Those other kind of lies

Before we jump headfirst into this post, let’s pause for a moment and pay tribute to that famous saying popularized by Mark Twain:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

OK, does everyone feel better now? I know I do.

Speaking of statistics, Fox News reports on a Gallup Poll concerning potential support for Mormon presidential candidates:

Much has been made about whether evangelical Christians could support a Mormon presidential candidate like Mitt Romney in the GOP primary. But a recent Gallup poll shows Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to oppose a Mormon for president.

The survey suggests a candidate like Romney would have at least as tough a time overcoming voter anxiety in a general election as he would in the race for his party’s nomination. And, analysts say, the numbers underscore the lingering trouble Mormons are having gaining national and bipartisan acceptance as a product of their concentration in just a handful of states.

Here’s a key chunk of the first version of the Fox story that I read:

According to Census data, America has more Mormons than either Jews, Muslims or evangelical Christians. They have congregations across the country, even though they’re concentrated in Utah and other western states. While it follows that most of the 15 Mormons in Congress are from those states, their tight concentration could be making it harder to appeal to voters beyond the Rockies — particularly Democrats.

The poll showed that 27 percent of Democrats would not be willing to vote for a presidential candidate of their party who happened to be Mormon. Among Republicans, that number was 18 percent.

See any problems with that initial attribution? My first thought was that I didn’t realize the Census Bureau collected that kind of data on religious affiliation. Apparently, they don’t, as Census reports I Googled attribute that kind of information to other sources. I am no expert on this subject, so there is every possibility I’m missing something. Please feel free to educate me. But I notice that the latest version of the Fox report has edited the attribution to “data from the American Religious Identification Survey.”

Still, in such a blanket statement as more Mormons than either Jews, Muslims or evangelical Christians, does anything else strike you? For anyone who grew up watching “Sesame Street,” which one of these things is not like the other?

A Mormon is a Mormon. A Jew is a Jew. A Muslim is a Muslim. But who is an evangelical Christian? According to the American Religious Identification Survey, there were 3.2 million adult Mormons, 2.7 million adult Jews, 1.3 million adult Muslims and 2.2 million adult Evangelical/Born Again Christians in 2008. Someone give Fox News a math prize!

Except …

There’s a note by the evangelical stat with this warning:

Because of the subjective nature of replies to open-ended questions, these categories are the most unstable as they do not refer to clearly identifiable denominations as much as underlying feelings about religion.

Oh, there are a few other stats on the same report: 36.1 million Baptist adults, 16.8 million Christians with no denomination, 5.4 million Pentecostal/Charismatic adults, etc. Just for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, any chance any of those folks might also consider themselves evangelicals? As opposed to Fox’s 2.2 million figure on evangelicals, other sources put the number as high as 100 million. But hey, let’s not quibble over such a small difference …

According to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches by the National Council of Churches, Mormons rank fourth in size behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church with 6.1 million members. Now, as I understand it, those stats are mainly self-reported by denominations and up for questioning, but (psssssssst, Fox) such a figure might give a more concrete idea of the Mormon population in America.

Fox spends the rest of the story mainly trying to analyze why Democrats might be more adverse to Mormons than Republicans. Reasons explored range from concern about Mormons being socially conservative to “intolerance.” But Fox totally ignores a key possible explanation given by Gallup itself:

The largest differences in opposition to voting for a Mormon for president are by educational level, with adults who have not attended college more resistant than those with some college experience or college graduates. This educational pattern is seen in attitudes about voting for someone from almost all of the specific religious or demographic groups tested in the poll.

Could it be that significantly more self-identified Republicans have four-year degrees than Democrats, thus explaining the difference in the poll? Sorry, I hate to ask because I really don’t want to ruin Fox’s perfectly compelling storyline.

Anyway, what was it that Mark Twain said?

