Amy Choate-Nielsen: Mormons say polygamy morally wrong, Pew poll shows

Published: Sunday, Jan. 15 2012 7:00 p.m. MST

Teachings from the LDS Church emphasize the importance and eternal nature of the family.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Editor's note: This article is the fifth in a five-part series examining survey findings on Mormons in America. Read the first, second, third and fourth articles here.

David Letterman knows how to get a laugh.

Like most comics, he riffs on the day's news, deadpans the camera and revels in audacity.

"Oh, did you hear about this?" the host of CBS' Late Show with David Letterman asked his audience recently. "A campaign staffer on the Newt Gingrich campaign was fired because he was making negative comments about Mormons. I thought, now, wait a minute — isn't Newt in favor of multiple wives?"

Laughter rumbled from the audience followed by applause. The polygamy punch line is a familiar one when it comes to poking fun at Mormons — as though Mormons and polygamy are synonymous in mainstream media. Ironically, the practice that's most linked to Mormons is a practice most Mormons oppose, according to a groundbreaking new study of Mormons in America released Thursday by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

According to the study, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unequivocally reject polygamy — only 2 percent said the practice is morally acceptable — evidence of a yawning gap in what Mormons believe and how they are perceived. Mormons' opinions are overwhelmingly conservative, the study shows, but in many ways, their views are also surprising — especially when it comes to opinions on moral issues, divorce, homosexuality and polygamy.


Mormons also take a significant stance on moral issues in other areas, such as divorce, sex outside of marriage and consumption of alcohol.

Although teachings from the LDS Church emphasize the importance and eternal nature of the family, only 25 percent of Mormons surveyed said divorce is morally wrong, according to the study. That means Mormons are slightly less morally opposed to divorce than the general public.

"For Catholics, divorce does not exist. They think it is not only wrong but it is impossible," said Matthew Bowman, member of a board of expert advisers to the Pew Research Center for the study and author of "The Mormon People," a book on the history of the LDS Church. "That has not been true for Mormons. There is theological space for divorce within Mormonism. It is undesirable, but Mormons recognize it is sometimes necessary and sometimes the right thing to do."

Other moral views revealed in the survey — 54 percent said drinking alcohol was morally wrong, compared with 15 percent of the general public — set Mormons apart, Bowman says. The assumption on the part of non-Mormons is that if Mormons think drinking alcohol is wrong, then they must think everyone who imbibes is morally flawed. That apprehension can make people suspicious of Mormons, and wary of an elitist attitude, he says.

Differences in moral viewpoints can create a stumbling block for Mormon acceptance — not only in high-profile arenas, such as a presidential election, but also in communities.

"What you find throughout the report is a tension," said David Campbell, assistant professor at Notre Dame and an adviser on the study. "Mormons like to use the phrase, 'Be in the world but not of the world.' They are certainly living their lives in the world. They are active and involved in their communities, but they have these beliefs and practices that set them apart a little bit, and sometimes there is conflict."