A Response to Jana Riess’s “The Next Mormons”: The Importance of Disentangling Data and Argument

 Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.

Note:  A special thanks to Jana Riess for her willingness to correspond and share thoughtful responses to a number of questions during an especially busy time for her. Given the seriousness of claims made in her lengthy book, an adequate review and response also requires sufficient space (trigger warning to long-read-haters!)  

In 2002, word circulated that an in-depth PBS Documentary would be coming out focused on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a new doctoral student, I got excited that such a high-quality doc would be available – and on a network known for fair-minded reporting.

Thinking it would be a great way to let people know who we really are, I sent out a note to classmates and professors to be watching out for it. As soon as the film aired, however, something became quickly apparent. From the dark images of Joseph Smith set to spooky music, to the scene of primary children clearly intended to convey brainwashing, it became obvious that this film was less about representing us, than someone else’s story about us.

Producer Helen Whitney clearly didn’t set out to craft something malicious or deceptive.  Instead, I believe she approached the project with pre-existing strong feelings about who we are – which emotions naturally influenced how she told the story.  For the many who tuned-in to learn the truth about our faith, however, Helen’s arguments and our own reality were fused into one indistinguishable product.

‘The truth about what’s happening in Mormonism.’ On February 26, 2019, after sharing 18 months of advance results, the Salt Lake Tribune announced the “day is near” for people to read the full report from a study it described in one article as “groundbreaking,” “sweeping” and “landmark.” Hailed by others as “momentous,” “revolutionary” and a “must read for anyone interested in the LDS Church,” the text by Dr. Jana Riess was widely promoted as an answer to some of the most pressing questions facing the Church.

On the important questions of faith and loss of faith, Jana’s conclusions in The Next Mormons have been touted across media outlets as “showing” and “revealing” the truth about what’s really happening right now within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For instance, Peggy Fletcher-Stack writes that the book “shows how LDS millennials view the faith and why more are leaving.” And Doug Fabrizio introduced her work as allowing us to “now able to add some facts to the dozens of opinions about Latter-day Saints.” One scholar added,  “It is as though she created a Mormon MRI: able to see below the surface to understand what LDS folks really think.”

Jana has largely seemed happy to oblige these perceptions, remarking in a recent interview, “in the Latter-day Saint world we have a lot of opinions – and it would be nice if some of those opinions have a little bit of solid evidence behind them [interviewer laughs].”

Compared to others with mere opinion, then, Jana’s conclusions are proposed to possess a distinctive authority and claim on the truth.  One person at a public talk I attended suggested that Jana was uniquely positioned to confirm the truth about what’s happening in the Church, comparing her reporting of the data with others “interpreting history and having their own slant.”

As justification for this kind of confidence, Jana frequently underscores her “large-scale, nationally representative study of four generations, including 1,156 current church members and 540 former members” – praised on her site as “the most extensive collection of Mormon attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors collected by independent or academic researchers to date.”[1]

For many people, that’s all that is needed to establish “the Next Mormons” as uniquely trustworthy and automatically credible. As one reviewer pointed out, regardless of acknowledgments about the study’s limitations, “this book’s conclusions are going to be accepted and spread as fact.”

 So, okay – but, hasn’t Jana earned that right?  What’s the problem with that?

Competing interpretations of the same data. Well, because that’s not how research actually works. Although we (all) love to be able to claim that cold-hard data has undeniably confirmed what we really want to believe…it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  As another researcher recently appearing on RadioWest pointed out, “Science isn’t ‘we found a fact, and we’re going to put it on the shelf, and now we know this, and now we’ll move on’ – it’s this dance between fact and theory constantly going on. And the expectations you have going into something will influence the data you collect, how you interpret that data, how you think about that.”

Depending on the underlying questions, the measures used, the characteristics of people answering the questions, the analytic decisions and the framing of results, dramatically different conclusions can be reached.  Particularly when the topic is sensitive enough that respondents might find it socially desirable[2] to answer one way or another, small leanings in the question framings, answer options and sample demographics can also lead to large cumulative effects on results.

To her credit, Jana has sometimes pushed back on the effusive praise – pointing out, for instance, that one survey (even if its big) doesn’t allow a longitudinal view of what is happening.  What many people don’t appreciate, however, is that large data sets have been long appreciated among scientists as introducing even greater risk for confirmation bias—both on a statistical and qualitative level. [3]

This complexity only multiplies once analysis starts. Out of hundreds of pages of survey responses or interview transcripts, for instance, what patterns are highlighted and shared (and which are overlooked), which statistical analyses are performed (and which are not) and how the hundreds of various results are ultimately packaged and presented (or not), can all make a big difference.[4]

But the bigger point here is this: none of this matters much to a general public mesmerized by anything with statistics and labeled as “research.”

But the overlooked reality is that data does not (and cannot) speak for itself:  not without a human interpreter. This is different than saying any given study is simply “biased.” Everyone has bias and a certain viewpoint or judgment about things (including researchers), which is an aspect of being human, and not a problem. The issue is being aware of this bias, and transparent enough about how it inevitably shapes research, so that people can take that into account as they consider whatever conclusions are being made.

My basic concern is that this is simply not happening enough here, in the case of this research project. And when insufficient attention is given to this larger interpretive framework, the problem is that larger arguments inevitably blend and bleed into the results and findings in a way that is indistinguishable to readers. The two intertwined get presented (and embraced) as one undeniable reality.

All this explains why I’m writing and proposing some added scrutiny.  Based on the book itself and associated reporting, I’m convinced that for the majority of readers (especially those unfamiliar with Jana’s past writing and work), her own interpretations will be hard – even impossible – to discern and differentiate from the statistics themselves.

That’s partly because not a whole lot is said about Jana’s own narrative standpoint.

Whose narratives get scrutinized?  By contrast, Jana raises extensive critique throughout The Next Mormons about the narratives within her own faith community – problematizing larger stories and narratives held to be true by orthodox members, including:

  • “the usual narrative [about] violating the word of wisdom” (205)[5]
  • “a popular narrative in the LDS church today that pornography…” (215)
  • “a standard narrative that has been told and retold many times…that to exit the fold…” (88/274) / “a prevailing narrative within certain segments of the LDS church that when people leave” (281)

She also points out how her own data “upends a common narrative within Mormonism [about singles]” (99) or “complicate[s] the victorious narrative about Mormons’ remarkable rates of abstinence” (108). Elsewhere, she has written off several orthodox narratives as straight-up “myths” embarrassingly at odds with empirical reality – insisting simply that “many of these explanations don’t hold water statistically.”

To her credit, Jana does share some counter-narratives at different points in the book that don’t fit comfortably with prevailing narratives around sexual orientation, gender, etc.  Compared to the many accounts in the text shared matter-of-factly as glimpses into a kind of objective reality,[6] however, she does seem to apply more critical scrutiny to those accounts at odds with her own progressive leanings.[7]

The story Jana is telling us.  In order to encourage more balanced scrutiny of the narrative backdrop of “the Next Mormons,” I highlight below ten ways the larger worldview of Jana and her co-researcher, Benjamin Knoll (whose past work clearly suggests a similar socio-political standpoint) are reflected in research design, and how they interpret results. I do this in the spirit of accountability and respectful scholarship – believing that if we can be open with concerns like this, we all have a better shot of arriving at truth, capital T.

This seems especially crucial at a time when the larger momentum of society is sweeping up many of our human initiatives – including sincere efforts to research important questions – into relentless confirmation bias that follows predictable partisan lines. Without more critical scrutiny, I suspect Jana’s research may be subject to the same forces (believed as trustworthy by those sharing her progressive worldview, and dismissed outright by those who don’t).

