LDS teens stand out in survey on religion

Are more articulate, national study finds

Natalie Everett was sitting in her high school history class in mid-March, listening to a discussion on current events when another student asked about a just-released study of American adolescents and the effect of religion on their lives.

Mormon teens, the study had found, pray more, engage less in destructive behavior, and can articulate their religious beliefs better than the average American teen, the student reported.

Before she knew it, the member of the Apex North Carolina Stake and the only Latter-day Saint in the class, was singled out by the teacher. There, without any warning she would be called upon, Natalie told her classmates "one of the reasons the results were high was because we have standards that we live by." She further explained that she doesn't drink or curse and that she enjoys spending time with her family — actions motivated by her religious beliefs, she reported later to the Church News.

"That's how we live our lives," she explained to her peers. "We don't go out and get into bad situations. We uphold the standards."

Researchers at the University of North Carolina who conducted the study say Natalie is quite typical of the Mormon youth they interviewed. While they expected Latter-day Saint teens to score high in categories such as Church attendance and low in areas of delinquency behavior, they were surprised that LDS youth were so articulate about their religious beliefs.

The study — which, bucking conventional wisdom, found that 84 percent of U.S. teens believe in God and 59 percent attend a religious service at least once a month — has just been released in a book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, published by Oxford University Press. In general, Latter-day Saint youth included in the survey ranked No. 1 when it came to the effect of religion on their lives.

"I'm not saying they're all perfect," said the study's lead author, UNC sociology professor Christian Smith. "I'm not trying to idealize Mormon kids." But when belief and "social outcomes" are measured, "Mormon kids tend to be on top."

The four-year study included interviews with 3,370 randomly selected teenagers, ages 13 to 17, in 45 states. Follow-up, face-to-face, in-depth, interviews were conducted with 267 of the teens. An estimated 80 LDS teens — which, because of the random selection process, included many who would be considered less-active or inactive in the faith — answered questions about the importance of religion in making daily decisions, as well as questions about risk behaviors.

The data showed that, compared to other teens, fewer Latter-day Saint youth engaged in sexual intercourse (12 percent); have ever smoked pot (15 percent); drunk alcohol a few times a year (10 percent); or watched an X-rated or pornographic program in the past year (15 percent).

Only 28 percent of LDS youth reported that they "occasionally" lie to their parents, while other groups had between 38 and 51 percent of youth who said they do so.

"The point of the study was, in general, to take something that is before our eyes every day, which is our teenagers, and ask them what their religious life is really like," said researcher Stephen Vaisey, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina who interviewed more than 20 Latter-day Saint youth for the project.

In general, he said, teenagers are very inarticulate about their religious beliefs. They are not clear about how their religious traditions affect their behavior.

"One of the groups that stood out from that to some extent were the Mormons," he said. "In general they tended to be more articulate about their religion, what their religion actually taught and what kind of religious constraints it placed on them."

LDS youth live in a "morally significant universe," he added, noting that, in general, they felt their life had meaning.

One of the reasons Latter-day Saints scored well in the survey, he concluded, is that "their religion asks more of them, so they get more."

John Bartkowski, a professor of psychology at Mississippi State University who conducted some of the research for the study said, on most measures, the study can be considered "a completely glowing report" for Latter-day Saints.

For example, 72 percent of LDS youth reported they are currently involved in a religious youth group, compared to 56 percent of involvement in the next-closest faith. Further, 50 percent of LDS youth reported their family talks about God, the scriptures, prayer or other religious things together every day; another 24 percent said this happens in their homes "a few times a week" — results that were substantially higher than any other group.

A higher number of Latter-day Saint teens also "openly express faith at school," and 90 percent of LDS youth said they "have adults in their congregation, other than family members, whom they enjoy talking with and who give lots of encouragement."

Dr. Bartkowski said the membership bar for Latter-day Saints is extremely high, as members pay tithing, fast, attend weekly meetings and participate in seminary. The data indicate that most LDS youth respond to "stringent demands," coupled with "love and compassion" showed to them by parents, religious instructors and youth leaders, he said.

One of the few areas, however, where LDS youth didn't outrank their peers was "belief in God" — 84 percent said they believe, placing them fifth behind Conservative Protestant (94 percent), Mainline Protestant (86 percent), Black Protestant (97 percent), and Catholic (85 percent) teens.

Dr. Bartkowski said he doesn't know what to make of that statistic, but said it could have been interpreted by some teens as "is your testimony rock solid" or a reflection of their feeling that "a belief in God shouldn't be something that is convenient."

He also noted that the sample included teens who were not active in the religion and — as was the case with teens of all faiths — didn't know if they believe in God.

Researcher Vaisey noted that one of the side effects of high expectations is a tendency of a few to move away from the religion. He also noted that every survey has a margin of error and the results could, in actuality, be "a couple of points higher or lower" in each category.

However, Dr. Bartkowski said, by and large, the research results are sound and the "survey is accurate."

"(LDS) kids are given a compass and that compass is their faith and it is pointing them in a different direction. . . ," he said. "It really seems there is a positive influence faith is having on the lives of Latter-day Saint teens."

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