May 12, 2008

From the Archives

Who’s That Knocking on the Door? Research Examines the Faith of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses

Two religious groups, in particular, are known for knocking on people’s front door to discuss religious beliefs: Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. While both groups consider themselves to be Christian, many organizations have labeled each a cult in response to some of their unorthodox beliefs and practices. A new study from The Barna Group explores the religious and demographic background of these two groups and shows that they differ significantly from the born again Christian population in a variety of respects.

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A Profile of Jehovah’s Witnesses

About the only perspective that Witnesses share with the larger body of born again Christians is a belief that their religious faith is very important in their life, a view held by nine out of ten people from both groups. After that point of concurrence, the gap widens.

It begins with the fact that only 7% of Jehovah’s Witnesses meet the criteria for being born again. Most Witnesses say they have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life, but only one out of every ten of those adults base their hope of salvation on a confession of sins and acceptance of Christ as their savior. Interestingly, the issue is not that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in earning their way to an eternal reward: in fact, they are significantly more likely than born again adults to reject the notion of salvation earned through good works.

While more than nine out of ten born again adults believe that God is the omnipotent and all-knowing creator and ruler of the universe, just three-quarters of the Witnesses (76%) concur with that view.

Witnesses are almost 50% more likely than born again adults to strongly believe that Satan exists (61% versus 42%, respectively). They are more likely than born again adults to argue that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth (77%, compared to 63% among born agains). They are also much more likely to have a firm conviction that sharing their faith with other people is a personal responsibility (74% compared to 54% among all born agains). They also have widespread faith in the Bible, with a higher proportion (88%) contending that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches (71% among born again people).

In terms of their faith practices, Jehovah’s Witnesses are comparatively more likely to gather in small groups during the week (75% do so, double the incidence among born agains). They are also significantly more likely to read the Bible during the week (83% do so) but are also more than twice as likely to be unchurched at the moment (28%, roughly double the born again proportion).

Demographically, Jehovah’s Witnesses are substantially different from the born again community in that they are less likely to get married; much less likely to hold conservative political and social views; and are a decidedly downscale group (only one-third as likely to have graduated from college, and their household income levels are one-quarter below the born again average). The Jehovah’s Witnesses community is predominantly non-white (62%) and is shockingly removed from the political process: only 29% are registered to vote, compared to 87% among the born again constituency.

A Profile of Mormons

The Mormon faith perspective parallels the prevailing born again view in various ways. For instance, more than nine out of ten Mormons have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that they describe as being important in their life; nine out of ten say their religious faith is very important in their life; and two-thirds affirm the sinless life of Christ on earth.

However, there are significant variations from the views of the born again population, too. Comparatively few Mormons believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of its principles (32%). A majority believes that a good person can earn their way into Heaven. They are less likely to view God as the all-knowing, all-powerful creator and ruler (83%). They also are more likely to believe that Satan exists (six out of ten), and that they have a personal responsibility to share their faith with others (64%).

Compared to the born again body, Mormons are more likely to attend church services in a typical week (73% do so) or to attend a Sunday school class (nearly double the born again average). They are also more likely to volunteer at their church in a typical week.

Demographically, they are concentrated in the western states (76% of Mormons live in those states); remain overwhelmingly white (85%); three-quarters are married (versus about 61% of born agains); and are more likely to be conservative on social and political matters. They also have annual household incomes that are about 8% higher than the born again average.

One controversy surrounds the fact that one-third of Mormons (31%) meet the born again criteria. A number of evangelical leaders assert that although Mormons seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, their refusal to trust wholly on God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ as the only means to salvation disqualifies them from being born again.

Religion and the Fine Line

George Barna, who conducted the research and presented the findings, noted that in the religious world seemingly small matters can make a big difference. “All three of these groups claim to be Christian, uphold the importance of faith and spirituality, are active in their churches, generally believe in the same God, and accept the holiness of Jesus Christ,” Barna commented. “Beyond that, there are huge difference related to central doctrines such as the means to eternal salvation or the reliability and authority of the Bible. Millions of adults, however, shut the door when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses come visiting without having any real idea what they or we believe – or caring enough to pursue such insights.”

Barna indicated that such front porch interactions could stimulate unexpected benefits. “It’s no secret that Americans spend little time thinking through the deeper applications and implications of their beliefs. In a society confronted with challenging issues such as immigration rights, gay marriage, war, and environmental crises, our positions on such matters should come from a well-conceived and deeply embraced theology of life. Sadly, most Americans react on an emotional level rather than from a worldview that is based on thoughtful convictions. Perhaps having a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness ringing our doorbell and pushing us to explain or defend our beliefs could be a catalyst for an even deeper process of discovery – especially if we enter the conversation knowing that we probably have some substantial disagreements on core elements of faith.”

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About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a series of nationwide random samples among adults, from which interviews with 323 Mormons and 186 Jehovah’s Witnesses were isolated for analysis. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of Mormons is ±5.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of Jehovah’s Witnesses is ±7.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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