That I judge this work as deserving of such scrutiny and careful attention will be understood, I hope, as a mark of respect – and welcomed as part of a healthy public and academic discourse.  Even in raising concerns, this does not discount meaningful insights Jana raises about prevailing interpretations about the Church – many of which can help us better empathize and minister to those affected.  Indeed, it’s not hard to see evidence of these widely held perceptions all around us – and the tangible impact they are having on people’s faith. As one reviewer wrote, “Members of my own family are experiencing the phenomena reported by Ms. Reiss.”

Due to the significance of Jana’s claims (and the seriousness of my own concerns), I have worked to reference everything I’m arguing in footnotes below. In addition to reviewing her full book and accompanying interviews and written analyses, I attended an in-person presentation and reached out to her with several questions.  Once again, I am grateful to Jana’s thoughtful responses, and her willingness to correspond and explore challenging questions.  I have found her responses helpful, many of which are included below.

Even so, I offer these observations as a believing, orthodox Latter-day Saint who finds the kind of implicit narrative running throughout The Next Mormons as potentially destabilizing of sincere faith – especially when these conclusions are presented (and received) as obvious and objective reality.  In ten parts below, then, I break down what I see as the distinct worldview shaping both this research, and how it has been interpreted and publicly presented – before concluding with discussion of a few larger take-away’s.  As always, further questions and push-back are welcome! That’s what healthy discourse is all about…

1. Yielding to covenants as conforming. In a long list of possible “things that some Mormons (or those who were Mormon at one point in their lives) feel are troubling to some extent,” people were asked to indicate whether any of the subsequent issues were “very troubling, a little troubling, or not at all troubling to you.”

Included on that list was: “the Church’s emphasis on conformity and obedience.”

Compared to simply leaving out the word “conformity” from the same question, could the phrasing of this question have contributed to the resulting statistical patterns in answers?

I asked Jana that question.  And she agreed that is likely –responding “yes, I wish I had separated out those two terms. When a majority of Millennials say they are troubled by that, which of the two things (‘obedience’ and ‘conformity’) in particular is generating their discomfort? It’s an imprecise question, unfortunately.”

She went on to add, “based on respondents’ answers to other related questions, I think we can comfortably say that there is generational difference about obedience.” I don’t disagree, since there have likely been attitudinal differences in all past generations – and those showing up in this generation are likely unique, as she suggests.

The question is not whether a difference exists in attitudes, as much as the story we tell about that – and how we ought to make sense of and interpret those differences.

All of that is where I’m trying to draw more attention, hoping for an open exploration of competing interpretations. Once again, that’s not typically how these results have been framed in public discussion. For instance, in one front-page Salt Lake Tribune report about the survey results, whatever nuance existed in the way the questions were asked (perceptions that “some feel are troubling to some extent”) was no doubt lost to many digesting the results as mere facts about objective conditions causing someone to leave:

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

I want to point out that for the most part, I found the questionnaire Jana used to be pretty fair-minded – with a few notable exceptions.  And I do find Jana raising genuinely interesting and valuable things to talk about throughout, including when it comes to authority.  For instance, she acknowledges real tensions worth exploring in the presiding and equality beliefs around marriage,[8] in the dialogue between outer counsel and inner conscience[9] and a similar dialogue in working out the autonomy of local wards within the larger structure of authority. [10]

Rather than acknowledging these as workable polarities that can be navigated collaboratively, however, what I found disappointing was how often Jana portrayed these as aching conflicts – seemingly destined to cause heartache and suffering in the membership.

In some cases, of course, she’s right – especially when it comes to excesses that deserve careful scrutiny.  For instance, I found it powerful to hear the story of one woman so focused on outside counsel that she admitted, “I never actually relied on how I felt about anything…and that created problems in other areas of my life” (196).

That is a problem! (as I believe leaders themselves would acknowledge).  Rather than healthy polarities to be navigated, however, The Next Mormons underscores these as fundamental and inherent conflicts: between men and women, inner conscience and outer prophetic counsel, and local gatherings as at odds with larger organizational structure.

2. Walking away from covenants as courageous. Compared with her implicit critique of the invitation towards more obedience, Jana paints a distinctively noble picture of the decision to step away from the Church – positively characterizing GenXers, for instance, who “first tested the boundaries of belief” as “paving the way for their younger siblings to later do the same” (20) –  while later offering this analysis of another walking away story:

For that matter, James is a pioneer of sorts himself: one of the first in his family to leave Mormonism. And if there’s a lesson that cradle Mormons learn from their history, it’s that pioneers never have it easy. Deconversion, James says, has been “a very emotional and difficult process.” But he’s not alone in blazing this particular pioneer trail (212; emphasis added)

Jana similarly highlights a story of a man walking away from the Church as not a “detour or a disconnect” from his upbringing in the faith, but another piece of the same journey (130). And to end the missionary chapter, she emphasizes the story of a young man insisting that God had specifically told him to leave the Church (159-160).

In each case, rather than becoming “rigid” or “stiffened” around new ideology[11], these people are described as “softening”[12] and becoming more “flexible” or “elastic.” A great deal of associated attention in the book (and accompanying articles)[13] goes to exploring surprising percentages of current temple recommend holders who report consuming something forbidden in the word of wisdom[14] – portrayed in The Next Mormons as potentially reflecting a willingness to interpret the teaching “with a certain amount of flexibility” (159).

Based on surprisingly low pornography use statistics,[15] Jana hints that these numbers show younger Latter-day Saints as not as interested with the less important things often emphasized by current prophets: “they have far less of a focus on religious behaviors they may see as superficial or less important, like avoiding tattoos, coffee, or mature entertainment” (168).

3. A hapless picture of prophets. In contrast to the closeness and trust that Latter-day Saint leaders have worked diligently to foster between youth and prophet leaders, Jana tells the story in The Next Mormons of a fundamental division between youth and their prophet leaders. On the most superficial level, this begins with her emphasis on the demographics of prophet leaders – especially how old they are[16] and how white they are.[17] Multiple times, the word “rigid” is used to contrast the beliefs of older members with younger members,[18] along with “absolutism” (20) and “all-or-nothing theology” (18).

Similarly, prophetic teaching to defend the family is described as having “stiffened” its position, in contrast to a larger membership portrayed as largely resisting this by having “softened” their own positions.[19]

Additional attention goes to critiquing words and actions of specific leaders – repeatedly showcasing instances to paint a picture of prophets as sadly judgmental and naïvely out of tune. For instance:

  • President Ezra Taft Benson is described as having linked working mothers to what Jana calls “all kinds of disastrous outcomes for their children”– going on to quote his expression of concern in 1981 that active families were “experiencing difficulties with their children because mother is not where she ought to be.” In retrospect, she insists time has proven him wrong, stating with surprising confidence “we can see that many children of working Mormon mothers appear to have turned out just fine” (107-108).
  • And in a text requiring so much to be left out, Jana made space to include a small, innocuous oversight President Boyd K. Packer made in an internal discussion meant to be private,[20] while highlighting more than once (in the text and a public talk) a quote from this same leader which she underscores as compelling evidence that Church leaders tend to think about single members like kids.[21]

A number of other examples could be mentioned.[22] Interview quotes emphasized also contribute to the larger picture, for instance, one interviewee’s concern that Church leaders “seem to kind of pick and choose what they want to keep.” [23] Elsewhere in the text, Jana shares her own similar opinion that “the LDS Church curriculum has emphasized cherry-picking certain passages to illustrate particular doctrinal issues, rather than exploring the whole of scripture” (152)

In a discussion of continuing revelation (and associated changes in the church), Jana showcases an interviewee calling these changes a “funny” and somewhat hypocritical contradiction to the idea that God’s law will remain firm amidst a changing world.[24] Jana herself later draws great attention to the tweaking of a statement in President Packer’s talk, similarly describing it as “ironic” he had taught in the same message about God’s unchanging standard (102).

