Americans Might be Lonelier than Ever, But Mormon Communities Are Thriving
How Mormons Build Meaningful Connections and Why it Matters
It’s difficult to be optimistic about the state of American public life these days. Neighborhoods are being torn apart by politics. We are suffering through a national civic decline, a friendship recession and an epidemic of loneliness. And we’re seemingly angry about everything.
And yet, if you ask Americans about life in their own community the situation doesn’t seem quite so dire. Certain communities are thriving. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, historically referred to as Mormons, stand out for their high levels of community satisfaction, strong local attachments, and civic involvement. (Note: In 2018, The Church issued a statement to avoid using nicknames and abbreviations, such as Mormon. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I’m going to use the more familiar designation.)
A new survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life finds that Mormons are uniquely attached to their communities. Seventy-two percent of Mormons feel closely connected to their neighborhood and the people who live there, compared to 51 percent of Americans overall. Half of Mormons say their community is an “excellent” place to live, a view shared by only 29 percent of the general public.
That Mormons are very religious is generally well known. Roughly 80 percent report attending religious services at least once a week. But it’s their involvement outside of formal religious practice that make Mormons unique. More than half (52 percent) of Mormons socialize with members of their church at least once a week outside of formal services. No other religious group comes close to matching this.
The intensity of Mormon religious life has remarkable spillover effects. Mormons are not only more religiously active than most other Americans, they also participate in civic life far more often—they spend more time hosting their neighbors, talking to strangers, attending community meetings, and even visiting the public library.
The dense network of social connections doesn’t happen by chance. Rather, it is carefully cultivated. “We're not just encouraged generally to interweave our lives; we are asked to specifically,” Sarah Brinton, a Mormon attorney living in Provo, Utah told me over email. And for the most part, they do. Brinton notes that Mormons can spend upwards of 40 hours per week engaged in voluntary activities for the Church.
It’s not the same kind of volunteering as you do for a parks and rec soccer league, said Rebecca Smylie, a member of the LDS Church living in Santa Barbara, California. “Members of the LDS community are asked by their bishops … to serve in a calling not of their choosing.” In other words, it’s not a personal favor, it’s a divine request.
But it’s not all about service. Mormons spend a great deal of time socializing. While living in Arlington, Virginia., Brinton’s family hosted other members of her Church two to three times a week for dinner, dessert, or board games. “When I see magazine articles about dinner parties, I wonder if people know that they can invite people to their home for regular weekday meals—spaghetti with jarred sauce and refrigerator breadsticks,” she said. “It doesn't need to be save the dates or place cards or paired wines.”
This is such an obvious, but crucial point. Having people over to your home is one of the easiest ways to create a connection—there’s an intimacy that comes with opening your home to someone. And yet, 44 percent of Americans report having someone over to their home no more than a few times a year.
One of the potential downsides of having tight-knit communities is that they can become cliquish and exclusionary. Kate Monroe, a recent graduate of Brigham Young University, compares it to being in high school. “It becomes harder for outside people to… be allowed in the group,” she said. When everybody knows everybody the social pressure to conform can be intense. Complaints about gossip are not uncommon, particularly among ex-Mormons. For those who leave the Church, the social costs can be considerable. Because so much of Mormon social life flows through the Church, leaving means giving up all the social opportunities and connections that come with it.
Still, the benefits of close connections are hard to ignore. In Alienated America, Tim Carney notes that heavily Mormon Utah “has the highest rate of upward mobility in the country”—a result of the extensive reserves of social capital developed through membership in the Church.
The reservoirs of social support and community that the Church helps establish have other important downstream effects. Carney notes that places with strong civil society were less inclined to support Donald Trump’s brand of divisive politics. Despite their strong Republican attachments, Mormon voters supported Trump at far lower levels than past Republican nominees in both presidential elections. In 2016, Trump received less than 50 percent of the vote among Utah voters.
Establishing tight-knit communities has been good for the Church too. Mormons are uniquely connected to the people who share their religious identity—69 percent say they feel “very close” to other Mormons. Church membership rates among Mormons is an unparalleled 95 percent, an astounding achievement at a time when nationally, membership in religious congregations has fallen to below half.
The affinity Mormons express for their coreligionists may have something to do with a shared history of persecution, their faith being pilloried in popular culture, or having their religious beliefs and commitments continuously misunderstood. A survey of American Mormons conducted some years ago found that close to half reported experiencing a lot of discrimination in their daily life and more than six in 10 felt their religion was not seen as part of mainstream society. Those shared experiences create enduring bonds.
Perhaps the most important lesson is that institutions matter. Most of our close friendships develop through mutual connection to established groups or institutions, the workplace, church, school, sports leagues, or even the PTA. When our institutions wither, the social connections they foster disappear as well. “The lesson I took from Salt Lake City wasn’t a lesson about Mormonism so much as a lesson about the indispensability of institutions,” Carney writes.
For those on the outside, Mormon community life can appear demanding and somewhat intrusive. But in the US today, we could probably do with more well-intentioned intrusiveness. Most Mormons would probably agree. “There's always the risk that we are intruding,” said Smylie. “But isn't there also the risk that we didn't show up when someone needed us?”