About That Washington Post Article

The recent Washington Post article talking about the decline of the Church has been making the rounds. I don’t have a ton of time to go into everything, but I just wanted to make a few points. 

I wrote an earlier post using the same CES data where I wrote that “if what we see here is even somewhat reflective of reality…this reiterates the point I’ve made previously that we’re running on the fumes of yesterday’s baby booms, and that when that demographic momentum runs out the Church in the United States could enter a period of decline by any measure.”

However, that post used data that followed the same group of people over a relatively small span of time. The comprehensive version of the data used by the WaPo writer had a lot more years and a much larger sample size. The larger sample size is very necessary for smaller religious groups. Often these kinds of analyses (including my own) use the General Social Survey, which has a much smaller sample size. I tried using the same cumulative 2006-2022 CES data that the writer used out of curiosity months ago, but the files weren’t loading with the standard packages and after a few minutes I decided I didn’t have the time to figure it out. (Just in way of a lame excuse why I was scooped on that graph showing the decline in percent LDS). 

After the article came out I went back to the data. The author showed points but didn’t report significance; I tested whether he was just overreading noise or whether the trend was significant, and it was indeed latter, so it does look like there’s a real decline. 

I wondered whether the decline was from cultural members dropping out, which would potentially manifest itself in an uptick in average religiosity from the people staying in, so I subset the Latter-day Saint sample and looked at the average level of self-rated religiosity across time, but that also showed a decline, so it looks like even Latter-day Saints that stay in are becoming less religious (I used self-reported importance of religion, since religious service attendance numbers are probably non-representative because of COVID). However, the size of the decline in self-reported religiosity, while statistically significant, is small. On a scale from 1-4, religiosity declines for Latter-day Saints by .016 per year, so .16 per decade and 1.6 per century. So it’s not nothing but it’s not huge either. 

There was a lot of commentary in the piece about what it means politically, and each of his points could be their own post, but to briefly respond: 

  1. Given how small Latter-day Saints are as a proportion of Republicans I think he’s overblowing what this means for the Republican topline, and Democrats seem to keep getting electoral eggs in their faces when they rely on their very methodologically naive “demography is destiny” article of faith. Demographic gears grind slowly, and unwarranted assumptions about what Hispanic people 20 years from now will care about politically (or who will choose to identify as Hispanic), for example, is rooted more in article-of-faith wishful thinking than in anything demographically rigorous.   
  2. The “people are leaving religion because of conservative politics mixing with religion,” while a popular refrain, has mainly conjectural support from some survey data. The fact is, for the umpteenth time, that people are leaving liberal religions too, so it’s kind of a stretch to blame the Episcopalian’s cratering numbers on the Southern Baptist Convention’s embrace of Donald Trump. 
  3. I didn’t know David Campbell was raised a Latter-day Saint!  


14 comments for “About That Washington Post Article

  1. I don’t blame the Southern Baptist’s for endorsing Trump, I blame Church members for openly endorsing Trump. And the Church leaders for standing by and passively endorsing him. It’s difficult to understand how Church members can support such a despicable and divisive individual. Clearly the majority of members don’t share my values. Still on the edge, ready to fall off.

  2. Roger, I love your diligence in commenting on this blog. I too agree that many in our time prioritize their politics over their faith, and then find out that they can find community and fleeting meaning in the drudgery of political maneuvering and posturing, abandoning their religion if not with their feet then with their heart. I’d love to talk sometime about which Church leaders you felt “passively endorsed” Trump. IMO, it was almost the opposite: between the COVID vaccine pictures, the environmental efforts, etc., I think that the Church has taken a much different tack since the Fielding Smith-Petersen-Benson era.

    Whenever I see things like this (which are disproportionately common for the size of our religion), I look at the numbers and realize that it really doesn’t have much to do with our religion in particular. It’s just the state of religion in the “Western world” at large. Have we not learned all this from the Book of Mormon? Once nations experience prosperity, the people become puffed up and conceited, and fall away from God. This leads them to experience struggle, which by and large is often the only thing that can lead them to humility and to accept Jesus as their Savior. This is all part of the plan, and it’s a big reason why we have the Book of Mormon as Latter-day Scripture.

    I’m kinda grateful for the success of cultural Mormonism for helping us to spread the Gospel to every continent, but it was never going to be a phenomenon in the 21st century. Christianity is a counter-cultural practice, and that’s a good thing. In some sense, that’s kind of the whole point RE: the last becoming first.