Throughout, Jana underscores historical influences she argues help explain different emphases (on family, marriage, gender).  Rather than God’s hand leading the people, the overall sense is one of overall strategizing and gamesmanship – at one point describing President Packer’s language as “coming straight from the Kimball playbook” (135). Efforts of the Church to encourage more consistency in teaching the pure message of Christ are likewise framed not as understandable “standardization” (as would be praised in math education), but instead, “sweeping corporatization” (34).

Referring to a pattern of “highly emotional stories conveniently critical of LDS doctrine and leaders” in the book, one reviewer expresses disappointment and acknowledged this had led him to question the author’s “claims that this book is not intended for the purpose of advocacy.”

When seen together in combination, it’s not hard to see how Jana’s word choices, highlighted interview quotes and direct critiques paints a cumulative picture of leaders engaged in a mixture of self-interested strategizing and hapless fumbling.  The one time I found any positive mention of a specific leader was Jana’s citation of a statement by President Eyring about being “infected with doubt” that “faced heavy criticism” – noting, however, that her data has proven that it was “appropriate at least in one way.” (32)

4. A glowing picture of former members. In significant contrast to this picture of power-obsessed prophets, former members are portrayed in a remarkably glowing way. While acknowledging the acute pain of walking away at least initially[25], the personal accounts say otherwise – telling a story of a people feeling closer to God now in their life and more “free and whole” after stepping away (168).  One woman dreams of the day she stops wearing garments to please her family – saying that will be “freedom” (66).

And in what Jana describes as “one of the survey’s most significant findings” (219), she reports 93% of former members reporting that “freedom, possibility and relief” best described their feelings after leaving the Church.  Wow!

Given the strong social desirability bias former members understandably naturally have for their departure from the church to be seen by loved ones in a certain way, it seems especially important to craft a question that would allow the true complexity of this experience to be documented and explored.

Jana acknowledges this isn’t what happened, describing in the book how they required respondents to choose between only two options of what best described their feelings after stepping away: “freedom, possibility, and relief” or “loss, anger, or grief”?

It’s admittedly hard for me not to compare this with John Dehlin’s unusual decision to simplify one of the most sensitive questions in his survey (focused on change in therapy among those who identify as gay) in a way that obscured the wide variety of perspectives about change, while generating one of the big headlines of his study:  “0% of people” reporting “an alteration in their core erotic attractions” (!!)

In both cases, given the way the question is set-up, is it really that surprising most people said what they said?

Not really. [26]

In our correspondence, Jana did persuasively advocate for the value of binary questions for certain inquiries, namely as a way to assess “what people would choose to do when push came to shove.”[27]

I agree, but would still add that when such an approach is used, it would seem especially important to qualify findings and explain the unusual conditions that generated the data.  For instance, one could say, “when sexual orientation change in psychotherapy is narrowly defined as wholesale shift in someone’s entire sexual orientation, we find virtually no one reporting ‘change.’”

But that’s not what got reported.  Instead, the “0%” result was shared in dramatic fashion.  I see the same thing happening with Jana’s discussion of the 93% number – dispensing with qualifiers, for instance, to broadly propose her finding about former members’ happiness to be “at odds with a standing narrative in the LDS Church that to exit the fold is to leave warmth and happiness behind.”[28]  


5. A narrative about millennials. A big focus of The Next Mormons is illustrating through numbers and stories how exactly old and young people differ in the Church. And once again, it’s no surprise that differences exist between generations, including in how many young people today relate to authority.

Rather than exploring different ways to thinking about or interpret these interesting differences, however, The Next Mormons lays out a fairly consistent narrative explanation for how to make sense of them.  For instance, although “more than 90 percent of each generation believes in God,” Jana notes that “this belief may be softer around the edges for Millennials” – going on to describe what she calls an alarming “erosion of certainty” (16) between generations: “What we see here is a notable drop in certainty on every theological measure, with an average decline of eighteen points” (16). She also speaks of a “decline in certainty” and later notes a “double-digit drop between the Boomer / Silent Mormons who pray in private every day (76.5 percent) and the Millennial Mormons who do (65 percent)” (151; emphasis added).

“Notable drop in certainty”…”decline in certainty”…“erosion of certainty”

Rather than seeing the different perceptions of Millenials and older Latter-day Saints as perhaps somewhat predictable for different stages of development (especially in the world today), Jana consistently portrays these differences are reflecting an alarming divide indicative of a fundamental transformation underway. In a later chapter on gender, for instance, she notes, “These findings indicate that a generational shift in attitudes about women’s religious leadership may be underway” (99)

Once again, wouldn’t we expect that this older generation likewise began life “softer around the edges” in some of these practices – and not as consistent?  At one point, Jana does acknowledge that “Millennials may grow into greater theological certainty with time” (18), a possibility she largely discounts in public appearances.  Instead, she points back to her own favored interpretation:  “This attention to conformity” it is significant, “especially in how different it is from previous generations. Millennials just have a different relationship to authority – and that is, I don’t think something that is simply an age effect. I don’t think that is something based on the lifecycle of the stage they are in. It is a cohort effect that will follow them. If that’s the case, how will that change the Mormon experience?”

Rather than an understandable difference from older generations more naturally settled in life and conviction, then, Jana presents her numbers as illustrating a real, significant, fundamental decline, drop and difference between generations. Rather than nuances of a subset of Millennials, Jana also portrays these differences in generalized language, telling Doug Fabrizio, for instance, that young people are “not as enthusiastic about the temple…millennials aren’t necessarily returning to the temple.” She writes in another piece, “Millennials are a different breed. They are not practicing your grandmother’s Mormonism.”

Notice again the broad language of fundamental conflict.  As Jana states in the RadioWest interview, “Millennials are kind of caught between values of the church and older generation – and the values of peers.”

Following Jana’s narrative into the future, one reviewer even forecasted a near extinction of young Latter-day Saints in North America:  “It may be that the ‘Next Mormons’ are more likely to be youth from the developing world, and that millennials from developed nations will become a statistically insignificant minority of the LDS church in the coming century.”

Another sociologist cautions “that no one can answer is whether this posture constitutes a kind of ‘new culture,’ which, in time, will come to characterize American Latter-day Saints more generally, or whether today’s millennials will eventually ‘mature out’ of this posture and come to resemble culturally the older Saints.”

He’s right.  And Jana does acknowledge that not all of the differences illustrate less faith in millennials.  In addition to being more consistent in scripture study, she highlights numbers illustrating higher home teaching and missionary activity. Some might see this data as evidence for an impressive level of dedication, given how hard it can be to share the gospel in the world today.  Perhaps this even suggests signs of a bright future in the future of their leadership in the Latter-day Saint tradition?

Rather than a reflection of greater conviction regarding the truth of the gospel, however, Jana suggests this greater participation in ministry and missionary work may simply reflect a desire for more social engagement.  As another scholar summarizes her own conclusions, millennial members “define their ‘Mormon’ identity more in terms of social integration and participation with the Saints than in terms of strict compliance with church rules and requirements [as the preceding generations did].”

