Millennial Mormons and the polarized future of the faith

The Next Mormons (Oxford University Press, March 2019)

The research I've been working on for the last three years is now a book: The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church, which released a few days ago from Oxford University Press. Hooray! I'm very proud of the book and grateful to all the people who helped to make it happen.

(And before I forget, my publicist wants me to tell you that I'm doing two book talks/signings this week while I am in Utah:

  • Tuesday, March 5 at 5:30, Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City (talk begins at 6)
  • Thursday, March 7 at 7:00 at Writ and Vision bookstore in downtown Provo)

What has become clear in the course of this research is how much more research needs to be done, and how many questions Ben and I still have about Mormons and former Mormons. So this book is not the end, not by a long shot.

What is also clear, already, is how polarizing this research is. Just as an example, this morning when I added the above link to Amazon I saw that four early bird readers posted reviews over the weekend (thank you, readers, for taking the time to do this, however you felt about the book).

Two gave it five stars, and two gave it one star. Nothing at all in the middle.

The reviews seem to be falling into camps. A reviewer who identifies herself as Lesa says that, as a Millennial, the research "helped highlight a lot of things I have felt but was unable to easily articulate." She gave it five stars.

Another, much longer, one-star review written by an anonymous person who is a social scientist claims that "the data is encrusted in unmasked bias" and calls into question whether it was really peer-reviewed by a university press. (It was.) In particular, the reviewer criticizes:

the bar for scholarly is reached by checking all the right social justice boxes (i.e., criticizing Christians, Whites, males, and straight people while making victims of people of color, females, and the LGBTQ community), and the peer-reviewers are all harmonizing in the echo chamber of liberal academia . . .

Five stars, one star. And in both cases, the reviewer's own social location seems to play a part in the reaction. A Millennial woman seems to be suggesting that many of the book's findings about generational change in the Church have resonated with her personal experience, something I've also seen in early reviews on social media.

And I'm going to go out on a limb here and hazard a guess about the other review. The social scientist reveals no personal details, but let's just say I would indeed be surprised if it turns out to have been written by a black lesbian woman. The privilege of being a white straight male Christian is that you get to assume your opinions and experiences are normative for everybody else, and you don't need to reveal anything about your own potential biases.

I could be absolutely wrong in this assumption, but it would fit a general pattern I've been seeing with this research. It has been polarizing, to say the least. And it's not just conservative Mormons who have reacted with some opposition; it's liberals too.

What conservatives find upsetting about the research findings are, for example, that more young adults are leaving the church, or that a majority of those who remain are at least somewhat troubled by women's lack of leadership. Conservative Saints are also worried that Millennials aren't keeping the Word of Wisdom or attending church as regularly as they would like to see.

What liberals find upsetting and surprising is that a majority of church members support the 2015 LGBT policy that prohibits children of same-sex couples from getting baptized — and that a majority either "know" or "believe" that the priesthood/temple ban that was in place until 1978 was God's will. (And that this includes Latter-day Saints of color.)

There are some points of agreement in early reactions, as I've seen in giving talks about the research for the last year and a half. For example, both liberals and conservatives are thrilled that so many more women in the Millennial generation have served a mission than older Mormon women did. This is great news all around! Predictably, though, the reasons for their excitement differ: conservatives are keen on spreading the gospel as efficiently as possible, and liberals are interested in promoting female leadership and visibility.

So, polarization. What's particularly interesting to me is how the very early reactions to the book mirror the polarization I see happening in the Mormon world more generally, as people separate themselves into camps and police their boundaries. The one-star Amazon reviewer is certainly correct that the threat of "echo chambers" is very real, not just in academia but in the Church itself. In fact, I talk about this in the conclusion of the book:

. . . if I were to offer a prognostication, it would be that in the next few years at least, the polarization I am seeing within Mormonism will continue, in which those who remain in the LDS Church will be ardent believers but those who don’t fit in, which includes many young adults, will pull up stakes and leave.

What should worry LDS leaders is not simply that the Church will lose ground numerically—though for any institution of course that is a valid concern—but that it will become an echo chamber of its own making, a dogged remnant whose followers retreat to their own safe subculture. How the Church chooses to finesse the social shifts we saw in Part Two of this book—specifically, those regarding marriage, gender, racial diversity, and LGBT issues—will signal which trajectory it is going to follow. Will it become an entrenched, embattled subculture, or will it accommodate its message in order to retain cultural relevancy? As of this writing, both avenues seem plausible . . .

The challenge that remains — for me as a researcher and for all members of the Church as we think about best practices for the future — is how to move beyond polarization to genuine listening and community.



  1. “…how to move beyond polarization to genuine listening and community.”

    Thank you for what you do. It helps not just Mormons, but many of us in different religions who are struggling with the same “divides” within our own faith communities. I pray we learn from each other.

