New results from a nationwide poll on religious attitudes and practice show Latter-day Saints are more likely to believe in the literal existence of Satan than any other faith group surveyed, and that one third of the LDS members surveyed also hold what researchers consider to be "born again" beliefs.
Polling by Barna Research Group from January 2000 to June 2001 shows that 59 percent of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints surveyed believe Satan is a real being who can influence people's lives - a notion regarded as "hogwash by most Americans," according to the survey.
Of all survey respondents, only 27 percent believe in Satan's existence, with the majority believing he is merely a symbol of evil.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and a scholar of LDS history. "It seems to me that's perfectly consistent with Mormon belief, and since LDS young and old learn their theology in a fairly correlated fashion, that would follow. The key word here is consistency of doctrine. It follows from the foundational beliefs of Mormonism about the nature of God and Jesus."
Indeed, LDS theology figures large in the percentages the survey reflects, according to Roger Keller, professor of religion at Brigham Young University. He said Satan's reality for Latter-day Saints derives in part from detailed beliefs about a pre-Earth life, chronicled in LDS scriptures including the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, wherein Jesus Christ supported God the Father's plan for the redemption of mortal men but Satan offered another plan.
When Satan's plan was not chosen, he rebelled and initiated a "war in heaven" wherein he garnered support of one-third of the hosts of heaven before being cast out by God.
Also outlined in LDS scripture are confrontations between Satan and Moses and a record written by church founder Joseph Smith of a threatening encounter with an "enemy" he described as "an actual being from the unseen world" just before he received a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Such accounts "augment for us beyond the biblical affirmation that there is a Satan. Certainly pre-mortality gives us a boost there. The whole concept of premortality is unique" to Latter-day Saints and "adds all kinds of dimensions" that those of other faiths don't share, said Keller, a former Protestant clergyman.
Belief in the reality of Satan is a belief many mainline Protestant traditions "have begun to move away from, though in Catholicism there is still a strong belief among many. When you get into the Episcopal or Presbyterian or Methodist or United Church of Christ traditions, they tend to see it more metaphorically."
Even so, Latter-day Saints are not alone in a staunch belief. Evangelicals "have the same sense of scriptural authority behind them that we do and a tendency to see it literally - that Satan is a real figure and every bit as real and powerful and painful as you would find among us."
Of Latter-day Saints surveyed, 34 percent also said they have "a personal commitment to Jesus Christ" and affirmed that "when they die they know they will go to heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior." Researchers worded the question that way and respondents were not asked to identify themselves as born again. Based on their answers, pollsters ascribed a "born again" belief.
Keller believes that response reflects not a shift toward more traditional Christian doctrine but a growing understanding among Latter-day Saints that they are not ultimately saved by their own imperfect works but through Christ's Atonement.
"I don't believe that Latter-day Saints, in their best theology, think that works save us. It's the Atonement of Jesus Christ that saves, and we access it through faith, baptism and repentance. Works reflect it, yet we're not saved by faith, repentance or baptism but by the Atonement."
Shipps agreed, saying she has seen an increasing level of what she terms "Atonement discourse" among LDS Church leadership in general conference addresses during the past quarter-century. Those sermons present "a Christian notion that comes fairly close to the Protestant/Catholic notion of the Atonement and crucifixion. It has a tendency to skip over this distinction between what the Atonement means to Protestants and Catholics and what it means to Latter-day Saints."
One such distinction is illustrated by how Baptists view the Atonement, as sort of a "pass or fail" test, while Latter-day Saints view it within the process of eternal progression, she said.
"I think it's an accompaniment of the tremendous emphasis on the Christian dimensions of Mormonism during the past quarter century" and "accompanies that emphasis on Christ" and how the church is Christ-centered. Examples include the addition of a subtitle to the Book of Mormon as "another testament of Jesus Christ," a change in the church's logo that enlarges and uppercases the name of Jesus Christ, and even the most recent request by church leaders earlier this year that media call the church by its formal name and avoid the term Mormon Church.
Latter-day Saints also place a heavy emphasis on how a person actively lives their faith, rather than simply declaring that they believe, and that has become an arguing point for those who claim the LDS Church is non-Christian. Keller said he believes there is a "growing recognition that it is Jesus Christ that does lead to salvation. . . . Perhaps we have overemphasized works to the exclusion of the grace aspect, but grace is not a dirty word.
"LDS theology is tied to the issue of authority and priesthood, and the essential nature of the saving ordinances of the gospel available only through that power. They are the channels of grace to the Atonement of Jesus Christ, accessible to us only through the priesthood of God. If one just stops with faith and repentance, that is the same as Protestant belief."
The nationwide poll of 6,038 adults held some surprises for pollster George Barna, who opined after the results were in that "America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy. How else can you describe matters when most churchgoing adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm."
Survey results show 41 percent of U.S. Christians believe the Bible is totally accurate; 32 percent say they have an obligation to share their faith with others; 30 percent believe salvation is a gift and good works cannot earn a person salvation; and 40 percent are convinced that Christ lived a sinless life.