Instead of a reflection of conviction and dedication, then, these remarkably high missionary numbers (in a society that increasingly hates missionaries) are framed as an interest in having more friends and social connection – and therefore, not contradictory to what she insists is a larger trend towards “hold[ing] institutional authority more lightly.”

6. A narrative of race and gender. Similar to her take on generational differences as fundamental and problematic, Jana also writes about racial and gender differences as a potentially substantial barrier. Like all communities with a connection to American history, ours acknowledges a complicated racial and gendered past. Over many centuries of human history, mistreatment of both women and racial minorities has more often than not perpetuated heartbreaking, even vicious levels of neglect, inequality and abuse. That is a bitter heritage and legacy we all bear and share (no matter where we live in the world) – and from which we all need to heal.

From that painful past, it’s not hard to look at many of the advances in racial and gender equality as divinely inspired – even arguably part of the restoration itself (concurrent and simultaneous with the unfolding of religious restoration). Rather than brothers and sisters coming to experience a new unity within the human family, however, Jana paints a different picture, illustrated by one interviewee talking about nonwhite Latter-day Saints struggling with having only “white Utah-based leadership talking to us and explaining different principles of the gospel” (128).

In a similar way, The Next Mormons paints a picture of substantial gender discrimination as endemic to Latter-day Saint culture. After referencing an especially egregious example of a woman being dismissed decades ago from an educational opportunity at BYU,[29] she argues, “Elysse’s experience of sexism in Mormon culture is dramatic, but it differs from other women’s more in degree than in kind” (92).

Rather than reflecting anything about divine patterns, what Jana calls “the strictly gendered division of duties” in Latter-day Saint teachings about gender are portrayed as a unique pattern arising from an earlier time, and becoming “a hallmark of Mormonism after World War II” (121). These teachings about marriage and family involve, in her words, an expectation that women will “submit easily to being groomed for marriage and motherhood” (95).  Modesty is about asking women to “not attract attention to themselves” (95). And within this accepted way of doing things, she describes priesthood callings as meaning “women are still excluded from most leadership positions” (231).[30]

Jana goes on to assert that what she calls “segregation by sex” or “gender segregation” is “important in Mormonism” (102) and something that “begins early” (94), insisting that most members have accepted this “segregation” because they’ve never known any other way.[31]

Of course, distinctions in roles are real, and sometimes involve unfortunate disparities that deserve real discussion.[32] But rather than an area where progress is being made, by Jana’s telling, women continue to live in a “subordinate role” in comparison to priesthood holders – “expected” by the church to “deepen their relationship with God in a more passive way that is unspecified” (95). The picture is one of long-standing neglect and almost forgetfulness of women, noting at a public talk I attended “we’ve taken for granted women for a long time.”  When not taken for granted, she also shares concern with “a lot of ways our culture judges women in a more severe way then it necessarily does men.”

 “By comparison,” she speaks of optimism coming from larger societal change: “significant shifts in particular have altered young Mormon women’s lives, potentially expanding their opportunities in the world.” (103) Latter-day Saint culture is described as stubbornly resisting these trends, as she tells the Tribune: “the church has become really the only place where some of these women that I’ve talked to experience what they consider to be discrimination – where their opportunities feel circumscribed or someone is telling them because of their gender, you are this, and not this and you have to behave this way, and not that way. And so, because it’s not their experience in other places in American culture, church becomes more of a site of tension, because it’s the only place.”

Difficulty, then, arises from the Church’s efforts, Jana teaches – despite advances in society around us.  In fairness, she does give space for a counterexample of one woman who describes the church as “the only environment she is part of where focusing solely on family and home is seen as a valid life choice by those around her, and she appreciates that” (96).  While some do feel that way, Jana clearly paints a larger picture of women – especially younger members – as dissatisfied and concerned, talking matter of factly about the Church’s “treatment of women” (13) as one reason people are leaving.

An alternative explanation for some of this dissatisfaction is not considered: namely, that once you have adopted a progressive socio-cultural view, it’s hard not to experience frustration about virtually any orthodox religious norms (see elaboration here). One African-American interviewee does hint at this – recounting being preoccupied with race issues while investigating the church, before speaking of a “spiritual experience where he felt like the Holy Ghost commanded him to let it go.”  He added, “I heard the Spirit say, ‘Stop using racism for all your answers. It’s keeping you from all the blessings.’ Something came over me.” Jana notes that he was baptized with his family shortly thereafter. (122)

7. A narrative of sexual orientation. The Next Mormons takes for granted the prevailing narrative about gay rights in America today, starting with the idea that sexual orientation represents a next phase in the unfolding civil rights movement of the 60’s. Within this overarching frame, as we’re well aware by now, rather than considering disagreements about sexuality and identity as reasonable differences between otherwise thoughtful, good-hearted people, disagreement is positioned in public discussion as akin to bigotry.

Instead of encouraging open exploration of different perspectives, this frame for the conversation is uniquely beneficial in advancing certain aims, while stifling the voices of those with concerns.  Rather than setting out to “silence” or “coerce,” however, it’s important to acknowledge that activists and allies genuinely believe they are doing essential work to fight and advocate for a group of human beings who are fundamentally different on an essential, core level, compared with those who experience predominantly heterosexual attraction.

That’s how Jana describes it too – referring to individuals coming to know, for instance, “that a fundamental part of your core identity did not, in fact, conform” (185)[33]

Once this view of identity is taken for granted, core teachings about the family are easy to see as “antigay rhetoric” as she puts it (13). As Jana puts it later in the book, “Theologically, believing in prophets whose teachings have undermined your very existence is challenging in a way that most heterosexual Mormons will never have to experience” (142).

Jana goes on to quote an interviewee’s despairing view that “An eighteen-year-old LGBT person who wants to stay in the church must stay single and be alone for their entire life….there is no hope of a better future.” (143)

“Undermin[ing] your very existence”…questioning a “fundamental part of your core identity.”…”no hope of a better future.”

If that’s what I really believed the Church of Jesus Christ was imposing on a vulnerable group, I’d be frustrated too!  But as I’ve written about extensively, these accusations involve a great deal of distortion and profound misrepresentation of our teachings.

At one point, Jana does mention a counter example of a man who gently rejects the term “gay,” because “homosexual to me implies a permanency and a singularity that I may not subscribe to. By singularity I mean that the term homosexual means I’m only attracted to men, that I’ll only ever be attracted to men. But I have hopes that one day I will be able to be attracted to a woman, that I will have a family.” (138)

Why does this Latter-day Saint young man do this?  Because of what the prophets have taught about identity, marriage and family.  This distinct understanding of sexual orientation was summarized by Terryl Givens in a recent book.[34]

Rather than something “ordained of God,” however, Jana once again frames our emphasis on what she calls “a particular configuration of the nuclear family” (235) and “the heterosexual nuclear family” (9-10) as largely arising from a unique period of time that “served Mormon interests” well (9-10) as a “postwar brand identity” (235). In her view, this emphasis on marriage and the nuclear family was largely an effective strategy that helped the church “create its distinctive religious identity in the crowded American religious landscape” (76).

Previous Latter-day Saint efforts to defend man-woman marriage are likewise portrayed as hateful attempts that the Church tried its best to keep secret[44] – repeating placard slogans that protested Latter-day Saint efforts as contrary to the spirit of Jesus, rather than precisely in line with Christ’s revealed will in this day.[45] And contrary to the repeated insistence of living prophets, Jana later insists, “Gay Mormons are still essentially second-class citizens in the church.” (231)

8. A narrative about singles. The acute pain of not having a companion is widely recognized and acknowledged among Latter-day Saints. There are meaningful differences, however, in how we explain that pain.

