Why Mormons Make Good Neighbors
In the midst of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt came across a newspaper clipping about the ancestry of England's Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine. The newspaper article noted the couple's common heritage with Mormons in Utah. As Roosevelt and Churchill had become friends by this time, the president sent the clipping to the prime minister, accompanied by a lighthearted letter.
"Hitherto I had not observed any outstanding Mormon characteristics in either of you," he wrote. "But I shall be looking for them from now on." He further added, "I have a very high opinion of the Mormons . . . they are excellent citizens."
More recently, one Orthodox Christian commentator observed that the faith produces "exemplary people" who in turn "make good neighbors."
Today there is a growing body of independent research suggesting that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes nicknamed "Mormons," do indeed make good neighbors and citizens.
Recent studies reveal that practicing Latter-day Saints tend to be healthier, happier, better educated, and more committed to family values. They are also more likely to be socially connected and engaged in volunteerism and charitable giving. This link between what faithful Latter-day Saints believe and what they feel impelled to do with that belief is an incredibly powerful force within the faith. This is not to say that Church members do not experience difficult struggles and serious problems—I know firsthand that they do. Rather, it simply implies that the faith and lifestyle of church-attending Latter-day Saints provides a unique resource that helps to meet life's challenges. In turn, these Church members are well equipped to lend a hand in the communities where they live.
The Latter-day Saint health code is one of the faith's most distinguishing features. Given by revelation to the Church's founding prophet, Joseph Smith, the code encourages eating grains, fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but strongly discourages using tobacco and consuming alcohol, tea, and coffee. In addition, practicing Latter-day Saints forgo food for 24 hours once a month as a fast. Subsequently, they donate what they don't spend on meals to the poor as "fast offerings" or alms. This religiously influenced diet has a profound effect on the lifelong physical health of adherents.
To better understand this effect, Dr. James Enstrom at the UCLA School of Public Health looked at populations that have been practicing the faith for an extended period of time. Enstrom's 25-year longitudinal study focused on members of the Church in California and concluded that these individuals—particularly those who were married, had never smoked, attended church weekly, and had at least twelve years of education—had total death rates that were among the lowest ever reported for a well-defined group followed for 25 years. They also had "among the longest life expectancies yet reported." The average life expectancy of Latter-day Saint women was 86.1 years—five and a half years longer than comparable females in the United States. Latter-day Saint males had a life expectancy of 84.1 years—nearly ten years longer than that of comparable males. The authors of this study have been publishing results periodically, and the most recent update, completed in 2007, made the following comment: "The low death rates . . . observed during the first 8 years [of this study] have persisted for 25 years." It is impressive that these results have been sustained for so long.
A separate research effort identified the heart health benefits associated with fasting. Researchers at Intermountain Health Care found that people who fasted once a month, as do Latter-day Saints, were about 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with clogged arteries than those who did not regularly fast. Medical professionals had thought for decades that tobacco use probably accounted for essentially all of the difference in heart disease rates between Latter-day Saints and others. But after controlling for smoking, researchers still saw a lower rate of heart disease among Church members. They designed a study to figure out why.
They focused on other Latter-day Saint practices: monthly fasting; avoiding tea, coffee, and alcohol; taking a weekly day of rest; going to church; and donating time and money to charity. Only fasting made a significant difference. Surprisingly, the difference persisted even when researchers took into account weight, age, and conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. It is clear that the practices associated with being a faithful Church member, including fasting, lead to greater health and longevity.
While better health also contributes to personal happiness, many other factors enter into the high levels of life satisfaction reported by Latter-day Saints. In their landmark book American Grace, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell survey extensive research suggesting a positive relationship between religion and life satisfaction—put simply, they say, "many researchers have found that religious people are happier." Mormons, of course, are no exception. In 2009, both Gallup and Forbes identified Utah, the state with the highest concentration of Mormons, as having citizens with the greatest levels of "wellbeing" or "quality of life."
Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religious Life released a broad study titled Mormons in America. This comprehensive look at Latter-day Saints showed that "the overwhelming majority [of Church members] are satisfied in their own lives and content with their communities." Nearly nine out of ten reported being satisfied with their lives. That is higher than the U.S. public generally (75%). Among younger Latter-day Saints, Pew says, the numbers are even greater: "Fully 92% of Mormons under age 50 are satisfied with their lives." Within the Mormon community, those with the highest levels of religious commitment are more satisfied than those with lower levels of religious commitment (91% to 78%).
