College survey shows how to turn suspicion of Latter-day Saints into appreciation

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Students at Utah Valley University in this 2016 file photo.

On college campuses across America, incoming freshmen had the most negative opinion of their Mormon classmates — of all the various faiths or worldviews of their peers — until they became friends with one.

That changed everything. Their appreciation of Latter-day Saints grew dramatically and so did their openness to people of all perspectives.

That’s according to the IDEALS study (Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey) that followed a cohort of more than 7,000 students who attended 122 diverse colleges and universities in 2015 and 2016, tracking changes over time in interfaith learning and development — as well as trends in their friendships.

The overall survey, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, included 285 self-identified members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The results surprised researchers, says Kevin Singer, an evangelical Christian at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who is helping with the project.

Given the reputation of Latter-day Saints as social conservatives, with exclusive religious truth claims and an eagerness to share them, Singer says, these findings “suggest that LDS students come to college with a high commitment to make diverse friends and a common-good ethic that rubs off on their peers.”

As for Mormonism’s vaunted commitment to missionary approaches, which can be off-putting to college students, Singer says, their classmates either are responding “more positively to proselytizing or maybe Latter-day Saint students are not as committed to converting others as they are expected to be.”

Maybe, he speculates, they are already “more pluralistic than we think.”

“My mom would be like, ‘Oh, don’t go [to a Mormon church], they’re going to brainwash you.’ ‘Mom, no.’ People have such negative reviews, they need to learn about it themselves. Like me going to a mosque, I have no idea that these people are so similar. You have to actually go and see where they worship and see it firsthand.”

Female poll participant, nondenominational Baptist Christian, undergraduate at a public university in the Southeast

Beating expectations

Michael Austin, executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of Evansville, a United Methodist school in Indiana, is aware that Latter-day Saints may have the worst reputation of any religious group among college students, including Muslims.

“Mormons are held in suspicion by both conservative fundamentalists (who think that we are religious heretics and cultists) and liberal intellectuals (who see us as conservative fundamentalists),” Austin, a Latter-day Saint, writes in an email. “Muslim students tend to be viewed with suspicion by conservative students but championed by liberal students in the name of tolerance and open-mindedness. Mormons are not foreign enough to benefit from this impulse, so we get it from both sides.”

When others become friends with Latter-day Saint students, they don’t necessarily see them as more sympathetic, he says, just as “normal.”

Students rely on “cultural stereotypes to form their expectations of religious groups,” Austin says. “As long as Mormons don't speak in King James English and proselytize in the dorms, they beat expectations. And when they turn out, as many of them do, to be generous, fun and friendly people, they beat expectations by a wide margin.”

And Latter-day Saint students know it.

In decidedly non-Mormon environments, such students are “deeply conscious of the fact that most of their peers think that Mormons are weird,” Austin says. “Either they don’t ever talk about being Mormon so that nobody knows (often leaving the church in the process) or they make a concerted effort to prove that they are not weird.”

Erin Lang Crowley of Bedford, N.H., graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999, when there were roughly 30 Latter-day Saint students out of 4,000 undergraduates.

Crowley agrees that a dramatically revised view of LDS students could be related to “just how negative their opinions were to start with” — like that she belonged to a cult or practiced polygamy.

She believes her non-LDS friends were far more welcoming and accepting of her as a woman than they were of her male Mormon counterparts.

That’s because those friends perceived the church to have a “toxic patriarchal structure,” Crowley says. They saw her as a “victim of this patriarchy and the males more as perpetuating the patriarchal order.”

Most of her MIT friends, though, “recognized and appreciated my sincerity in living my values,” she says, “even if they didn’t agree with those values.”

And the type of Latter-day Saint who chooses to go to a school with so few other members, Crowley says, “is one who is already placing value on educational experiences they could not get at a church school.”

“I’ve even made a couple of Mormon friends I’ve talked to and tried to understand their faith a little better, and went to ‘The Book of Mormon’ [musical] with all the other religious studies majors and our professor. ... The conversations out of that experience led to me making a couple of new Mormon acquaintances. And then, yeah, I just hope it doesn’t end there.”

Male poll participant, devotee of Meher Baba (an Indian spiritual guru), undergraduate student at a large public university in the Northwest

Friends of other faiths

The vast majority (94%) of first-term college students in the IDEALS survey report having at least one friend of a different religious or nonreligious perspective from themselves, and nearly half (47%) said they had five or more such friends.

Barely a quarter (28.3%) of Latter-day Saint freshmen, however, said they had five or more friends of other faiths — the lowest of all those polled. That makes sense since only 21% of respondents (also the lowest) said they had a Mormon friend.

For those who do gain a Latter-day Saint friend during their first year at college, according to the survey, it pays off.

Twice as many students who gained a close Latter-day Saint friend in their first year (24%) became more “appreciative” of that friend’s faith, the survey says, “compared to those who did not (12%).”

That means respondents generally saw their new Mormon friend as being ethical and making positive contributions to society. They felt a sense of commonality with Latter-day Saints and had a positive attitude toward them.

On top of that, nearly 51% of those who developed a friendship with a Latter-day Saint were highly appreciative “toward all worldviews — a 10 percentage point advantage over those who had not gained such a friend.”

Those findings “intrigued” Austin.

“What I suspect is happening here is that, when someone realizes that Mormons are just like everybody else,” he says, “they are likely to conclude that maybe everybody is like everybody else and that all of their biases were misguided.”

They might reason, he says, that "if a Mormon can be a good person and a dear friend, then, by gosh, ANYONE can be a good person and a dear friend."

“There was a guy in my project group who was Mormon. … And I hadn’t known many Mormons before. I had one experience that wasn’t very positive, but I got to know him through working on this project in this small group. And I respected him, and I knew this was a huge big deal for him, and for his religious group — for him to be getting a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in religion. That’s not a Mormon thing to do, kind of. … And one day in class, one of the other students made an off-handed derogatory comment about Mormons. And I just immediately felt nauseous, and hot, and anxious, wishing there were some way I could stick up for my friend in the class. And so, I always tell that story, and I say I want you to know who’s in the room so you don’t accidentally do that to somebody else, because I want this to be a safe place for everyone who’s here.”

Female poll participant, Protestant Christian professor at a private mainline Protestant university in the Southwest

Disagreeing without dissolving

Latter-day Saints are among those, the survey found, who have “higher than average rates of disagreeing with a friend about religion and remaining friends.”

In other words, they can agree to disagree without ending the relationship.

That’s an important finding and skill, says Matthew J. Mayhew, professor of higher education at Ohio State University and co-founder of the survey along with Alyssa Rockenbach of North Carolina State. That skill could be studied among college students and possibly transferred to society at large, including among politicians.

Dalyn Montgomery, a Latter-day Saint administrator at the University of Redlands in Southern California, was encouraged by the study’s conclusions but pointed out one worrisome statistic: Mormon students came into college with fewer interfaith friendships than any other faith group.

“No matter the cause,” he says, “it is evident that LDS youth are less socially integrated than other groups, even those who are normally seen as unusually isolationist such as Orthodox Jews or Muslims.”

Montgomery was glad to see that Latter-day Saint collegians had “a better sense of belonging and personal well-being” as they developed more “interfaith friendships,” he says. “For LDS kids, specifically, it was heartening to see that they do very well when they move into such environments.”

Still, he says, it is apparent “we need to do it far more than we currently do.”