Based on my own interviewing research, I’ve written about how easy (almost unavoidable) it has been for most men and women to download larger cultural narratives in America about what love, attraction, and romance is supposed to feel like – which stories can profoundly mess with otherwise happy possibilities in relationships.

Rather than draw attention to the subversive influence of broader secular narratives, however, Jana’s own analysis of singles’ pain centers on the influence of the Church’s own teachings focused on family – writing about what she calls “the church’s barrage of pro-marriage rhetoric”[35] and a perception that the Church is “worshiping the nuclear family.”[36]  Like emphases on gender roles and man-woman marriage, the valuing of marriage itself is, once again, portrayed as reflecting strategic needs in a particular period of American history.[37]

The subsequent analysis takes for granted that judgment and shame associated with this focus on family has caused singles to walk away – for instance, highlighting the story of a woman concluding through therapy and research that “she could not stay in the LDS Church and also hold on to her sense of self – worth” since she could not bear what she described as “facing a life of not ever having love.” (100) The Church’s emphasis on motherhood is also portrayed as (almost inevitably) inducing a “crisis of identity in the church” for many single women. (77)

As with questions of sexuality and gender, the legitimate pain that can arise around questions of marriage and singleness is undoubtedly real. What I’m pointing out here is the way this pain can be augmented when these questions are framed as zero sum choices between staying faithful and finding love.

9. A narrative about judgment. Two contrasting narratives are shared by Jana when it comes to judgment in the Church.

(Part I) Harsh judgment as fairly omnipresent among members.  When asked about changes to help retain members, Jana told the Tribune, “One of the things we can’t seem to address in the larger church headquarter level is this issue of judgmentalness in the culture.  We need to have more movement on that as a people in analyzing our own behavior as members of the Church. And stop blaming the people who left for leaving. And rather, begin to have the harder process of being introspective.”

“I heard so many painful stories” she writes. While admitting there were also “stories of love and acceptance” it was the stories of judgment that clearly took center stage in her own telling of a faith community portrayed by more than one interviewee as “not welcoming, not loving.” (232)

“Feeling judged” shows up as the top reason why women said they left the church – and tied for first for Millennials.  Based on this, others are already describing these numbers as “The Root Cause for Why Members Leave”[38]

As Jana told Doug Fabrizio “judgment appears to be pretty important in people’s feeling the church is or is not a hospitable place for them.” When Fabrizio asks, “it would be pretty difficult to fix, wouldn’t it?” she responds, “Yes, it would involve a pretty major cultural shift.”

In the absence of whatever monumental shifts Jana hints at, her own beloved faith community ends up looking pretty bad.  The picture emerging is one of relentless, insidious judgment:  Singles are judged, black folks are judged, gay people are judged, and former members are judged.[39]

(Part II). Harsh judgment as vastly overstated among former members. In sharp contrast to this, Jana writes extensively about harsh judgment among former members toward the church as an overstatement:

There is a prevailing narrative within certain segments of the LDS Church that when people leave, they do so because they “got offended.” For example, a Gospel Doctrine lesson about apostasy in the Kirtland era of the early 1830s places blame squarely on the shoulders of those who left, suggesting they did so for trivial reasons and were susceptible to Satan’s deceptions. (227)

That narrative, Reiss makes sure we know her data confirm, is naïve (228). To think otherwise and suspect the influence of offense is self-serving, Jana insists:

What’s appealing about the “got offended” narrative is that it wholly and conveniently blames people who left without requiring those who remain to engage in any serious introspection about the ways they may have contributed to those departures. As such, I don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon, but it would be nice if we remember that this story has been constructed to exculpate the faithful, not to explain the actual choices of dissenters.

Excuses.  That’s what that concern with offense is all about….reasons to not look at our own stuff.

Jana goes on to detail all the many reasons to explain people’s departure –mapping them out in her survey (all 30 of them) in a way allowing detailed frequency comparisons. Most center around something our faith community is accused of doing wrong – starting with its own core teachings.

10. A narrative of the past and future. Despite her own earnest efforts to be objective in this study, an accusing portrayal of church history is hinted in her own analysis. At one point, for instance, readers are asked to take for granted that Joseph Smith had written, rather than translated, the Book of Mormon (something that Jana acknowledges is how the text reads and agrees is how it will likely be interpreted, but told me was a mistake on her part).[40]

Also, by listing reported frequencies associated with common frustrations in the survey without any further interpretation or discussion – for instance, “Joseph’s mendacious behavior toward women” or “DNA evidence that Native Americans do not have Middle Eastern ancestry” – readers are left with an impression that facts are being examined here, rather than accusing perceptions.[41]

Moving forward from the 19th century, Jana offers a new interpretation for all that past growth Latter-day Saints have seen as reflective of God’s blessing. Noting the period in which Latter-day Saint membership grew the most, Jana argues on RadioWest that it wasn’t so special after all: “so was everyone else. We like to focus on the miracle growth the happened during the war as a sign of God’s favor. If that’s your favorite theology, you’re going to have to rethink what God is favoring.”

Looking forward, she adds, “We are now participating in the same decline that is affecting everyone else” [when it comes to U.S. growth rate] –suggesting that “treading water” was a “good way to describe it.”

When it comes to people walking away, Jana notes, “we can say with confidence that Mormon retention is declining from one generation to the next.” Jana emphasizes this theme with particular authority: “We used to keep about 75 percent of members.  For millennials, it’s about 46 percent, or less than half” – something she underscores on RadioWest: “it turns out that Mormons are losing adherents – particularly rapidly with the younger generation…the trajectory is definitely heading downward. The next generation shows even higher rates of disaffiliation.” She adds, “the problem not going away – it’s a bit alarming.”

It’s not just that people walking away more.  As emphasized both in the book and her public talks, Jana believes these people are “not coming back” – as she explains it, because fertility rates are falling (and children can be a big reason people rekindle their faith).

Not growing.  Not staying. Not coming back.

This is the book described by one reviewer as “an honest look at the future of Mormonism,” with another suggesting that it “sheds much needed light on the state of the Church today, as well as where it may be heading.”

At one point, Jana critiques sociologist Thomas O’Dea because in her estimation he had “read the present situation through a narrow lens and then projected that current assessment into the future” (233).  From her own interpretation of events and data our of a distinctly dour and progressive lens, I would argue something similar is happening here.

Stepping beyond the data.  For reasons outlined above, rather than “these are the facts of why people are walking away,” I would characterize The Next Mormons as, more accurately, an exploration of the self-understandings of many diverse members, as interpreted by someone who, herself, has substantial critiques of Latter-day Saint leaders. I’ve also pointed towards ways in which The Next Mormons will likely confirm and further perpetuate for many an especially unflattering narrative of our faith – and one that many will insist is simply “based on the evidence.”

Rather than simply presenting “facts from the data,” however, I’ve argued that something else is going on here worth discussing.  As demonstrated above, Jana’s own worldview is tightly threaded throughout the analysis in a way that blends real statistical findings and her own arguments in a way that might leave some readers confused.

If Jana limited her conclusions to inferences tied closely to the data, that wouldn’t be a big deal.  But like documentary producer Helen Whitney, Jana’s own strong pre-existing feelings about the subject matter show up in how she has approached these questions and subsequent analysis.  And perhaps almost without realizing it, she unfortunately steps well beyond what the data seems to justify, in unfolding a larger narrative of her faith community fraught with accusation and suspicion.

