are found in terms of church activity, geography, and education:

  • Activity: As we would expect, those who say they are active or somewhat active in the Church are 45% more likely to report watching Conference than those who report being less active or inactive.
  • Location: Those that live in the “Jello Belt” (AZ, CO, ID, MT, NV, NM, UT, WY) are 21% more likely to say that they watched General Conference than those who live elsewhere in the U.S. In communities with high concentrations of Mormons, there perhaps is a stronger community and peer influence to watch Conference. (Also, who wants their neighbors to catch them shopping at the grocery store during the Saturday sessions?)
  • Education: Those with college degrees are 19% more likely to watch General Conference than those with a high school education. This corresponds to other research showing that education is related to higher levels of church attendance in the United States.
  • Race: Race also makes a difference. U.S. Mormons who identify as white are 12% more likely than active Mormons who identify as non-white to have watched General Conference. This may be because non-white Mormons do not often find themselves reflected in the racial/ethnic identity of most General Conference speakers.
  • Politics: Republicans are about 11% more likely to watch General Conference than Democrats among Mormons in the U.S. This is not surprising given the strong emphasis of political and theological conservatism that characterizes contemporary Mormon discourse, especially from General Authorities. When General Conference is full of denunciations of same-sex marriage, warnings about the loss of “religious liberty” in society, and grim statements about the overall condition of the world, it could be hard for many political liberals to feel appreciated and understood by their religious leaders.
  • Gender: Gender also makes a small difference. Women are about 5% more likely to report watching General Conference than men. The fact that the vast majority of Conference speakers are men, then, does not seem to be alienating to Mormon women in terms of Conference viewership.

In sum:

  • Younger Mormons are less likely to make the effort to watch General Conference than older Mormons.
  • The biggest effects, though, relate to activity level, having more education, and living in Mormon communities.
  • The “profile” of the typical Mormon General Conference viewer is a church-going, older, white, college-educated Republican living in Utah—not surprisingly the exact type of person most likely to be seen on the television screen during Conference sessions.

Benjamin Knoll is is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Kentucky and the co-author of the forthcoming book “She Preached the Word”: A Fresh Perspective on Women’s Ordination in American Congregations (Oxford).

 

Note: In more technical terms, every other factor in the multivariate logistic regression model achieves levels of statistical significance at p<0.05, with gender being significant at p<0.10. The model was estimated using robust standard errors to account for the presence of heteroskedasticity in the estimation.


Other findings from the Next Mormons Survey:

Mormons, Trump and McMullin: A 2016 postmortem by the numbers

Hello! Most Mormons actually do drink caffeinated soda


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

18 Comments

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  • I’m a non Mormon. I watch G.C. and have turned it into a drinking game. Every time an apostle tears up or says obedience I drink. I usually need a nap before the afternoon sessions.

  • GC, APR & OCT both are boring. It’s like the GAs have a deck of cards with the topics that are shuffled and dealt every 6 months. Same sermon topics, different sermonizer each conference. You can stomach Families are Forever, etc, just so many times.

  • The author’s conclusions may reflect what he wants the data to say more than what it does say. I find it a questionable analysis when most data points are followed by “this may be because … Don’t feel represented by the speakers.”. 0 evidence is presented to support those statements, however.

    Even the summary ignores the data points, like gender, that don’t support the desired conclusion. Dig deeper, and try to understand the cause. And if you can’t find the cause, then don’t speculate.

    After all, you’d think I was nuts if I said that the profile of your average general conference watcher is someone who might be married to the average speaker….. 🙂

  • How in the world could an article this biased pass peer scrutiny? Every one of these stats has an explanation more plausible than what the author’s biased view suggests:

    Age – author says young adults not watching conference is due to them not feeling like they can relate to the speakers — or maybe it is simply that young adults spend less time in front of the television than older people, especially when it comes to religious programming. They are more likely out doing other stuff, like working weekend jobs, or playing weekend sports.

    Location – author says more Mountain time zone members watch conference than others because of peer pressure. — Or maybe it is because it is easier to watch conference because it is broadcast on normal TV in those places and airs at times that are more convenient than other time zones.

    Race — again author bias comes through saying more whites watch conference than non-whites because they can’t relate to speakers — but maybe that is because non-white active mormons are less well-off and have less convenient access to watch conference (less likely to be able to watch it on cable TV, satelite or the internet) or are located in time zones where it is less convenient — or they are first – generation members and have not yet built up a tradition of watching conference.

    Politics — again, author says democrats less likely to watch than republicans because conference messages are conservative — Or maybe its because more democrats fit into one of the other categories above and so the other reasons noted above apply.

    Gender — for this stat, the author’s general bias that viewers have trouble relating to general authorities is rejected by the stat, so the author provides no explanation. — Or maybe this stat is consistent with the others and just shows that women are more likely to have a convenient option and ability to watch conference compared to men who are more likely to be out engaged in other activities on the weekend like work, or sports or whatever, or are generally just less likely than women to attend a conference of any kind.

