In a Gallup poll released on Christmas Eve, Mormons were the “most religious” of any faith group surveyed by far – 87% of us said that our religion was important to our daily lives, and 81% of us attend worship services at least monthly. At the other end of the spectrum, Jews were the least likely to profess a daily attachment to their faith (41%) or attend worship services (32%).
Before I started working in the Jewish community, I would have been surprised by these figures. However, I know now that while a lot of Jews avoid praying in synagogues or engaging in daily Torah study, almost all of the Jews I know respect, honor and live the wonderful Jewish values that have enriched and enlightened the world. They value education, family, tradition, and tolerance, and are often leaders in their community. Mormons are increasingly known for espousing similar values. How, then, to explain the great disparity in religious observance? Several differences between the two communities immediately come to mind.
First, a far higher percentage of Mormons are converts. Both my wife and I are converts, as are many of our friends and acquaintances in the church. There is no zeal quite like a convert’s enthusiasm for his new faith, which is also very infectious. By way of contrast, the overwhelming majority of Jews were born into their faith, one that does not actively seek converts.
Second, Mormonism is strictly a religious identity, and the way to express that identity is to go to church and participate in the community’s religious rites and rituals. Jews, of course, are members of both a religion and a people with a distinctive culture and history. Consequently, there are many ways of expressing one’s Jewishness that have nothing to do with religion. In fact, Jews can be atheists and still be considered as Jewish as Orthodox rabbis. There may well be Mormon atheists, but I have yet to meet one.
Third, on a related note, the percentage of all Mormons attending at least one meeting a month seems a bit too high. This is probably because the Mormons in the survey self-identified as members of the LDS Church. While active Mormons are likely to share their religious identity with strangers, “less active” Mormons who don’t attend church are probably more likely to choose another religious label, including “none.” In my experience, even Jews who never see the inside of a synagogue are quick to identify themselves as Jewish.
Fourth, Mormons do not have professional clergy members or staff in their congregations. This puts the burden of running the church at the local level on lay members, who are called to lead congregations, teach Sunday School, deliver sermons, keep records, serve and visit other members, etc. Most members have at least one such calling, making it easier for their religion to become important to their daily lives.
Finally, our missionary program makes a big difference. Every year we send tens of thousands of missionaries all over the world to share our beliefs with others. We tend to love what we sacrifice for, and our missionaries come home with increased discipline, knowledge, love for their area of service, and dedication to their faith. I have publicly stated many times my desire for Judaism to become a proselytizing faith once again, which I have no doubt would raise the level of religious observance throughout the Jewish community to historic levels.
Best wishes for a successful, memorable 2013 to all of my readers.