Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Important, But Not Essential"

I had an interesting phone call this week. I was a participant in the latest Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll. The caller identified herself as being a part of the Pew Research group, assured me it was not a sales call, and confirmed I was the youngest adult male over 18 in the house.

She asked a number of sets of questions. First were questions on specific political figures. I was to rate each one on a four point scale, and she asked about Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. (Only Sarah Palin got the lowest mark from me.)

She asked about my religious affiliation and when I selected Mormon from her list, she then confirmed that I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (her list included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ and “another Mormon group”).

She asked a series of questions in which I had to choose the statement I agreed most with (the toughest of those was a question on abortion because there was no nuance in the statements). She asked a group of questions about things that were extremely important, somewhat important, not very important and not at all important, including having children, being married, and having a high paying job.

She asked about whether I thought Mormons (or other religious groups) were targets of discrimination. And she asked whether I thought Mormonism was similar (very similar, somewhat similar, not very similar, not at all similar) to Judaism, Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity and Islam. She asked if I held a current temple recommend and confirmed my age and income level.

But most interesting to me was the section from which this post’s title comes. She asked some specific doctrinal and behavioral questions and asked for each item if I thought the item was essential, important but not essential, not very important, or not at all important. The items included believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet and translated the Book of Mormon, caring for the poor and needy, believing that Jesus was resurrected, abstaining from coffee, abstaining from alcohol, not attending R-rated movies, among others.

As she worked through her list, I did a quick calculus in my mind to sort out what parts of my beliefs are essential and what parts are important but not essential. I created a quick forced-ranking, and I acknowledged that just because I have a testimony of the truthfulness of a particular thing, it does not necessarily mean that thing is essential.

In the end, for me at the moment, there were few essentials: acceptance of Christ’s mission and keeping his commandments. Everything else was important but not essential. Even as I worked that through in my mind (in the few seconds we stayed in this section), I realized that although logic would suggest an acceptance of Joseph’s role as a prophet would make my keeping the commandments revealed through him easier, it was not essential in my rubric of the essential things’ being acceptance of Christ’s mission and keeping his commandments.

I will continue to think about what is essential and what is important, but not essential. I’d be interested in knowing what you would put on each list.


  1. Interesting (very interesting, somewhat interesting, not very interesting ... :) )

    I'm sure pollsters work over their questions to make them as clear and uniformly understood as possible. I'm also pretty sure that you and I would be very closely aligned in any doctrinal discussion -- yet we would have interpreted and answered some of the questions very differently. You seem to have interpreted "what is essential" as referring to "essential for salvation," and unless the precise wording of the question suggested otherwise I probably would have interpreted it as "essential to my faith and identity as a Mormon," given all those questions just asked to identify my level of Mormonness. Abstaining from alcohol, for instance, is not at all essential in the grand scheme of things, but I would find it difficult to be a Mormon without abstaining. Belief in Joseph Smith's prophetic calling is a far more interesting case -- that belief is essential to my faith in temple ordinances, the Book of Mormon, my understanding of what *is* essential for salvation, and a host of other points, even if those points were not technically essential to salvation. Certainly an active *disbelief* in that calling would bar me from beliefs and practices that I do deem essential.

    Not that our differences here are personally important -- they only serve to caution me that the results of a poll like this can be skewed by unsuspected things.

    Interesting about the current recommend question, too. I wonder what markers they used to assess the level of Baptist-ness or Muslim-ness, etc., when people identified themselves as followers of other faiths.

  2. Ardis, your line of reasoning is the same my wife used as I described the phone call (and this post) to her. (In the course of the interview, I felt I had to respond very quickly, and in the aftermath I questioned my rubric. The very fact that I consciously developed an on-the-spot rubric is the result of my own hard wiring, I suspect.)

    And you're right about how I interpreted essential. And if I look at it the way you suggest, I would come to very similar conclusions to yours.

    I wondered if the poll would have included any of the faith-based doctrinal / religious practice questions had I identified a follower of another faith.