09/03/2014 03:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Just How Big Is the 'Mormon Left'?

The rank and file of the Mormon Church in the United States is widely, and correctly, perceived to be overwhelmingly conservative-leaning and deferential to authority. It is the vocal members of the more progressive-leaning Mormon left, however, that seem to be getting all the attention lately. This can been seen in the news media coverage surrounding this summer's church disciplinary actions against high-profile feminists and intellectuals.

While some Mormon leaders have called for compassion and understanding towards these individuals, other leaders have reminded those who disagree with the Church's policy on female ordination, for example, that they are a very small minority. Is this the case, though? Do we know about how many Mormons constitute that minority? Whether or not the Mormon Left is a substantial minority or an extreme super-minority may have important ramifications for the viability and success of future efforts by Mormon intellectuals and progressives to shape the future direction of their faith tradition.

Recently, David E. Campbell, John C. Green, and J. Quin Monson published Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. This is one of the first comprehensive and scholarly quantitative analyses of Mormon political behavior in the United States. In Chapter 3, the authors develop four different indices of "Mormonness": 1) Activity (degree of religious practice), 2) Authority (degree of obedience to the institutional church), 3) Insularity (degree of social separation from wider society, and 4) Identity (degree of self-identification and affinity with the group). (See page 63.) They measure each of these factors through a national online survey of Mormons in the United States fielded in 2012.

For our purposes, the Authority index perhaps best captures the differences between traditionalistic, conservative Mormons and more progressive, left-leaning Mormons. This index was constructed by combining responses to these five questions (from Appendix 3A.2, pg 72):
  1. "Which comes closer to your view: 1) The Church has specific standards for obeying the Sabbath 4) obeying the Sabbath means deciding for yourself what is appropriate?" 1: 33%; 2: 30%; 3: 24%; 4: 13%
  2. "Which comes closer to your view: 1) A good Latter-day Saint should obey the counsel of priesthood leaders without necessarily knowing why 4) a good Latter-day Saint should first seek his or her own personal revelation as the motivation to obey?" 1: 11%; 2: 29%; 3: 29%; 4: 31%
  3. "Which comes closer to your view: 1) Some teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe 4) I believe wholeheartedly in all the teachings of the LDS church?" 1: 8%; 2: 10%; 3: 19%; 4: 63%
  4. "Women do not have enough say in the LDS Church." Strongly agree: 5%; Agree: 11%; Disagree: 35%; Strongly disagree: 49%
  5. "The fact that women do not hold the priesthood sometimes bothers me." Strongly agree: 3%; Agree: 11%, Disagree: 24%; Strongly disagree 63%
Each question was recoded so that higher values corresponded with higher levels of obedience to institutional authority. They were then combined into a single index giving a 0-1 scale. Here is the distribution of responses:


Source: Campbell, Green, and Monson 2014 pg 65, from "Peculiar People Survey 2012"

If we take the half-way point as the "cutoff" between traditionalistic and progressive Mormons, this distribution suggests that roughly 15% of American Mormons are on the "progressive" side of the spectrum, although there appears to be a good deal of variation even on the traditionalist end. Also, this Authority measure is correlated 0.57 with the Activity index (pg. 67 footnote 29), which means that there is a moderately strong relationship between being an active practicing Mormon and a traditionalistic Mormon. This suggests that the proportion of "active" Mormons who also would either sympathize or identify as a "progressive" Mormon is probably somewhere in the ballpark of 10%.

What does this suggest for the future of Mormonism? It suggests that active, progressive Mormons certainly have their work cut out for them if they wish to be an influential voice going forward within their tradition as they represent only about 10% of the total American church active membership. That being said, this evidence also suggests that they constitute a critical mass that cannot be simply marginalized, ignored, or dismissed by the Mormon community either.