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Matt

    The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reports that 26.3% of the U.S. population is affiliated with an evangelical Protestant church, while 1.7% is Mormon. Fox is off by more than an order of magnitude.

  • C. Wingate

    OK, well here’s a more basic journalistic sin: in the 21st century there is no excuse for an online story not to link back to an online source!

    And to me the most striking number (if not the most relevant to the current contest) is that half those surveyed said that they would prefer not to vote for an atheist. To me that says a great deal about American religiosity.

  • CarlH

    So, somebody’s upset that Fox used a fuzzy blend of statistics and/or poll results (and wrongly attributes them to the U.S. Census), and also seemingly fail to understand the difference between a blurry religious category and denominational identifiers, which tends to grossly overstate the relative sizes of the “evangelical” and “Mormon” populations of the U.S. I get that part.

    But we get told about it under a headline “Those other kind of lies” (and yes, I realize the Twain quote tie in that is made clear in the post) directly above a video insert with a title “Mormonism: What Mormons Believe”? And this is from GetReligion no less? I certainly have come to expect better; perhaps I need to reevaluate.

  • Jerry

    Sorry, I hate to ask because I really don’t want to ruin Fox’s perfectly compelling storyline.

    And I have to ask what Fox’s political motivation is to have run that story with that headline

  • Jettboy

    CarlH , I totally agree that the Title juxtaposed above a video of what a Mormon believes is in poor taste. I will give Belief Net the benefit of the doubt they didn’t try to make the association on purpose, but also expect some kind of clarification in the headline.

    I would suggest: “When Statistics Lie,” or if you want to be more playful, “Here Lies the Numbers.”

  • Jettboy

    I mean, Get Religion the benefit of the doubt. Is that other place still even in existence (I kid)?

  • Bobby

    OK, well here’s a more basic journalistic sin: in the 21st century there is no excuse for an online story not to link back to an online source!

    Totally agree. I had to Google to trace back the sourcing, inadequate as it was. Also appreciate the Pew link.

    Concerning the video, I looked for one directly related to the news story but couldn’t find one in a hurry. I did find a few YouTube videos of Romney news coverage but decided not to single out Romney in a post about the percentage of folks who would not vote for a Mormon. So I settled on the embedded video, which is a Mormon-produced video of beliefs and certainly not anything negative toward Mormons.

  • CD-Host

    Good points. When it comes to religious data the first place I go is pew: Most other surveys use very questionable criteria.

    Anyway IMHO I don’t believe Romney would be hurt in the general by being Mormon. My feeling is there are two groups of Americans that have a negative view of Mormons:

    Bigoted Evangelical Christians. The fact is they hate Obama already. And if religion becomes a theme in the campaign, the more they find about the United Church of Christ (Obama’s church) the more the religion thing would drop out or even play to Romney’s favor.

    Hardcore secularists. That is people who wouldn’t vote for any kind of religious conservative. Essentially 100% of which were planning on voting Democrat regardless of who won the Republican primary.

    Now in the primary that’s a different story. If its Bachmann v. Romney in the later states I don’t think religion plays much of a role. Herman Cain v. Romney it might.

  • christian church

    You made some very useful and interesting points within your post. I like the way of your explanation. Very useful for all readers.

  • Will

    But Mr. Host, not even “Bigoted Evangelicals” label the UCC with the devil-word “cult”.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I wouldn’t get all warm and fuzzy over the Pew statistics, either. Go look at their sample and method….then try to figure how they came up with the “fact”, that, at one time (undefined), one THIRD of all children born in the US were born to Catholic families. Whooooooaaaaaa!

  • CD-Host

    Will –

    But Mr. Host, not even “Bigoted Evangelicals” label the UCC with the devil-word “cult”.

    Here is what I would say. The Mormon church says mean things about other churches in their doctrines, they are fallen churches….. Evangelical churches say mean things about the Mormon church, and like most majority vs. minority issues this has a disparate impact.