  • I was thinking the same thing. It is called Confirmation Bias:

    “Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis. As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/confirmation_bias.htm

  • I also find it funny that the page referenced where they state “This may be because non-white Mormons do not often find themselves reflected in the racial/ethnic identity of most General Conference speakers.” is one of their own articles.

  • Generally good points, but I will point out that your first possible explanation for race may be rejected right away, since there was no difference in viewership based on income. I will also note that another possible explanation is that many non-white Mormons do not speak English as a first language, and so it is either more difficult to get conference in their language or they simply find live translations unappealing and difficult to listen to (they often are).

  • The comment, “The fact that the vast majority of Conference speakers are men, then, does not seem to be alienating to Mormon women in terms of Conference viewership,” in my case is not true. I would LOVE to hear from more women. I get tired of looking at everything through the male lens, but I have no choice. Growing up, all I ever heard during conference were male voices. Now, they might allow one or two women to speak, but female voices are rare. The narrative in the 4 standard works is male. The narrative during Relief Society with the prophet series is/was male, and the voices at conference are overwhelming male. Had I a choice, 50-50 would be good for me, and i would be so much happier to tune in to conference, but who speaks is dictated by the male hierarchy, and I have no choice but to deal with the overwhelmingly male Mormon world.

  • What surprises me is that the study was VERY well done. Their methodology did a great deal to avoid confirmation bias. Furthermore, Jana and others have done a great job on several articles about the results. They were very open to showcasing instances where the data did not support assumptions they had long made in their blogs. I have been very impressed by the way this survey has been used so far.
    With that as background, I simply found this article lacking. The most disappointing part for me is that Mr. Knoll knows better. Jana was wise enough to bring an expert in to help craft this survey in a way that would ensure its integrity. And yet, to my surprise, it is that expert, and not the numerous bloggers, who has chosen to supplement the data with baseless commentary rather than educated analysis.

  • I think the Church should actually bottle General Conference as a dure fire way to eliminate insomnia. Take 10 minutes of confrence and you are sure to sleep very well for the next 3 hours. The Church could add to its riches.

  • Worst statistical analysis ever. There is so much of the author’s own bias in this article that it doesn’t even make it credible. When you blame non-whites for not watching because you claimed their own ethnicities are not represented, you could not be more wrong. Clearly, this person has never watch conference and seen men and women struggle to deliver their talks in English. When you say that Democrats are less likely to watch because of all the anti-gay biases, you are editorializing. The stats might be correct, but the analysis is way off base and is everything that is wrong with higher education today…..

  • What about marital status? How many single never married LDS members do you know who just love being reminded twice a year how much they’ve failed in creating the ideal eternal family? When was the last time a GC talk was directed at these “leftovers?” About thirty years ago to be presice.

  • As an LDS living in Utah but not native to Utah, the idea that anyone (to any significant degree) cares about whether anyone sees them shopping on Saturday instead of watching a Saturday session is preposterous. No significant number of people care about whether their neighbors watch conference on Saturday.

    And in today’s day and age, tracking live viewership may not be that meaningful because conference sessions are available to stream on the internet almost immediately and many people may choose to take care of weekend errands and chores during the day and stream the sessions at a later time or date. Or just read them in the church magazine or online later on. Access to conference today is more than just the live broadcasts.

  • This survey is deeply flawed.

    Please note that this survey samples “self-identified” mormons which is comprised of only the remaining actual attending mormons that still affiliate, estimated to be less than 2.2M people, and not the 6.6M
    people claimed as members by the mormon church. If you include the mormons long gone, the excerpt would read:

    “Here we see that less than 17% of American Mormons are strong believers in the doctrines of their religion. Another about 11% are generally consistent believers. But almost 72% have at least a moderate degree of doubt about their church’s teachings or have left the faith altogether. This is 7 of every 10 American Mormons.”

    This is easily confirmed by a common-sense estimate of the number of participating members by working backwards from congregation calculations. The LDS Church says it has 14,225 congregations in the US, made up of about 2,037 small branches and the balance called “wards”. By simply calculating from typical attendance figures it is easy to figure out how many people are participating. Across the USA it would be typical to see about 175 regular attendees in a “ward” and perhaps 45 in a “branch” (with some variations plus and minus depending on location) but the total then yielding about 2.2M. It is arguable that the number could be larger by some margin but in no way could it be off by a factor of 3, with over 600 people attending each week — largely in buildings that cannot even seat 400 people.

    By any rational measure, independent or otherwise, the LDS church has failed miserably to even retain its own membership, let alone successfully, attract and retain new converts.

  • During the times of Christ and his apostles Anon would have just walked away being bored with the male hierarchy. As a disciple she would no more walk with a testimony of the truth. (John 6:66)

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