Articles/Essays – Volume 03, No. 2

The LDS Church as a Significant Political Reference Group

The 14(b) case of 1965 provided an opportunity to consider the question, “Is the Church perceived as a significant political reference group by its members when a clearly defined political position is assumed by the First Presidency?” This question is examined in the narrow context of the specific issue of the right-to-work laws as it was viewed by members of the Church living in six Utah Wasatch Front counties some months after the issuance of the First Presidency’s letter to Mormon Congressmen. Any conclusions drawn must be constrained by these limitations.

In the Spring of 1966 we drew a proportionally stratified, multistage, random probability sample of one-thousand registered voters in the above counties, which contain almost eighty-four (84%) percent of Utah’s total population. The purpose of our technique of sample selection was to generate a microcosm representative of a much larger population in order that some meaningful generalizations might be made about the larger group. 

The total sample group was filtered to eliminate those who could not correctly describe the right-to-work law, and from those remaining we identified Mormons and non-Mormons. It is this dichotomous group which forms the basis of our analysis. By eliminating those who could not correctly describe right-to-work legislation we obtained a measure of Mormon and non-Mormon knowledge of the law. In response to the questions, “Can you tell me what the right-to-work laws are?” and “To what church do you belong?” it was found that fifty-seven (57%) percent of the Mormons interviewed and fifty-five (55%) percent of the non-Mormons could, in a general sense, correctly indentify right-to-work laws. There is no signficant difference between the two groups based on their knowledge of right-to-work laws. That is, the differences observed could quite probably have occurred by pure chance.[1]

To determine whether or not Utah Mormons held different attitudes on right-to-work legislation than Utah non-Mormons, and thus gain some insight ex post facto into the possible impact of the First Presidency’s statement, we asked the following question of those who knew what right-to-work laws are: “Generally speaking, are you for or against right-to-work laws?” 

While Mormons were not more knowledgeable about right-to-work laws than non-Mormons, they were considerably more strongly in favor of them. Eighty-three (83%) percent of the Mormons and only sixty-nine (68.8%) of the non-Mormons favored right-to-work laws. This difference could have occurred by pure chance less than one time out of a thousand.[2] Hence, we conclude initially that there is considerable reason to believe that political stance on the right-to-work issue is related to membership in the Mormon Church. This conclusion must, however, be examined critically in the light of three qualifications. 

First, of those Mormons who were knowledgeable about the right-to-work issue, we must determine how many were also aware of the Church’s position, and if this awareness is related to support of right-to-work laws. We cannot expect Mormons to have been swayed by the First Presidency’s letter if they did not perceive the Church’s stand. If those who are unaware of the stand still favor right-to-work laws in about the same proportion as those who recognize its stand, then we must look elsewhere for an explanation of the observed differences between Mormons and non-Mormons on this question. 

The second qualification is related to but not synonymous with the first. We would expect that if Mormons in fact take the Church as a significant political reference group, then those who identify themselves most closely with the Church in terms of their activity would also, as a group, conform most closely with the Church’s right-to-work position. 

The third qualification lies in the fact that those interviewed were not only Mormons, but also had political, union, and non-union affiliations. They were of differing income and educational groups. Could not the difference in attitude of Mormons and non-Mormons on the right-to-work issue be “explained” without reference to the Church’s influence if sufficient difference in membership in these various groups were found and if it could be shown that Mormons more consistently as a group had associations which tended to be pro-right-to-work? Each of these qualifications will be considered in turn. 

L.D.S. Perception of Church’s Right-to-Work Position

Those Mormons who could identify right-to-work laws were divided into two groupings — those who knew the Church’s position and those who did not. As is clear from Table I, the recognition of the Church’s stand made considerable difference in support of right-to-work legislation. 

Table I

Mormon Knowledge of Church’s Right-To-Work Stand and Attitude Toward Right To Work
 Know Church PositionDon’t Know Church Position
For RTW268896467
Against RTW34113223

This difference could have been observed by chance less than one time in a thousand.[3]

It is of considerable interest to note in regard to the above table that while Mormons who did not know the Church’s position support right-to-work laws (sixty-seven percent favorable), this was slightly less than the support of non-Mormons (sixty-nine percent favorable). 

