This week Time.com reported that Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City ranks among the lowest of US cities in Bible reading. The metropolis is therefore, according to Time, one of the “most godless” and least “Bible-minded” cities in America.
Um, say what?
The magazine’s claims were based in two recent studies. Bible Gateway found that SLC was 100th out of 100 cities it tracks for usage of its software, and the American Bible Society ranked the city 87th without giving much detail about where that number actually came from.
The Mormon Newsroom is crying foul – and I’m right there with them. Bible Gateway, if you’ve not used it before, is a fantastic website and app that has multiple translations of the Bible online. I use it several times a week to cut-and-paste NRSV quotes, for example, for some of the projects I am editing or writing. The mostly Protestant publishers I work with tend to license either the NRSV or the NIV, and Bible Gateway is a wonderful one-stop shopping resource to find what I need.
But I don’t know any other Mormons who regularly use Bible Gateway, because as the Newsroom points out, the LDS Church has its own app and its own authoritative translation of the scriptures online. There Mormons can cross-reference their preferred KJV translation with additional LDS scriptures like the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.
It's inaccurate to claim that a predominantly Mormon city is "godless" just because it uses its own Bible study resources. And it’s not just Mormons who are being unfairly stigmatized by the “godless” label. Cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the two most Catholic states in the US, were also branded in this way, with Boston and Providence appearing right with SLC at the bottom of the pile.
Maybe a more accurate reading would take into account how much people actually know about the Bible. In Pew’s 2010 Religious Knowledge survey, Mormons edged out other Christian groups, answering 20.3 of 32 questions correctly. White evangelical Protestants were next, with 17.6 correct. (Atheists and agnostics, by the way, had the highest levels of knowledge of any group.)
Moreover, even the facile equation of “godlessness” with “lack of Bible reading habits” reveals a peculiarly Protestant bias, as though biblical literacy were the end-all of a grace-filled life. So much for charity and other devotional practices. Sola scriptura, indeed.
There are legitimate questions to be raised about how Mormons read the Bible; too often it involves simple proof-texting to demonstrate Mormons’ own alleged doctrinal superiority rather than a deep engagement with the richness that is ancient Scripture. (For a recent podcast discussion of how Mormons read and teach the Old Testament, click here.)
But if the issue is simply whether Mormons are reading the Bible, then the surveyors need to take a step back and look carefully at their biased criteria.