  2. “the bar for scholarly is reached by checking all the right social justice boxes (i.e., criticizing Christians, Whites, males, and straight people while making victims of people of color, females, and the LGBTQ community), and the peer-reviewers are all harmonizing in the echo chamber of liberal academia . . .
    Social justice. Liberal academia. Your critic is certainly checking off HIS boxes, isn’t he? Sounds like an authoritarian, religious, quite possibly abusive (but ion a nice sort of a way) HETEROSEXUAL WHITE MALE. As you note, he is speaking from his position of privilege. From his point of view, he is speaking from the top of a mountain. For those of us he disparages, he is simply standing on his head at the bottom of a well.

  3. There doesn’t need to be a disconnect between “ardent believers” and “genuine listening and community.” Ardent believers who are actually charitable shouldn’t have a problem with this. Becoming pharisaical doesn’t help anyone.

  4. Ok, I’m persuaded. I’ll give you 3 stars [GRIN]

    Not really, of course. I think you’ve done a marvelous job getting data that is very difficult to get. I doubt your critics could get better data.

  5. It’s not surprising that current Mormons are more socially conservative, liberals like me have been leaving in droves.

  6. You wrote an article to review your handful of reviews. Isn’t that a tad narcissistic? You offered praise and positive reinforcement for the reviewers who liked your book but then denounced Mr. Negative Review with the suggestion that he is – well – white, straight and male. Yeah, how could he have a valid opinion? Who cares about that demographic?

    “The privilege of being a white straight male Christian is that you get to assume your opinions and experiences are normative for everybody else, and you don’t need to reveal anything about your own potential biases.”

    Even when you unpack the PC, that’s just candy-coated ad hominem. His opinion may have been annoyingly reductive, but your response was not better. It was just predictably petty while pretending to be something more.

    Every time I Google news the Church, and many times I don’t, I get the Religion News Service, which turns out to be you, dressed up as a scholar, feigning objectivity but clearly with an activist’s agenda. I’m not saying you don’t have the right to grab a megaphone and express your opinions, predilections, druthers or convictions. If Martin Luther could, so can you. But my experiences with the clickbait of the RNS, in its exclusive focus on how the LDS Church isn’t progressive enough for Millennials, leads me to suspect that this is a sham.

    The LDS Church has made certain, specific historical and doctrinal claims – which are either right or wrong. If they’re right, this activist prodding for it to be more “culturally relevant” is misguided. The point of having a church led by “prophets” is that it’s not up to the loudest voice or the most skillful jouster of digital media.

    And if it’s not – if it’s just a sham cooked up by Joseph Smith, and twisted further by Brigham Young and generations upon generations of patriarchal gatekeepers – what’s the point? Why waste your time trying to sculpt a religion you can’t control? Are you drowning in Mormon friends and relatives who would miss you if you didn’t stay the course? Are you tugging at the faith in an effort to get it to be more mainstream and “culturally relevant” so you can wear the chain with greater comfort?

    I’ve been a convert for 37 years. In that time, I’ve seen people leave the Church. I’ve seen people stay and defend it to their dying breath. I’ve seen people stay but pray for progress. I’ve also seen the gadflies who sting it again and again – hoping to prod it to move faster in the direction they’re seeking. Again and again, they end up excommunicated, complaining that the process just wasn’t fair. Cue the violins.

    Do what you want. I, too, tire of the wingnuts who reductively (and lazily) dismiss whatever doesn’t fall within the narrow parameters of what they expect the LDS Church to be – an opinion that must seem endlessly frustrating as the LDS Church keeps moving away from their cherished hobby horses. But did that merit an article – written soon after a book release – critiquing a handful of reviews, particularly critiquing the one bad review you got?

    Aren’t you better than this?

  7. Give me a break. Go into any ward or stake. You’ll find narrow-minded prigs whose convictions are so strong they feel no need to justify or explain how they got there. These prigs come in various shapes and sizes. Some are female. Some come from the non-white sections of the color wheel. Have you never met anybody who was opinionated who wasn’t white, male or heterosexual? When you dismiss somebody because of their background – rather than their tone, their facts and/or their ability to jump to easy conclusions – how are you approaching the problem any better? Isn’t this just the same emotive grunting in reverse?

  8. I don’t know if “current Mormons are more socially conservative.” It seems like certain wings of the Church forged alliances with conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics and then set the Church on a path of championing opposition to gay marriage, including the Prop 8 fight. The cost of waging a culture war was to pick a fight with groups who would fight back, using the means at their disposal. The Mormon Moment slid into an era of viciously bad press, including Big Love, gratuitous insults in movies, and The Book of Mormon musical. Even without the internet, the Church’s public image was as effectively handled as MoviePass.

  9. The LDS Church fell into apostasy when they abandoned plural marriage in order to appease the gentiles. Ever since that fateful day they have made one compromise after another, until they no longer even resemble their faith. I have no doubt that they will go all in on LGBTeverythingbutP in short order. It is who they are, and what they do.

  10. Are you in a contest with another poster to see how many left wing buzz phrases you can cram into a singular post? If so I think you just won by a landslide.

  11. Were it not for double standards, he’d have none at all.

  12. Be sure to contact your local missionaries if you need any help packing.

  13. I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Whose double standards? Mine? If so, how?

  14. Just quoting the article, dearie. Maybe you should read it.

  15. No, he is referring to me. Double standards is hyper conservative Christian speak for daring to disagree.

  16. Ooo, snarky.
    You can take the TribLib out of the LibTrib, but you can’t take the LibTrib out of the TribLib.

  17. Wow, Jana. Looks like you’ve touched a nerve … or several! Way to go, you! Good teachers know that when one is thrown into cognitive dissonance — the condition of considering new information that conflicts with long- or deeply-held beliefs — new neural pathways can form. For learning to happen, one must consider new information carefully, then determine if the new information is right, the old beliefs are right, or if some synthesis of the two are the way forward. So if people are responding as if threatened, maybe they are refusing to learn, or just maybe they are considering the impact of new information! Some of them might just change their views to be more broad as a result of your book. Isn’t that wonderful?

  18. “The privilege of being a white straight male Christian is that you get
    to assume your opinions and experiences are normative for everybody
    else, and you don’t need to reveal anything about your own potential
    biases.” supports the conclusion the one star reviewer was correct.

    It is a common problem in research; the researcher begins unconsciously with the conclusion she or he wishes to reach, and then the “results” magically support that conclusion.

  19. Read your correspondent for awhile and you’ll find you don’t know the half of it.

  20. “Hyper conservative Christian” is code for “I live in the Bay Area and walk on the other side of the street.”

  21. No, it is more than a tad narcissistic.

    Individuals who are in love with a proposition make lousy researchers.

  22. “Church on a path of championing opposition to gay marriage, including the Prop 8 fight” seems to describe adhering to the Scriptures as written, not “culture war”.

  23. Either right or wrong? Not quite. The right doctrine are subject to the prophet’s revelation that those doctrines were only a partial revelation, but now the prophet has the whole revelation. Thus practice and belief change. Case in point: Afro-Americans and Africans.

  24. No church has the right to dictate that the state enforce their beliefs. Or to force their beliefs on others who will be harmed by those beliefs. Where does your scripture say the church should dictate its beliefs to a pluralistic state, with a constitution that never mentions God, and where a majority do not share those beliefs?

  25. Jana … step back from the computer. Go on a nice long walk. Enjoy nature. There will be more diverse opinions of what you have to say (especially a topic as controversial as how the youth are changing a religion) than you can imagine, and frankly most of them are moot. If your book stands the test of time … there will be your vindication.

  26. Uh. Warren Jeffs? Hey you crazy old nutjob… I didn’t know they let you post on forums like this when you’re in prison. Or did they let you out?

  27. Disregarding the inflammatory non-communicative “dictate” and “enforce their beliefs”, every citizen and organization has the right to advocate for laws which they consider just or conducive to a good society.

    Since those laws can only be enacted through a democratic process, the “a majority do not share … beliefs” can be dispensed with as completely meaningless.

    Few atheists object to laws against stealing and murder, so your real objection is to their position and not to any supposed influence of a belief in God, and you’re simply using “pluralistic state” as a shield to hide your anti-democratic position behind.

  28. I’m sure that sounded profound in your head, as you pecked out that post with your index finger.

  29. That’s an extreme mischaracterization of what took place.

  30. Cool, thanks.
    I will in turn leave you with yours, which no doubt include Rosie Palm and her five sisters.

  31. Apparently you don’t recall what you posted earlier today.

  32. I posted a lot of things earlier today. To which do you refer?

  33. Yes I recall that post. Although I see now that your jab was aimed at Ben in Oakland, and agree that he is a toolbox.

  34. What Mormons teach about the birth of a handicapped Child and minorities especially in third world countries

    “This privilege of obtaining a mortal body on this earth is seemingly so priceless that those in the spirit world, even though unfaithful or not valient, were undoubtedly permitted to take mortal bodies although under penalty of racial or physical or nationalistic limitations….” (Decisions for Successful Living pp 164-165) TLDP: 497- Harold B. Lee

    “There is no truth more plainly taught in the Gospel than that our condition in the next world will depend upon the kind of lives we live here. …Is it not just as reasonable to suppose that the conditions in which we now live have been determined by the kind of lives we lived in the pre-existent world of spirits? That the apostles understood this principle is indicated by their question to the Master when the man who was blind from his birth was healed of his blindness, ‘Master, who did sin, this man or his parents that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2.) Now perhaps you will have a partial answer to some of your questions as to why, if God is a just Father, that some of his children are born of an enlightened race and in a time when the Gospel is upon the earth, while others are born of a heathen parentage in a benighted, backward country; and still others are born to parents who have the mark of a black skin with which the seed of Cain were cursed and whose descendants were to be denied the rights of the priesthood of God”

    (Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living, pp. 164-165).

  35. You know, the usual – Old Testament, New Testament, like that.

  36. Unfortunately he seems to run around with his tool in his hand.

  37. Perhaps she had a deadline and little inspiration, so this is what got cranked out.

  38. “heathen parentage in a benighted, backward country” = shithole country

    “born to parents who have the mark of a black skin with which the seed of Cain were cursed and whose descendants were to be denied the rights of the priesthood of God”
    This from the man who said that he received the revelation granting Blacks the priesthood, making a statement as true, that the LDS Church has since repudiated as false.

  39. Mark, I don’t think I’ve really engaged with you until now. I see your comments. You and Sandi seem to be of a pair. But “walk on the other side of the street”, is a nasty barb. Why don’t you shed the attempts at urbanity and just say what you really mean, Ben is a fa$$ot. That’s what you really meant, yeah? You wanna call Ben stupid, etc., have at it. But you start dropping N-words, and slurring people for their immutable traits, then prepare to get it back.

    I’m former active-dute airborne infantry and flaming hetero. Probably overcompensation because of bullying in high school. Not embarrassed to admit it. My wife probably wishes I would walk a little more to the other side and give her more space. And no, I’m not repressed. But somebody who was very close to me was gay and he was one of the sweetest gentlest people I’ve ever met, and he was abused for his gayness.

    Ben doesn’t need me to defend him, really. I’ll bet he’s heard much worse. I just don’t like your tone.

  40. B,
    Although it appears you are a prolific commenter, I don’t recall having seen you much on Jana’s posts. Are you a believer/member of a polygamous branch of Mormonism?

  41. Russia arrested two LDS missionaries.

  42. Actually Jesus went to hell for three days and the thief went to Paradise, The Bible says Paradise is in the third heaven or where God dwells:

    1st Heaven is Rakia to a Jew it is the atmospheric heaven found in Jer 8:7, 10:13
    Isa 55:10. it is were the birds fly clouds, made on 2nd day

    2nd heaven shamayim to a Jew it is the starry heaven found in Jer 44:17,25; Psalm 8:3

    3rd heaven shemi Hashamayim it is the heaven where God dwells found in 1 Kings 8:27, Deut. 26:15, 2 Chron 6:33 Eccl. 5:2

    This passage below says Paradise is in the third heaven

    2 Corth 12:

    1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

    Rev 2:6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate. 7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

    REV 22: 13 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. 14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

  43. Jana, I don’t see how the church can avoid continued polarization: its very structure — patriarchal, hierarchical, gerontological — with undue weight given to seniority in quorum decision-making— works against inclusivity. Social and political conservatives will continue to circle the wagons tighter and tighter until they have squeezed out any and all who disagree with their loveless views… and that includes Jesus, whom they claim to serve, and whose name appears in bigger and bigger letters on marquees and stationery, but whose guidance seems sorely lacking.

  44. Mormons teach there god was a fallen, exalted, saved, finite man like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

    “The Gods who dwell in the Heaven…have been redeemed from the grave in a world which existed before the foundations of this earth were laid. They and the Heavenly body which they now inhabit were once in a fallen state….they were exalted also, from fallen men to Celestial Gods to inhabit their Heaven forever and ever.” (Apostle Orson Pratt in The Seer, page 23)

    Would you think fallen means sinner In the 1844 LDS publication, Times and Seasons, volume 5, pages 613-614,… Joseph Smith reiterated that God was an exalted man and that Mormon men could also become Gods. This teaching is well documented, as is their claim that God is not a spirit being, but that he has a body of flesh and bone.

    “God is a perfected, saved soul enjoying eternal life.” (Second Counselor in the First Presidency, Marion G. Romney, as per Salt Lake Tribune, April 3, 1977.)

    It appears ridiculous to the world, under their darkened and erroneous traditions, that God has once been a finite being; and yet we are not in such close communion with him as many have supposed. He has passed on, and is exalted far beyond what we can now comprehend. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 334

    “The Father is a glorified, perfected, resurrected, exalted man who worked out his salvation by obedience to the same laws he has given to us so that we may do the same.” (Apostle Bruce McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 64).

    Doctrine and Covenant’s 132:
    20: 20 Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.
    37 Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.

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