[Note: this post was co-authored by J. Max Wilson and LDS Philosopher]
Regarding the “Mormon Gender Issues Survey” that you may have seen being passed around social media:
The survey was created by a group calling itself the “Mormon Gender Survey Group”, which includes in its membership well-known LDS dissenter and agitator, John Dehlin, as well as other progressive Mormon activists who have pushed for the church to ordain women and to change its doctrine regarding homosexuality.
The survey questions are worded in ways that subtly push their typical agenda.
This isn’t the first time Dehlin has used stilted academic surveys to support his agitation. In 2012 his “Mormon Research Foundation” created a survey that was used to over-estimate the number of unhappy women in the LDS church, even though by its own admission the survey results made “no claim of representativeness or statistical significance in the sample“. It was propaganda. But that didn’t stop it from being cited widely to support agitating for change in the church.
By all means, participate in the survey. Make your faithful voices heard. But be aware that your answers will likely be used to promote agitation in the church, regardless of your answers.
When you do participate, make good use of the free form response sections to express dissatisfaction with the wording of the questions and the oversimplification, and to push back against the agenda they represent.
The church does its own internal surveys to gauge member feelings on various topics, including inviting individual women and men to meet with them and discuss potential problems and propose changes. While the results are not public, there is no doubt that the church has pretty good information about the feelings of its members on a variety of subjects.
To demonstrate the bias of the survey, let’s a take a look a couple of specific questions. (You can jump to the bottom of this post to view screenshots of all of the questions.)
One of the questions on the survey asks:
Which statement comes closer to your own view, even if neither is exactly right?
A. A good Latter-day Saint should obey the counsel of priesthood leaders without necessarily knowing why.
B. A good Latter-day Saint should first seek his or her own personal revelation as the motivation to obey.
The problem with this question is that the doctrinal truth combines the best of both positions. We ought to seek personal revelation to know how and when we should apply prophetic counsel. We must seek personal revelation to know if prophets are indeed God’s servants. Following the prophet must be a prayerful activity. Simultaneously, we should prayerfully follow the prophet even if we do not always understand why. God does not always give us reasons — either through the prophets or through prayer — for His instructions. He requires us to study our way to those reasons, and often times we might never even get to that point before our obedience is tested.
Thus, neither statement is exactly right, or tells the whole picture. And the question admits that. But that’s the crucial point: because neither statement is right (by itself), forcing people to pick and choose is going to be un-interpretable, and will not represent people’s true perspectives on the issue. Other questions on the survey included an “other” option, allowing participants to write in their personal perspective if it does not line up with the available answers. But this question did not — the authors of the survey wanted to make sure that people choose between these two options. Why would they do that? Because that way, they can use this question to paint the very picture they wish to paint.
The survey asks elsewhere for people to self-identify themselves on a scale of conservative to liberal. I don’t know how people will answer this question (since both statements are incomplete). But if self-reported conservatives tend to choose response A, the study authors will in all likelihood conclude that conservative members are more likely to be in the “blind sheep” category, while liberal members are more likely to affirm an individuals right to seek personal revelation. Note: this would be an untrue conclusion. The question did not permit the nuances that the question itself admits are likely there. But they’ll openly trumpet it as verified by survey anyways.
This is all just a prediction. Who knows if it will come true. But what good can come of a question that forces participants to choose between a false dichotomy, between two statements that are, at best, only partly true? Surely, this can do nothing more than entrench an already troublesome false dichotomy.
Differences between the roles of women and men in the Church are:
B. A mix between culture and doctrine
D. Don’t know
E. Prefer not to respond
This question also entrenches a false dichotomy between culture and doctrine. Certainly, not all of our cultural practices are grounded in doctrine; certainly, not all of our practices are always best, or even good. Things can improve for the better (and, fortunately, the survey gives participants a chance to list those later on). However, there is an implicit, unstated assumption in this dichotomy: if a practice is part of our particular place and time (and not universal to all dispensations), it must therefore be cultural and for that reason uninspired. The assumption is that God does not inspire cultural practices.
This question can make those surveyed feel like they cannot answer correctly without also conveying something that is wholly untrue. If they answer that many of the differences between the roles of women and men are cultural, they would be implying that they are therefore uninspired. But the fact is, they can be both. Something can be cultural, and also inspired of God. God is often the cultivator of cultures; He frequently invites us to arrange our lives, customs, mannerisms, etc. in ways that prioritize what He prioritizes, but doesn’t always dictate precisely how. So customs and practices might differ from dispensation to dispensation, but still be inspired by divine priorities.
To conclude, it is true that we value empirical evidence. But we cannot and must not mistake every survey, or every social science study, as valid empirical evidence. The authors of studies and surveys have ideological biases that inform their question writing, data analysis, sampling, and study design. This survey was, for example, pushed onto Facebook first through particularly liberal leaning groups. The theory they are operating under is that, after 3-4 shares, they will have a representative sample instead of a convenience sample. This is highly debatable.
Given that we know that several people involved in creating and analyzing this survey are well know dissenter and agitators, we should take it and receive its future results with eyes wide open.
Here are screenshots of the Mormon Gender Issues Survey questions: