The Pew Research Center recently conducted a study on Mormon volunteerism. “Mormon” is a nickname often applied to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though Church leaders are putting a special emphasis on the official name of the Church to dispel misconceptions about whether or not the religion is Christian.
On March 15, 2012, The Pew Research Center held a Forum on Religion & Public Life. It was a roundtable discussion in which the scholars who led the study shared their findings on Mormons and their place in American society and public life with journalists, other scholars, and policy experts. A representative from each area of the study shared his group’s findings with the forum. A question-and-answer session followed, and the forum was informative and respectful.
Mormons are the most pro-social members in American society
Ram Cnaan, University of Pennsylvania, has spent years studying ”who gives and who volunteers in our society.” His research has shown that the average American who volunteers does so for about 3 to 4 hours each month. He stressed this average does not include Americans who do not volunteer at all; it is just the average of those who do serve. Cnaan compared these findings with Latter-day Saints (“Mormon”) volunteering in four areas: religious activities, church-affiliated volunteering to help meet social needs of people in the church, church-affiliated activities helping people outside the church, and activities outside of the church completely. He found the average church-going Latter-day Saint volunteers 36 hours per month, compared to the average American volunteer’s 3 to 4 hours per month. The monetary value of this time is about $9,140 annually.
In addition to the service Latter-day Saints give, Cnaan’s group also studied how much they donate. He divided donations into three kinds: secular giving (outside the Church), welfare giving (within the Church), and extra religious giving (on top of tithing—10% of one’s annual income). So, not including tithing, the average church-going Latter-day Saint (“Mormon”) donates about $1,821 dollars annually for social causes both within and outside of the Church, but exclusive of tithing.
Cnaan concluded, “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints are the most pro-social members in American society.”
Relation of helping the poor to being a good Mormon
Greg Smith, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, focused his part of the study on the importance faithful Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) attach to helping the poor. He posed a series of questions to the participants in his study:
- How important is believing that Joseph Smith actually saw God the Father and Jesus Christ for being a good Mormon?
- How about not drinking coffee and tea?
- How important is having regular home evenings or family nights?
- How important is it to avoid watching R-rated movies?
- And lastly, how important is working to help the poor and the needy?
Participants were asked to answer these questions as being essential, important but not essential, not too important, or not at all important for being a good Mormon. Smith concluded:
Our survey finds that nearly three-quarters of Mormons say that working to help the poor and needy is an essential part of what it means to be a good Mormon. It’s not just an important part. It’s not just a nice thing to do. Helping the poor is essential to what it means to being a good Mormon.
I was struck by the number of Mormons who say working to help the poor and needy is essential to their religion. The number who say that is almost as high as the number who say it’s essential to believe that Joseph Smith actually saw God the Father and Jesus Christ.
The mechanism behind Mormon networks is not unique
David Campbell, University of Notre Dame, compared the Mormon people, their culture, and their bonding to people of other faiths and concluded that the vast majority of the service Latter-day Saints give is to their own culture and Church—not exclusively, but the majority. “There is no doubt that Mormons are the highest when it comes to religious volunteering and other types of volunteering,” Campbell remarked.
However, he pointed out that this helps Latter-day Saints build strong bonds with each other, but those bonds may come at the expense of building bridges with other faiths and communities.
Campbell concluded by saying:
So my bottom line is that Mormons definitely represent a distinctive group in American society. And they’re perhaps unique in their levels of volunteerism. But they’re not unique in the mechanism that leads to that level. If I could just close on this note, the fact that these social networks are being formed to make tight connections among Mormons means that Mormons are not as well-integrated into their own communities — that is, among people of other faiths — as perhaps they could be. That is reflected in the relatively poor perception that Mormons have in broader American society.
The forum was an excellent discussion of a variety of beliefs and different perspectives interpreting the same religion, as well as viewing parallels between Mormonism and other religions.