If that’s true, it’s understandable why that possibility would be hard to confront, since it’s precisely the kind of awareness that could work against larger hopes for social change.  After discussing some of the many layers of complexities leading to any research result, one of my professors in graduate school acknowledged openly, “but we shouldn’t really talk about these complexities publicly, because let’s be honest – it would decrease the power of our research to spark social change.”

Likely ripple effects. I believe these questions explored above have real-life implications that go far beyond mere academic disputes. For instance, consider what her book could mean for any parent who wants to understand why a son or daughter has walked away: What would they learn from reading Jana’s book?  What would they take away?

I can’t imagine The Next Mormons not effectively fostering greater suspicion of presiding leaders, and providing sophisticated reasons to distrust them – along with subtle encouragement to adopt ideological commitments not in line with prophetic teachings.

To be clear, I do believe Jana wants her book to help the Church, in kind of a tough-love way.

But what I’m suggesting is that it may well do the opposite.  For instance, how many Latter-day Saint readers will be persuaded towards more “softening,” “flexibility” and less “conforming” to covenants?[42] How many will be incited towards greater frustration on matters of race and gender?  And how many will have further reinforced the flatly dishonest notion that the Church of Christ on earth today is somehow at war with a certain group of vulnerable human beings?

Without any further counterbalance, unfortunately a study like this becomes yet another way of making persuasive case for one socio-political view, rather than facilitating the dialogue we so sorely need.

This implicit activism is certainly not apparent to many observers.  As one reviewer writes, “As near as I can tell from following Dr. Reiss’s work, she approached this research with curiosity and no particular ideological axe to grind.”

Rather than a particular narrative of our faith, once again, many are looking towards Jana’s text as offering the truth about our faith.  One reviewer suggested that: “Interested outsiders will find the book helpful to them as they process what it is that makes members who and what they are.” Others called it a “a tremendous resource for anyone interested in the future of the Mormon church” and a “must read for ALL Mormons” – especially those “how younger generations feel about and practice Mormonism.” Still another called the book:  “a good and accurate view of individual Mormon’s beliefs and outlooks.”

Narratives as reality. On some level, all the foregoing is perhaps unremarkable.  Jana is a progressive thinker, after all, and she has interpreted and represented her data from a progressive lens.

Big deal, right?  I mean, that’s what we all do…

Kind of.  It’s absolutely true that we all interpret the world from our own vantage points – and that, for most of us, this becomes a simple reality rather than a narrative.

No doubt, that’s the case with Jana as well.  This is reality for her. It’s not a story. It’s just what she is observing.

The difference here arises in the higher authority research conclusions are given – which authority comes with a need for higher scrutiny.

If Jana provided that scrutiny and clarity around her own stories – if she somehow checked it or counterbalanced it, a paper like this would not be needed.  But when sufficient checks and accountability are not present within a research project, accountability needs to come from the outside – whether from other researchers or the broader public. That kind of open disagreement is healthy for both scientific community and our larger public discourse.

I’m not alone in raising concern with imbalanced research.

The urgency of politically diverse research teams. As Dr. Duarte and colleagues wrote in 2015: “Having common values makes a group cohesive, which can be quite useful, but it’s the last thing that should happen to a scientific field.” Reflecting on this broader tendency in academia, they note that when “left unchecked” a group “can become a cohesive moral community, creating a shared reality that subsequently blinds its members to morally or ideologically undesirable hypotheses.”

They go on to suggest that “a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous” research team can “undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends.” This brings to mind a paper led by Duarte’s colleague, Jonathan Haidt, raising concern with how politically homogeneous research teams can inadvertently “undermine the validity of social psychological science” through the “embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods” thus “producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike.”

I believe that’s precisely what happened here. Rather than an isolated voice raising this kind of a question, I’m one of a growing number of researchers seeing an urgency[43] in drawing attention to the consequences of political homogeneity in research, especially when it comes to sensitive, charged topics (like those addressed in this research project).

Duarte ultimately cautions about “a higher risk of reaching unjustified conclusions” that exists “when most people…share the same confirmation bias” – later arguing that the collective efforts of researchers in politically charged areas may fail to converge upon the truth when there are few or no non-liberal researchers to raise questions and frame hypotheses in alternative ways.”

That’s what I’m doing:  raising alternative questions and hypotheses.  Even better, of course, would be to have these alternative perspectives present on your own research team.  As Rosik and colleagues proposed in 2012: “We believe that the scientific investigation [of sensitive questions] will have the best opportunity to be advanced when studies are jointly conducted by an ideologically diverse group of researchers”—adding that “such a collaborative approach can serve to provide some degree of counterbalance to the current gravitational pull [from various sides].”

Mainlining the Church of Jesus Christ? What if we as Latter-day Saints did what Jana (and many others) are encouraging?  What if we “softened” or wholly revised our positions on sexuality and gender, not to mention obedience and conviction itself…so much so that no youth were any more offended by the standards?  Is Jana right that our future would be secured, with the dangers of our present situation averted?

Not if you’re looking at the data! David Campbell was among the first to note the hemorrhaging of membership in mainline Christian denominations. As Lyman Stone noted more recently, “These churches are dying off at a very quick pace” – pointing towards the 2014 Pew Research finding that “1.7 peopled converted away from mainline Protestant groups for every one convert in, while evangelical Protestants had 1.2 people convert in for every leaver.”

Christian author George Yancey similarly wrote in 2018, “In the movement towards secularization in our society, those in the mainline denominations appear to be the biggest losers….it does appear that the strategy of going along with the culture does not appear to be useful.” After noting the willingness of many mainline protestant churches to “accommodate modern cultural changes” – he says, “their reward for this support is empty pews.”

If progressive ideals point us towards the right path that God inspires, of course, this would still be worth the cost.  But to suggest future growth will expand by embracing the mainline Christian model seems to be overlooking enormous data suggesting otherwise.

The biggest thing missing.  One of my favorite questions Jana poses early in the book is this one “What can we learn from Mormon and former Mormon young adults about the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional experiences that successfully imprint – or fail to imprint – an enduring Mormon identity?” (3)

That’s a fascinating question – one that invites attention to what Jana calls “different paths of negotiation” (67) people take through the myriad choice-points and decisions.  As people navigate their own different pathways through these matters, Jana has highlighted some patterns worth discussing.  In my view, the biggest missing element in her conclusion is the role of persuasive narratives like her own in prompting and sparking certain socializations.

That being said, Jana does elaborate on what she calls “the push – pull relationship of behavior and belief in Mormonism”:

Adherence to expected behaviors, like sexual abstinence before marriage and keeping the religion’s strict dietary code, is intricately related to belief. In Elaine’s case, a loss of her testimony (belief) led to sexual experimentation (a behavior), which led to a sense that she was unworthy in God’s eyes (a belief) and therefore should not even attend church (a behavior). (150)

Attention to that kind of evolving, complex relationship between behavior and belief (or narrative) is what I find myself wanting more of here.  Aside from this passing mention, it’s not really developed to any degree.

Given this, I’d like to propose another theory alongside her own that concludes the book:  If and when people walk away, it will not simply be from the actions of the church…or even just the world moving further away.  Rather, these decisions arise (and are indelibly shaped) by the particular ways in which members narrate and interpret this underlying tension. 

That narrative, I would argue, is the mediating, moderating, synthesizing variable that makes all the difference – and catalyzes one pathway or another (towards more disaffiliation and disaffection or more faith and connection with the Saints). Although Jana documents all the various reasons people give for leaving, I would argue that she doesn’t recognize or acknowledge sufficiently the way in which many of these reasons reflect not simply an objective reality, but a narrative held by these individuals – and out of which they see the Church.

