THE BLOG

Mormon "Middle Way" Approach to LGBT Protections Boosts Its Public Favorability

05/08/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

As the Supreme Court is set to rule next month on the Constitutionality of same-sex marriage, many political and religious leaders continue to seek a balance between LGBT rights and religious freedom. While Indiana's recent attempt was roundly criticized, a recent nationwide poll suggests that the Mormon Church's approach (which guided the enactment of recent legislation in Utah) was seen more favorably. In January, Mormon leaders publicly announced official support for legal protections for LGBT Americans in terms of housing and employment (with some important exceptions, including religious institutions) while simultaneously affirming their support of "religious freedom" in the public square and reiterating their opposition to same-sex marriage.

According to the 2015 Colonel's Canvass Poll, conducted by researchers (including myself) at Centre College, roughly one-third (30.4%) of Americans report awareness of the Mormon Church's efforts to promote legal protections for LGBT individuals while simultaneously affirming the importance of religious freedom. Slightly over 1 in 10 Americans (13.7%) say that they followed the news story either very closely or fairly closely.

Of those who have followed the story, 32.6% say that Mormon Church's efforts have given them a "more favorable" view of the religion, whereas 10.9% report that it has produced a "less favorable" view. The remaining 56.5% say that this did not change their view of the Mormon Church one way or another. Combining these responses shows that 9.5% of all those surveyed are both aware of this news story and that it resulted in a more favorable view of the Mormon Church, while 3.2% are both aware and acquired a less favorable view (with 16.5% aware but no change). In contrast, nearly two-thirds of Americans were not aware of the Mormon Church's activities on this matter.

There is a small difference in terms of Protestant reactions to this issue. 16.7% of evangelical Protestants who followed the news story formed a less favorable view of the Mormon Church compared to only 2.9% of mainline Protestants. Approximately a third of both evangelical (33.3%) and mainline (32.4%) Protestants, however, formed a more favorable view.

The Mormon Church's support of legal protections for LGBT individuals also had a strong positive effect among theological moderates (those who believe that their religion or church should "adjust its beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances") and modernists (who want to "adopt modern beliefs and practices"). 34.7% of theological moderates and 33.3% of theological modernists who were aware of the news story reported that it resulted in a more favorable view of the Mormon Church. In contrast, only 8.8% of theological traditionalists (who prefer to "preserve traditional beliefs and practices") reported a more favorable view while 26.5% reported a less favorable view.

Politically, 40.3% of Democrats who were aware of the issue reported a more favorable view of the Mormon Church and 6.5% reported a less favorable view. Meanwhile, 20.5% of Republicans who were aware of the issue formed a more favorable view compared to 23.1% who formed a less favorable view. This is not surprising given the partisan divide on same-sex marriage. Given the Mormon Church's strong association with the Republican Party in the United States, though, it's noteworthy that the Mormon effort to emphasize protections for LGBT individuals was received so favorably by Democrats but not by Republicans.

The Mormon Church's efforts also boosted its favorability among college graduates (43.5% reporting a more favorable view compared to 19.4% of non-college graduates) and among younger individuals (40.4% of those under 50 reporting a more favorable view compared to 21.5% of those over 50). Given that younger, better educated Americans are increasingly likely to disassociate from organized religion, this suggests that taking a more tolerant and accepting view toward the LGBT community is exactly what religious institutions, including the Mormon Church, may need to consider in order to remain relevant and influential in coming years and decades.

Excommunication of Mormon Podcaster John Dehlin Viewed More Negatively

While the Mormon Church has recently emphasized its support for legal protections for LGBT individuals in terms of housing and employment, it has simultaneously reaffirmed its strong opposition to same-sex marriage. Not all Mormons are in agreement, however, with their church's position. On February 10, 2015, popular Mormon podcaster John Dehlin was excommunicated for public disagreement with many fundamental teachings of Mormonism as well as for active public advocacy for women's ordination and recognition of same-sex marriages in his church.

About one in five (19.8%) of those polled reported that they were aware of John Dehlin's excommunication, with only 10.6% saying that they followed this news story either very closely or fairly closely. Of those who followed the story, 19.9% reported a "more favorable" view of the Mormon Church as a result, with 26.8% reporting a "less favorable" view. The remaining 53.3% said it did not change their view of the Mormon Church one way or the other. Combining responses of the two questions shows that only 3.8% of the public is both aware of Dehlin's excommunication and that it produced a more favorable view of the Mormon Church, compared to 5.1% who are both aware and acquired a less favorable view.

Less frequent church attenders who were aware of the news story were split on the effects of Dehlin's excommunication on their view of the Mormon Church. 30.6% of those who attend church less than a few times a month gained a more favorable view while for 32.7% it resulted in a less favorable view. Those who are more frequent church attenders were less likely to be swayed in their opinions if they were aware of the story, as the excommunication resulted in a more favorable view by 9.3% and a less favorable view of the Mormon Church by 22.2%.

This suggests that Dehlin's excommunication may have minor, but negative, effects on the Mormon Church's proselyting efforts, as more religiously active Americans (prime targets for the church's missionary appeals) who knew about the issue were more likely to have formed a more negative rather than a positive response by a 2 to 1 margin. That being said, the proportion of Americans who are active church goers, aware of the news story, and had a negative opinion as a result is only about two and half percent - or about 1 out of every 40 Americans.

Politically speaking, 28.9% of Democrats gained a more favorable view of the Mormon Church as a result of Dehlin's excommunication while 15.6% gained a less favorable view. In contrast, only 16% of Republicans gained a more favorable view while 36% gained a less favorable view.

While it not possible to know for sure from the results of this survey, one possible reason that Democrats received a more positive view of the Mormon Church as a result of Dehlin's excommunication compared to Republicans is that it highlighted that Mormonism is not a monolithically conservative religion in the United States. It showed that there are some Mormons who are pro-gay marriage and pro-women's ordination and that they're not afraid to publicly disagree with some of their church's teachings. This would be more appealing to religious progressives and liberals as a whole who are more likely to identify as Democrats rather than Republicans.

Conducted by Benjamin Knoll and Chris Paskewich, assistant professors of politics at Centre College, the "2015 Colonel's Canvass Poll" was part of a community-based learning component of their spring 2015 courses. In all, 90 students participated in fielding the survey and administering the questions to respondents. The randomized, nationally representative telephone survey was conducted March 12-18, 2015. It sampled 715 respondents, 62% of whom were reached via landline and 38% via cellphone. The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 3.7% for the full sample, 6% for the news awareness subsamples, and up to 10% for the various demographic subsamples. Full topline results for the survey questions associated with this release can be found here: http://web.centre.edu/benjamin.knoll/2015CSStoplineC.pdf.