In their book, Putnam and Campbell note that "the correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction is powerful and robust." Accordingly, by the Pew Center's scale faithful Latter-day Saints rank higher in religiosity than any other group. Nearly seven in ten Mormons (69%) exhibit strong religious commitment—more than any other religious group surveyed and substantially more than the U.S. public generally (30%). Gallup polling research confirms that the religiously devout lead "noticeably happier, more fulfilled lives"; practicing Latter-day Saints appear to be a paradigmatic example of this phenomenon.
Studies have shown a sturdy correlation between religious inclination and family-centered values, which put the needs of the spouse, children, and others first. Participation in such values, including family life, contributes to increased personal happiness. Statistics show heavy participation in family life among Latter-day Saints. The U.S. Census Bureau reveals that Utah has the greatest percentage of households headed by married couples in the country, and the highest percentage of homes with children. Furthermore, according to the Pew Center survey, two-thirds (67%) of Mormon adults report being married; a full 15 percent higher than the national average. It is therefore not surprising that the vast majority of Americans equate pro-family values with Latter-day Saints. According to a 2008 survey, nearly nine out of ten Americans (87%) identified Mormons as having strong family values.
For Latter-day Saints the family is theologically paramount. We believe that families can live together forever. An official Church declaration, "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," states that "the family is central to the Creator's plan for the eternal destiny of His children." These teachings influence the most intimate aspirations of faithful Latter-day Saints. Four of five Mormons (81%) say "being a good parent is one of their most important goals in life," while just 50 percent of the general public says the same. Furthermore, nearly three out of four Mormons (73%) believe that, "having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life," compared with 34 percent of the general public.
One prominent scholar recently called Joseph Smith's "insistence upon education" the faith's greatest inheritance. And indeed research confirms that "active, participating Mormons are unusual in their level of educational attainment." This appears to hold true in places outside of the United States. In fact, in areas such as Mexico, where the comparison standard is post-primary rather than college experience, Church members exceed the national rate by a factor of two.
Latter-day Saint holy writ declares that the "glory of God is intelligence" and teaches that "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience . . . he will have so much the advantage in the world to come." These doctrines have a profound impact. While many today perceive educational attainment as something that diminishes faith, various studies confirm that the more education a Latter-day Saint obtains, the more likely she or he will be actively involved in the Church. The Pew Center's survey indicated that this phenomenon is unique to Latter-day Saints. The study noted that "Mormons who have graduated from college display the highest levels of religious commitment (84%) followed by those with some college education (75%)." Church members with a high school education or less exhibited substantially lower levels of religious commitment (50%) on this scale.
In addition to encouraging participation in normal educational channels, the Church provides a multifaceted program of religious education that begins in the home and is bolstered through programs that support the individual's and family's learning.
Along with weekly Sunday School for all ages, our young people attend something we call early-morning seminary. Before regular school begins, many Mormon teens attend an hour-long class where they study the Holy Bible and other scriptures and Church history. Similarly, university-level students attend religious institute classes that complement post-secondary education. These and other personal studies have a cumulative effect. For example, in one recent survey, Mormons were the most knowledgeable about Christianity and the Bible and were third only to atheists and Jewish participants in knowledge about other world religions.
While many know that the Church owns and operates four accredited not-for-profit colleges and universities, including Brigham Young University, few know about the smaller grade schools that the Church operates in places ranging from Mexico to Fiji. The Church also sponsors literacy initiatives around the globe, and has undertaken an ingenious program called the Perpetual Education Fund. Many youth in the Church who serve two-year missions come from countries and backgrounds of significant poverty. Too often they return home only to once again face impoverished circumstances in their country with no means to rise out of their situations. The Perpetual Education Fund provides these young adults with the support and resources necessary to gain vocational training and higher education. After they have finished their education they pay back what they received. To date, this program has benefitted more than 50,000 persons in fifty-one countries. On average, these students complete their education in 2.6 years and experience three to four times greater income after graduation than before.
Elder Larry Y. Wilson currently serves as a General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a graduate of both Harvard and Stanford Universities. For the most part, the statistics cited in this article are based on independent research about practicing Latter-day Saints.