In summary, then, Jana is right that we have not been “able to wholly resist the larger forces at work” (9). What I’m pointing out is that these “larger forces” include the persuasive, accusing narratives that she and others have been perpetrating over recent years.  If I’m right about that, it means that Jana studying a phenomenon of disaffiliation that she herself (with many others) continue to help incubate and perpetuate.

Let me be clear:  I don’t for a minute believe Jana has been wanting to harm the Church in her efforts.  On the contrary, I’m sure she intends just the reverse.

Jana is following her passion to try to help her faith community in a way that makes sense in her worldview.  My intent here is simply to make that interpretation clear as one interpretation – so that people can explore for themselves which interpretation (among many) are true, rather than taking one as automatically true by virtue of having scientific “proof.”



[1] The size of John Dehlin’s data set was also something he brought up repeatedly as evidence of validity, and rationale for why his arguments and conclusions merited special attention and authority.

[2] Given the highly charged public discussion around faith, sexuality, and gender, it’s hard to know why they are not reporting on any checks for social desirability bias on results. That’s a question I asked Jana – and she acknowledged, “There’s nothing that would measure specific social desirability bias in the NMS.” Compared to in-depth interviews or mixed method studies involving observation, survey research is uniquely positioned to generate data adaptable to various socio-political views.  Why?  Because human beings are (unsurprisingly) adaptable to these same views. Simply put:  if you ask a bunch of people who think a certain way questions about their life, they will provide answers (by and large) that justify and confirm their own current trajectory. Thus, if you survey people using pornography about whether pornography is harming their life, they’re going to tell you NO. If you survey energy drinkers about whether their preferred beverage is hurting them, they’re going to tell you NO WAY.  And if you survey religious people about whether religion is a great idea, they’re going to say YOU BET (atheists will tell you the same thing, though). In each case, studies might simply be measuring the well-established human tendency towards confirmation bias – a tendency only heightened on topics about which a high degree of public controversy exists (where research participants may be especially prone to seeking validation by answering in a way that contributes to a positive impression of their lives).

[3] Although little acknowledged in public discourse, these perils specific to large data sets are basic cautions in graduate statistics courses and well-known to most researchers. One scientific author explains the challenge this way: “all real data has variation in it, and when you have a very large data set, you can usually subset it enough that eventually you find a subset that, just by chance, fits your preconceived view.” This “presents a very serious problem because to the untrained eye (and sometimes even to the trained eye), they seem to show scientific evidence for [specious] positions, and an enormous number of the studies and ‘facts’ that [people] cite are actually the result of this illegitimate sub-setting of large data sets.”

[4] After Jana mentioned selecting stories from out of 750 pages of accounts, Fabrizio remarked on how “only a fraction” could be included in the final book – sharing curiosity about how she chose “which elements of which people’s stories would help understand or disconfirm aspects of the data” as “an important part of writing the book.”

[5] This number in parenthesis refers to the relevant page in The Next Mormons.

[6] For instance, one single woman experienced a long period of introspection and study after so much loneliness in her life.  Rather than portraying this as a difficult conclusion reached after a complex process, the paraphrase Jana employs is illustrative: “This experience showed her that she could not stay in the LDS Church and also hold on to her sense of self-worth.” (76)

[7] She elaborates, for instance, on how “system justification theory” explains how “groups that appear to be oppressed have their own opinions on the matter” (121).  And in the case of a man seeking to stay true to his covenants, Jana notes, “it may be true that Alex is avoiding the term ‘gay’ simply because his deep Mormon religiosity has caused him to fear that label when applied to himself” (140)

[8] After acknowledging the teaching “insist[ing] that husbands and wives are ‘equal partners,’” she notes ways in which this “makes the old – fashioned idea of a man presiding significantly more complicated.” She adds, “If a disagreement arises, does the husband have the right to overrule his wife? Do they take turns deciding? How are terms like ‘equality’ and ‘partnership’ to coexist next to ones like ‘preside’?” (100)

[9] In speaking of Millennials “obeying the mandates of the institutional church,” she writes, “They’re not alone in feeling ambivalent about LDS leaders’ power in their everyday lives; we can see from the data that Millennials struggle with how to balance their own authority with that of the church” (197)

[10] “[Local wards] have enough of an institutional overlay to provide structure, but the lived experience of them is so localized — indeed, sometimes hyperpersonalized — that they hold a claim on a rising generation that appears to prefer a more grassroots and intimate experience of Mormonism” (209-2010)

[11] She goes on to highlight higher levels of support for progressive views of women, sexuality and race among former members as hinting at a people more deeply attuned to crucial ideals of justice and equality – e.g., “Former Mormon women seem particularly exercised about women’s roles” (99)

[12] Speaking seriously, though, is it really that surprising youth would be less convicted around the teachings of parents?  That’s what young people do – they explore.  And like young trees, they are less stable compared with older trees.

[13]Hello! Most Mormons actually do drink caffeinated soda,” Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood blog (Religion News Service), September 25, 2017. “One in Three Mormons Have Had Coffee Recently, and Another Quarter Drink Alcohol,” Benjamin Knoll and Jana Riess, Religion in Public blog, March 29, 2018.

How many Mormons use marijuana, anyway?“, Benjamin Knoll, Flunking Sainthood blog, September 20, 2018.

[14] In explaining the numbers of those not adhering to these ideals, she considers possibilities that people are not being truthful in the recommend, or that seeds of disaffection exist (both of which she mentions), another strong possibility is that living the word of wisdom is not easy, and that like with other moral laws, even Saints sometimes still struggle!

[15] Rather than celebrate these low reported pornography numbers (or raising questions about confirmatory validity with other existing datapoints), Jana also can’t help frame the pornography numbers as evidence that the whole issue needn’t be taken so seriously [“It has become a popular narrative in the LDS Church today that pornography is a widespread and pernicious problem, but the numbers in this survey are not dramatic: only 12 percent” (164)] – while hinting that existing moral standards for media are a bit unrealistic [As Millennials age, she writes, we can’t expect they will “content themselves with a diet of Disney as they age; GenXers did not” (163)]

[16] “superannuated leadership” (6); “Church leaders, who are themselves of the Silent Generation or even older” (131)

[17] I’ve written previously about how folks on the left can’t seem to escape identifiers like this as their primary frame of reference. That includes Latter-day Saints on the left.  And that seems to include Jana.

[18] “Even as the church stiffened its posture, the rank and file softened theirs, contributing to a growing disconnect between the leadership and the membership” (145). Notably, it’s not a subset of members – but “the rank and file” doing this – which allows a picture of grand conflict between (old, stiffening) leadership that insists on continuing to regress and (avant guarde, opening) membership that continues to embrace enlightenment despite the opposition from leaders.

[19] “Even as the church stiffened its posture, the rank and file softened theirs, contributing to a growing disconnect between the leadership and the membership” (145). Notably, it’s not a subset of members – but “the rank and file” Jana insists are doing this – which allows a picture of grand conflict between (old, stiffening) leadership that insists on continuing to regress and (avant guarde, opening) membership that continues to embrace enlightenment despite the opposition from leaders.

[20] She writes, “Elder Boyd K. Packer complained, ‘The one word that’s been missing in all of this is family. It hasn’t been said once.’ (It had)” (88)

[21] Brought up in both her Benchmark talk and the book: “The original jurisdiction until they’re married is in the parental home, in the family.” She added, “Elder Packer’s comments suggest a possible disconnect between the demographic reality of most LDS singles being mature and financially independent and the view that some leaders may harbor, that they are embracing a perpetual adolescence.” (88)

[22] (a) In her public elaboration following President Nelson’s earnest plea that we not use the name “Mormon” anymore, Jana can’t seem to help herself in teasing current leadership for the “victories for Satan” allowed by past Presidents who weren’t as concerned with the name, or through ongoing online searches around the term.

