SALT LAKE CITY — Americans' feelings and attitudes toward Mormons are getting warmer and on the rise, according to a Pew Research Center study titled “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups,” which was released Wednesday.
Those feelings weren't unique to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with results showing that the other eight religious groups identified in the study also were on the rise, or "getting warmer" when compared with a similar study done in June 2014.
And the "warmest feelings" for Mormons came from survey participants who were in older age groups, had higher levels of education and either were affiliated with or leaned towards the Republican Party.
In surveying 4,248 adults last month, Pew asked participants to give a rating of 0 to 100 for each of nine religious groups and then charted the ratings on a “feeling thermometer.” The “chilly” ratings were scores between 0 and 33, the “warmer” ratings between 67 and 100, and the neutral ratings in between those two.
Ratings given to those of the Mormon faith increased from 48 overall in 2014 to 54 currently.
The Deseret News' review of all religious groups in the study can be found on today's front page.
The ratings — overall as well as the breakdowns by age and political leaners — are not surprising for Mormons specifically or for other religious groups, said Matthew Bowman, Mormon historian and associate professor of history at Henderson State University.
Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” said the ratings demonstrate the day’s spreading polarization, culture wars and political divisiveness, particularly among younger adults.
“Some of the factors include a general drift in American culture, individualistic expression and a distrust of institutions, from governments to organized religions,” he said.
For Bowman, less affiliation with organized religion shouldn’t be seen as a conflict with the survey results of Americans’ warmer feeling toward religious groups. Many, including younger adults, still hold to trusting in spiritual beliefs, ideas and personal practices such as prayer.
Pew broke down the ratings according to age — in four age groups: 18 to 29, 30 to 49, 50 to 64 and 65 and older.
For young adults ages 18 to 29, Mormons were the lowest-rated religious group at 54. However, the ratings for all religious groups were the tightest among this age group.
By comparison, the older group — 65 and older — gave Mormons the highest rating of the four age clusters, with the rating for those of the LDS faith sandwiched in the middle of the nine religious groups that featured with the widest spread on the so-called “feeling thermometer.”
In the 30 to 49 age group, Mormons (51) were next-to-lowest; in the 50 to 64 age group, Mormons were back at a 54 rating.
The mean thermometer rating of 54 given Mormons was matched by both male and female participants, with no variation due to gender.
Participants with higher education levels gave higher ratings to religious groups. For the ratings of Mormons, college graduates combined for a 58 rating, with those with some college giving a 56 rating and those who are high school graduates or less a 48.
Of the total survey participants, 30 percent gave Mormons a score in the “warmer” ratings spectrum — a 67 or higher. Nearly half, or 48 percent, gave a “neutral” rating between 33 and 66, with 21 percent of participants giving a “chillier” rating between 0 and 33.
Survey results were also divided along political lines — participants who were Democrats or Democratic-leaning versus Republicans or Republican-leaning. Ratings from both political persuasions were warmer views overall.
For participants aligning with the Democrats, Mormons remained the lowest-ranked religious group, moving from a 44 rating in 2014 to a current 52.
As for the ratings from the Republican-aligned participants, Mormons were at the middle of the religious pack with a rating of 57.
The “warming” trend in regard to those of the LDS faith is more of a substantial bump than what Pew saw in a separate study in 2012 — the year of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, “The Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway, Time magazine’s “Mormon moment” and the LDS Church’s own promotional campaigns. The 2012 Pew study found that while Americans learned little of the Mormons and their faith, some attitudes did soften.