    Drive by any mainstream, liberal denomination in your area. There’s hardly ever anyone there. If the all-wise Post’s thesis were the case, we should be seeing the liberal churches flourishing, but the opposite is happening, as Stephen said.

    Political affiliation, self-aggrandizement via social media, and greed are the religions of contemporary society. This desire to integrate Mormonism into the mainstream is not going to work in our age, and that’s just fine. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess just the same.

  3. Huh…I saw the headline “The GOP has a glaring Mormon problem” and assumed it would be about how Church members might not support the GOP as strongly as usual if Trump is the nominee. (I didn’t want to make an account so I didn’t actually read it.) I thought it would probably cover the recent First Presidency letter about not voting based on party out of “tradition” and instead looking for leaders “who have demonstrated integrity, compassion, and service to others.” I’d have been impressed if it also discussed President Nelson’s “Peacemakers Needed” talk. (“Vulgarity, faultfinding, and evil speaking of others are all too common. Too many pundits, politicians, entertainers, and other influencers throw insults constantly.”)

    (rogerdhansen, I share your frustration that Trump is as popular in the Church as he is, but I definitely wouldn’t say Church leaders passively endorse him.)

    Given the actual topic, I have to agree with Stephen C that our numbers just aren’t big enough for a small decline in them to make a difference unless an election is so close that just about anything will make a difference. And yes, Democratic assumptions that Hispanics will someday vote for Democrats at the same level that Blacks vote for Democrats is wishful thinking and rooted in what Democrats think Hispanics should care most about rather than what they do. (But some Republicans certainly try hard to make that wish come true!)

    Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention peaked in 2006, so it’s hard to blame that on Trump. In fact, the curve of decreasing growth turning into decline is so smooth I doubt you can blame it on any one person or incident. (Apparently they’ve started joking that SBC stands for “Shrinking Baptist Convention.”) But, just eyeballing it, it sure looks like there’s a kink at 2016 such that the rate of decline increased after that. If anyone wants to test it for significance I’d be curious about the result but not curious enough to do it myself.

  4. Another data point re RLD’s point. While I’m sure the clergy sexual abuse scandals were devastating for the people involved and I don’t want to downplay their significance for individuals, at the macro level if you look at the trajectory of Catholicism there isn’t a clear “Boston Globe” effect when all of that broke in 2002. It looks like the post-2002 numbers are simply a continuation of the pre-2002 trends. I get the sense that established religions are like big ships that typically don’t just turn on a dime.

  5. One GA compared the Church to a giant aircraft carrier. If it turns too sharply the members will fall off. My rejoinder would be: it the aircraft carrier turns too slowly, the member will jump off. The Church is in a no-win situation. The members are jumping off.

  6. From the point of view of Latter-day Saints (or, at least, from this Latter-day Saint’s point of view), the pressing issue in this Washington Post article is not about the Republican Party, but rather about declining LDS affiliation in the United States.

    To be clear about what the article reports: “1.8 percent of American adults identified as Mormon in 2007. In 15 years, that total dropped to 1.2 percent. In raw terms, that’s a net loss of roughly 1 million adult members.” This would put the population of American adults who claim Latter-day Saint affiliation at about 3.1 million in 2022. That’s a net loss of one-fourth of American adult Latter-day Saints in fifteen years.

    If this report is accurate, I find it kind of shocking, even though I was already adjusting to my understanding that the church’s membership is not growing in real terms. If this rate of loss continues . . . Well, you can do the math as well as I can. Realistically, there’s probably a limit for this trend, but wow, it’s a completely different way of thinking to start speculating about what the floor might look like and what we might go through to get there. I take no comfort in the fact that this is part of a wider trend of changes in religious affiliation.

  7. if that rate of loss is real, I see it as more of a blip. I’m not that worried.

    Except that I look around at siblings, cousins, and those I grew up with in the Church in my generation. I see a significant portion are not raising their children in the Church – in many cases, not even having them baptized. I recognize individual choice, but over time that’s got to have a little bit of drag on the numbers. I guess we’ll go from where we are and move on – the new Children and Youth program looks promising for helping those of the next generation develop their testimonies.

  8. I think the church has a GOP problem. Many conservatives wishing the church, including sometimes this blog, complain about progressive Mormons and seem to welcome their exodus from the church, but for the church to continue to grow it needs to be a place that isn’t just welcoming conservatives.