(b) Jana also draws priority attention to a single stand-out phrase referring to homosexuality from President Kimball (and more commonly used in generation) that is especially objectionable to modern ears. Arguably this word did not harbor the same strongly pejorative meaning then as it does now: “Does the pervert think God to be ‘that way’?” (135)

(c) More recently, she has called Elder Renland’s discourse by the side of his wife Ruth about doubt as “dismissive,” “damaging” and “shaming” – substantially overstating his message to suggest he was calling all former members “selfish” or “lazy” and “blaming the victim” by teaching the reasonable and helpful principle that people “let doubt and uncertainty occupy his mind.” Having created a strawman sermon, Jana insists that her experience interviewing people shows otherwise.

[23] Given a chance to interpret the meaning, Jana’s sole insight is that this is quite a contradiction to what the Church teaches: “This last observation – that church leaders have vacillated on which Word of Wisdom standards to uphold and which to discard – is particularly interesting, because the ‘pick and choose’ accusation so often goes the other way” (162).

[24] “It’s funny, because the church leaders always say that the world will change but God’s law will never change. But actually, the church has changed a whole lot.” (162)

[25] “Because Mormonism is such a high-sacrifice religion, leaving its orbit can be shattering” (230)

[26] Orthodox members aren’t the only ones with “right answers.” And just as gay-identifying folks are uniquely motivated to answer something about a question focused on change in a particular way – just as former members are clearly motivated to answer focused on life after the church in a particular way. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a legitimate experience to which they are referring, in both case (there is) – but simply noting strong influences to reach certain conclusions, despite whatever complexity might otherwise exist.

[27] She expressed, “binary questions are an important counterbalance to scaled questions, and we had several examples of both in our survey…Having more response options is often helpful, but not always. You need both.”

[28] “Despite any difficulties that their decision to leave may have caused them, the vast majority of former Mormons — more than nine out of ten — do not seem to be looking back with regret” (219)

[29] Elysse describes being dismissed by a neuroscience faculty member as a “social butterfly” despite high qualifications and grades.  Now Jana notes she is attending “Harvard University, where her talents are appreciated and she works around a hundred hours a week. Nobody today would ever accuse her of not being serious about science” (92)

[30] Emphasis added throughout (and anywhere else in the paper with italics)

[31] Speaking of gendered division of duties arising after WWII, she writes that this is the “expectation most living Mormons have always known” described by her as: “Men have gone out to work, and women have stayed home with the children; men run the church, and women do not” (96)

[32] For instance, she mentions the “budget disparity that can often exist between the amount spent on boys’ Scouting activities and the much smaller amount allocated to the Young Women” (96)

[33] If it’s true that sexual orientation represents a fundamental, essential part of who we are, then a lot of what activists do makes a whole lot of sense.  Indeed, from that vantage point, who we are shouldn’t be so darn complicated. And if identity is really this obvious and simple, it would make sense that the solution is also obvious and simple:  just accept who I am!

But it’s not really this simple, nor will it ever be.  Because what you are really saying is “you better accept how I see myself – the larger story I’ve come to believe about my identity – as true, real and good” (and in many cases, better than the story you’ve been telling me about my identity).

If that’s true, then maybe we ought to be making space for thoughtful exploration of the interesting differences in our competing understandings of who we are…not quite so simple sounding, right?

Nor is it as effective in promoting and advancing activism than simply accusing those who don’t share the new narrative advanced by gay activists as hateful.

[34] Terryl L. Givens says the following in Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis 1st Edition, p. 190: “Gender is eternal,” reaffirms the 1995 “Proclamation on the Family,” reiterating a position that has never varied in Mormon theology. Gender is defined as co-eternal with core human identity, that is, intelligence. Certainly, one does not experience one’s own sexual orientation as a contingent rather than essential facet of one’s identity.  However, Mormon theology of the human soul implies that, notwithstanding the reality and validity of the affective and emotional bonds that may unite same-sex couples as deeply and powerfully as those that govern heterosexual unions, the sexual component of a same-sex bond (which the church acknowledges is not itself a willed factor) is an epiphenomenal aspect of identity, in contradistinction to a competing eternal constituent, that is, gender.  Hormones and chemistry and conditioning all play indisputable roles in sexual attraction and sexual satisfaction, and Mormon theological anthropology implies that these may be aspects of a transitory mortal form peculiar to our temporal existence.  And in the case of same-sex attraction, that epiphenomenal dimension threatens to usurp the primary o a more essential gendered difference and re-directing two mortal beings from the only path that would in the eternities eventuate in the fullest measure of joy consistent with a particular eternal identity and destiny. Such, at least, appears to be the Mormon theology of gender and sexuality that drives the shape and limits the scope of temple sealing. At the same time, Mormon leaders have acknowledged that Mormon theology is not – or not yet – fully adequate to address a range of sex and gender issues that have become urgent in the contemporary environment.

[35] She describes an individual who “seems wary of being hurt again by the church’s barrage of pro-marriage rhetoric” (72)

[36] She describes singles who feel “judged or shamed, or express frustration that the church seems to be worshiping the nuclear family instead of Christ” (72)

[37] She claims the Church “created its distinctive religious identity in the crowded American religious landscape by emphasizing marriage and the nuclear family” (76).

[38] Ryan Gottfredson, Leading LDS blog, September 19, 2017.

[39] She writes, for instance, of former members who might wish for their families to be “watching for these prodigals from a long way off, filled with compassion and warmth” – noting that “So far, that has not been the experience of most former Mormons.” (231)

[40] “He [Joseph Smith] held many of the racial views that were prominent among whites in the early nineteenth century. The Book of Mormon taught that dark skin was a punishment, for example.” (117) About this passage, Jana admits “I certainly had no intention of suggesting that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, but from the material you have quoted here I can see why any reader would come to that interpretation. That is my mistake, clearly. Feel free to criticize it on this score, even though that was absolutely not my intention. My conversion experience is based on the Book of Mormon, so I’m fascinated that this is what I wrote. But any author is responsible for the text of a book as it is written, without expecting readers to understand the intent behind it, so you should feel free to point out that the sentence makes it sound as though I feel that JS wrote the Book of Mormon.”

[41] Keeping some things secret is not the same thing as lying about them – a nuance ignored in her own description: “He was particularly devastated when he learned about Joseph’s mendacious behavior toward women and other details about early Mormon polygamy” (219)

[42] Others have expressed similar concerns.  As one reviewer notes, “No doubt countless faculty will make it required reading. Especially if they wish to un-brainwash any Mormons (or any conservative Christian) in their captive audience. Besides the basic anti-Mormon, this book will suit those who wish to confirm their prejudices about Mormons, their Bishop, males, older members of the ward, and any other misgiving they have related to the topic.”

[43] Indeed, Duarte et al. (2015) propose this moment in American society as a “golden opportunity…to take seriously the threats caused by political homogeneity” and concluding that “the case for action is strong” to explore ways that the discipline of social science “can increase its political diversity and minimize the effects of political bias on its science.”

[44] The image is one of furtive, hidden strategy: “Once the outsized extent of Mormons’ campaigning and fundraising became known” (134)

[45] “Would Jesus spend tax-free dollars to support hate and injustice?” (134)

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