It is clear that those who were knowledgeable about both the right-to-work issue and the Church’s position more closely conformed to a favorable grouping than those members of the Church who were not aware of it. 

Church Activity and Support of Right-To-Work

Does activity in the Church, as self-identified, tend to influence support of right-to-work laws? Mormons who were both knowledgeable about the issue 

and the Church’s position were asked, “With respect to your membership in the L.D.S. Church, (generally speaking) do you consider yourself: very active, moderately active, somewhat active, somewhat inactive or inactive?” These responses were then cross-tabulated against each subclass’s support of the right to-work law, and the following results obtained. 

Table II

Church Activity and Knowledge Toward Right To Work
 For RTWAgainst RTW
Very Active162641031
Moderately Active47181031
Somewhat Active15639
Somewhat Inactive125516

Seventeen of the interviewees did not desire to respond to this question.

As is clear from Table II, those who favored right-to-work laws were, by their own judgment, much more active as a group than those who opposed them. The difference observed between these two groups could have occurred by chance about five times out of a thousand.[4]

The preceding analysis affords strong evidence that Utah members of the Church generally, but especially those who can recognize a Church “position” and those who are active, view the Church as a significant political reference group as reflected in their favorable support of the right-to-work laws. 

Non-Church Groups Which Also Favor Right-To-Work

However, this conclusion must be tempered by the determination also made in the study that Mormons in Utah tend to be as a group less Democratic, less unionized, and slightly better educated than non-Mormons. All of these factors tend to be associated with a pro-right-to-work stance.[5]

An interesting example of selective misperception emerged from the analysis of the interrelation of these factors which also gives some additional but tenuous support to the conclusion above — that the Church is a political reference group of significance for Mormons. Of the 418 interviewees who were L.D.S. and said they “knew” of the Church’s position, twenty-nine fell in the category less likely than any other to support right to work. They belonged to unions, had less than a high school education and affiliated politically with the Democratic Party. All listed themselves as “somewhat active in the Church.” Fifty-five (55%) per cent of this group said that the Church opposed right to work. 

Table III

Group Affiliation/Educational Level Mormons vs. Non-Mormons
Belong to union14820.15824.4
Do not belong to union58779.917975.6
Less than high school11615.65523.1
High School29239.27230.1
Part College18624.97330.5
College graduate9512.7229.2
Post graduate577.6177.1


While we cannot on the basis of the evidence presented state that Church membership caused strong support of right-to-work legislation and conclude therefrom that the Church must represent a significant political reference group for its members, we can make certain factual assertions, with determined probabilities, about the interaction of the Church’s position on right-to-work with attitudes held by its members. 

There is little difference between Mormons and non-Mormons judged on their knowledge of right-to-work laws. 

Great difference, statistically, is found, however, in the overwhelming sup port Mormons give right-to-work laws, as compared to non-Mormons.

Those Mormons who are aware of the Church’s position are significantly more favorable to right-to-work laws than Mormons unaware of the Church position. Activity, as self-identified, in the Church is also positively related to a favorable right-to-work position. 

From these assertions in this particular case of the right-to-work law, when the First Presidency of the Church made its position known, those members who recognized that stand and those who rated themselves more active than the polar groups in these same categories also tended to conform as a group more closely to the Church’s position, and, in this sense, the Church appears to be a significant political reference group in Utah.

The authors wish to express their grateful appreciation to David K. Elton, University of Calgary, for compiling some of the data used in this paper. 

[1] Specifically, the calculated chi-square value (X2) is .34. The hypothesis of independence is accepted, or, in other words, we do not have sufficient reason to say that a person’s knowledge of right-to-work laws is dependent on his religion. The probability that they are not associated is greater than fifty times out of a hundred. These statistics will be annotated in the footnotes henceforth as X2 = .34 and P < .50, where P is the probability of association. 

[2] X2 = 21.84, P < .001

[3] X2 = 24.3, P < .001

[4] X2 = 14.80, P = .005. This result must be interpreted with care because of the small frequencies in the “against RTW” column. 

[5] The authors will publish an in-depth analysis of these factors as they interrelate to Church affiliation and position on right-to-work laws in the near future.