    The UCC says mean things about Evangelicals on television to a non-Christian audience. They take the fight public, That is whole other level of hostility, I have a post on my blog from when Obama was starting to make a name for himself against Hillary, that links to 3 of their commercials:

    You have to think about the sort of person who uses the word “cult” for a mainstream religious group in its 7th generation which has had no major controversies in over in century. I think the average Evangelical bigot might think very poorly of the LDS but genuinely hate the UCC when they got to know them better. They just don’t know much about them.

    In 2008 we had election between:
    A guy who was nominally an Episcopalian, who almost never went to church. He had a wife who two decades ago testified under oath that the reason she was hanging out with Keating was the hottub parties with strippers and drugs, and kids who basically never go to church…


    A guy with 3 decades of activism in an extremely liberal church in the most liberal mainline protestant denomination. And after you look at those commercials, their curent commercial features a gay marriage being officiated at the UCC and labor activism.


    I think for the very small number of voters on the right that don’t like the LDS, 2012 will be a repeat of 2008. They won’t like either guy’s religion and they’ll figure that at least Romney agrees with them on the social issues.

    And just to compound this, remember Obama has a vice presidential candidate who is pro choice and argues his position based on Catholic doctrine i.e. directly challenges the magisterium on a crucial matter of faith and morals (I wrote this about Nancy Pelosi, but the same argument holds for Biden:

    I really and truly think Mitt Romney is fine in the general. Neither one of these guys wanted to get into a religion off with Romney.

  • CD-Host

    Jim I’m not sure I follow the objection. 22% of the US is Catholic. The only major racial group in the US with the high birthrates is Hispanics and they are over 90% Catholic.

    That data sounds reasonable. Why are you objecting?

  • http://yahoo shaun williams

    The Mormons will have pulled off a modern day miracle if either Mitt or Jon is elected as President, I feel sure that the american people will elect someone else. I would vote for Rick Perry if he runs, he seems like a good choice and one who is not weighed down with scandal and who actually has experience in running a state with good solid results.

  • Bill

    Bobby, I beg your indulgence. If this post wanders briefly off topic, I hope to tie the tracks together with several recent GR posts.

    IIRC, Mark Twain also wrote that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. The Fall 2010 issue of the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal has an article by Michael K. Winder about TR and the LDS. I could find no link, but I’m guessing the Association would be happy to provide copies to journalists. In 1900, as McKinley’s VP running mate, Roosevelt sought Mormon support and met with LDS leaders to hear them out and make sure they did not secretly support polygamy. (The LDS had renounced the practice in 1890.) He was convinced that the LDS Church truly had renounced polygamy, which he considered an abomination. He did very much admire the Mormons’ hardihood, hard work and fecundity, and thought they made fine Americans. This was not a popular position.

    In 1903, a Mormon apostle, Reed Smoot, was elected US Senator from Utah. Many senators objected to seating him, and the Smoot hearings were held until 1907. Roosevelt strongly supported Smoot.

    Roosevelt despised polygamy and argued that marriage was so important it should be controlled by Congress, not by the states. Below is a link from an LDS website.

    Today we face issues that rhyme with those of a century ago. Who has the authority to decide what constitutes a legal marriage? What is the nature and boundaries of church/state relations? Of states’ rights and federal jurisdiction? What are the rights and responsibilities of an unfamiliar and unpopular religion?

    Was it intolerance and hate to oppose polygamy? Considering that the Mormons had left the United States (Utah was claimed by Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848) was it merely latterphobia to regard them with suspicion?

    I remember the worries in 1960 that JFK would be a tool of the Vatican. A century earlier there were anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia. Churches and convents were burned down; people were killed. Mormons and Catholics had to prove themselves good citizens. Over time, they did. Today, Muslims are faced with the same challenge. (9/11 did not help their cause.)

    I hear a lot of rhymes. But then, I’m an old goat and my mind might just be drifting. Still, modern journalists would be well served to study more history and fewer opinion polls.

  • Ann Rodgers

    For future reference:
    It is illegal for the U.S. census to ask any questions about religious identification.
    Most survey data I’ve seen puts the evangelical population of the US at just over 25 percent. That may be an underestimate because most of these surveys don’t count the still rather significant number of evangelicals in the mainline Protestant churches. (Of course I think they also count a bunch of theologically inarticulate people who once went forward at an altar call but haven’t opened a Bible since. So it may even out)

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Bill: Your argument that the Mormon pioneers “left the United States” and therefore were presumptively disloyal to America ignores some basic history: (1) The Mormons were literally kicked out of the state of Missouri in 1838 under an order from Governor Lilburn Boggs that if they did not leave they shouold be “exterminated”. (2) The Mormons were literally kicked out of Illinois in 1846 because they were growing so fast that they were starting to acquire political power. (3) In 1847, before the first pioneer company set out from what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa (it was a Mormon town named Kanesville at the time), the US Army got Brigham Young’s help in enlisting 500 Mormon men into the Mormon Battalion to fight in the war with Mexico, securing New Mexico and southern California, marching all the way to San Diego (There is a visitor center in Balboa Park that commemorates this). The Mormons knew they were going to be in US controlled territory, due partly to their own efforts, but they were intentionally seeking someplace that was not viewed as desirable by other people in order to avoid the kinds of persecution they had experienced for 15 years in the more populated United States.

    In 1857, Brigham Young and the Mormons were minding their own business out in Utah, where Young was serving as appointed governor of Utah Territory, when President James Buchanan, on the basis of uncorroborated libels, sent a third of the US Army to put down a fictitious “Mormon Rebellion”. Recently historians have found letters from Buchanan in which he plans to drive the Mormons south into Mexico as an excuse to open a new war and claim more land for the US.

    Given this history, it is amazing that Mormons were in fact loyal to the Union when the Civil War broke out, when they might have seceded while the US Army was busy back East.

    Indeed, much of the anti-Mormon propaganda of the late Nineteenth Century played up the fact that many Mormons were immigrants from those strange lands of Britain and Scandinavia. At the time, Swedes and Norwegians were regarded the way Mexicans are today.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    You have provided a reasonable explanation for why anti-Mormon bias is so much stronger among Democrats, namely that they are not as well educated as Republicans.

    However, it is also worth noting that surveys of university faculty have also found that Mormons are viewed negatively by a large portion of people with PhDs, even though Mormons are overrepresented in Academia at about twice their percentage in the US population. The second most resented group among professors are Evangelical Christians, who are underrepresented among faculties. And as the article you cited says, college professors are overwhelingly Democrats.

    So the picture that emerges is of a Democratic Party whose most educated people, who have major influence in developing its policies, are defining an anti-Mormon bias, which is uncritically reflected among its least educated affiliants. Democrats are not anti-Mormon just out of ignorance, but because their teachers are teaching them to be anti-Mormon.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Finally, on the theme of Mormons “proving themselves good citizens”: Like the hundred thousand blacks who enlisted for the Union in the Civil War, and the Japanese-Americans who enlisted in the 442 Regimental Combat Team out of FDR’s concentration camps, the Mormons “proved” their citizenship by fighting for America in all of the wars of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

    BYU, as was noted by General Petraeus when he spoke there last year, has the largest ROTC enrollment in the US of any non-military university. The Utah National Guard (commanded by one of my law school classmates) supplies interpreters for the US Army worldwide. Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah, is one of the major aircraft and missile maintenance facilities, and hosts an Air Force Reserve wing of F-16 fighter pilots who often beat active duty pilots in competitions, and which has deployed repeatedly to the Middle East.

    If Mormons like me (20 years service in the Air Force) are good enough to fight and sometimes die for America, we are darn well entitled to run for president on an equal footing with every other American of whatever religious belief. We have earned that right.