    If the LDS church identity becomes too tightly bound to conservative political identity then that becomes super hard to do. You are right about the Republican Party that is doing just fine with or without the 1-2% of the US population that is Mormon. But if liberal and progressive Mormons like myself continue to leave the church membership is hurt.

  9. Brian G,

    My guess is that there are more conservatives who leave the church (for one reason or another) than do progressives–and of course that’s largely due to the difference in percentages between the two groups. Even so, there are some folks for whom the church isn’t “conservative” enough. And so while it’s sad to see anyone leave the church — including you dear brother — I’m of the opinion that members can feel marginalized for many different reasons–and that the trick is to keep our eye on the things that matter most and not get caught up in those ideas that are imported from the outside into the church.

  10. An aside: why aren’t the more recent T&S posts being displayed at LDSblogs?

    Just curious.

  11. @ Brian G: I agree, and inasmuch as I ever come off wishing progressives would just leave for being progressive I apologize. The specific angle that I try to address sometimes are those who try to blackmail the Church with their membership (if you don’t do X then I’ll leave…), or who view the Church more as another social project and less the Kingdom of God on the earth. But yes, I too would hope that a disciple of Christ who happens to be liberal would feel comfortable in Church–we need their perspective.

  12. Stephen, no need to apologize.

    The thing that makes it really hard to stay long term as a liberal member of the church is encapsulated in your conditions you outline. Liberals are welcome in our conservative church as long as we don’t agitate for or advocate for change. Your assumptions are that liberals want change to make the church more worldly and less the kingdom of god. Where I felt just the opposite. If the church really was the kingdom of God, then I felt like it needed to change to become that. I wasn’t trying to blackmail the church. I had no power to do so. Nor was it a social project for a hobby. I also was powerless to actually make a conservative organization actually change. In the end if there is no way to advocate for change besides leaving then that is the only choice left.

    I think your misunderstanding of the motivations and intents of liberal and progressive members is probably shared with our church leadership. You are literally trying to conserve the functions and forms and institutions where yes a progressive Mormon thinks those must change for the church to progress and conservatives don’t see those changes as progress but destruction of this already beautiful thing.

  13. Brian G.,

    The entire liberal/conservative dichotomy is unhelpful for those of us who wish to build Zion. The Kingdom of God is neither conservative nor liberal. Conservative members should not feel as if their politics and the church’s doctrine are one in the same. Nor should they try to take cover from the church when they reach personal political conclusions. Nor should they ever take comfort in the rule of the GOP (cringes).

    That being said, there are certain things, especially related to chastity, (and this is no fault of the church) which have now been deemed by our society as inescapably “conservative”. Liberal members who want the church to change on these kinds of topics are the ones injecting politics into the discussion, not the other way around. Some, like yourself, are sincere and should 100% stay. But some are quite obviously trying to blackmail the church and manipulate the doctrine and in the end are just as unhelpful as a guy who wants to turn Captain Moroni into a libertarian hero and fight the government.

  14. Maybe I’m more of a Pollyanna. Throughout all the political contention over the past two decades, I have found it very refreshing that political discussion is not approved in Church buildings or activities. I am personally politically active, but I do not expose my views in Church or Church activities, and I see that same attitude everywhere we travel. Whenever someone does bring up politics, it is quickly shut down.

    Is that denying our First Amendment rights? I don’t think so. At Church functions, the focus is on the Savior and His teachings. Politics is of the world, so has no place there.

    I know many members outside the Church environment. Some a Liberal, some are in the middle, and some are Conservative, with reflecting wide and varied views. In spite of those wide political views, all of us can honestly enter the prayer circle in the Temple and feel very comfortable with each other.

    Is that 100%. We are human, so no. For those that choose not to respect Church guidelines on this, I disengage from associating with them. An observation: that group, regardless of political view, rarely attend the Temple. Interesting?

    We have been warned in scripture that in the Last Days many will be tempted, and many will fall away. Example, many got to the Tree of Life, partook of the fruit, then fell away. Rather than worry about the speck in another’s eye, I am focused on the beam in mine. The second great commandment tells me to love all, without exception. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find that commandment very very hard to follow. I am very imperfect.

    In these days we have great challenges. On the flip side, I am amazed at the broad choices of scriptural education available to us, at conferences, locally, Church education apps, and dedicated Church members who put out videos and commentaries. Our duty is to keep our eye on the Savior and His teachings. John 15:14 comes to mind. Thanks for the thoughtful article and subsequent comments.

Comments are closed.