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If Mormonism becomes liberal and progressive, won’t it decline even more?

A podcast listener takes me to task for saying that we should lighten up on Millennials, because doesn't everyone know that religions that liberalize their standards go down the toilet? Not so fast, I respond.

Yesterday I was a guest on the Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, discussing The Next Mormons and trends we are seeing among Mormon Millennials. You can listen to the podcast here—among other things, the three of us discussed why more Millennials appear to be leaving Mormonism than was the case for older generations.

One listener, who identified himself as a Baby Boomer with Millennial adult children, subsequently wrote to tell me that my conclusions were “outside the historic context” and that “with a little more research and study” I would “discover that conservative, strict, and demanding religions grow, while progressive, permissive and accommodating religions are in decline—some in rapid decline.”

While he didn’t dispute our study’s specific findings that Mormon Millennials are different from older Mormons in their behaviors and political values, he felt the suggestions I offered for helping the LDS Church better engage with Millennials were wrong-headed. The LDS Church thrived when hard-line leaders such as Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson fully resisted the liberalizing trends of American culture, he asserted, with average growth in those years being several times the meager rate the Church had in 2016 (1.59%).

To read: Mormon growth rate slows to its lowest level since 1937. Here’s why that’s good news.

The current decline we’re seeing, this listener seems to suggest, is because the LDS Church has already accommodated too much, and I am a fool not to see it. “Unfortunately, like so many of your age, with your progressive and permissive perspectives, you are prescribing the very worst remedy to address those findings,” he lectured.

I’m not sure what age this gentleman imagines I am (I am 48), but he is correct that a popular sociological theory has long argued that conservative religions that make high demands of their members will flourish, while progressive ones that maintain more porous boundaries will inevitably decline. This theory has been advocated by Rodney Stark, Roger Finke, and Laurence Iannoconne, among other social scientists.

So let’s talk about that theory, because it has been influential, particularly — and not surprisingly — among conservatives. (And why wouldn’t it be? The theory tells them that they’re superior precisely because of their conservatism. What’s not to love?)

For a long time, the strict-religions theory seemed to explain a great deal, at least in the United States: in the 1980s and 1990s, conservative religions were indeed thriving even as mainline Protestantism’s numbers went down the toilet.

More recent work has called this into question, driven by the reality that almost all religious traditions are now struggling — even conservative ones like evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism, which once seemed so reliably immune.

Sociologist Darren Sherkat calls the old strict-church theory the “supply side” thesis, since it assumes that religion is akin to a free market economy in which a religion might increase its market share through the conversions of people who are attracted to its unique message. Sherkat contrasts it with the other main thesis that is gaining ground, secularization:

. . . secularization theories argue that as the United States becomes more secular, religious attachments will become less important. Hence, secularization proponents expect to find that nonaffiliation is increasing, that religious switching is more common, and that more fundamentalist and exclusivist religious groups will decline or only increase through fertility differentials.

And that is indeed the case: all three of those factors he mentions are now happening. If supply-side theories alone could explain why liberal religions seemed to decline in the 1990s and beyond, Sherkat argues, we would see evidence that the exodus from liberal traditions such as mainline Protestantism was matched by a corresponding growth in conservative religions that was not already due to those religions’ higher fertility – and the data don’t show that.

That’s not to say that the secularization theorists have it all right, either; Sherkat says their “grand, linear, evolutionary perspective” of religious decline “is just as far-fetched as the supply-side stories yearning for a sectarian Christian America.” Rather, religious decline is related to broader demographic patterns that are complex and ever-changing, from declining fertility and immigration to generational replacement. A big part of the problem is that Americans are having fewer kids.

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow explains it well:

Some argued that [mainline Protestantism declined because] people wanted strict churches and these had become too lax. The better evidence, though, showed that nearly all the decline in mainline denominations was attributable to demographics. Mainline members were better educated and more likely to be middle class or upper-middle class than the rest of the population. As such, mainline members married later, had children later, and had fewer of them. Memberships declined because there were simply fewer children being born into these denominations. Evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, escaped these demographic problems. As long as they kept marrying young and having large families, their growth would make up for the mainline losses. There is just one problem: the same demographics that caused problems for mainline churches are now prevalent in the whole society.

To sum up: liberal religions’ loss has not been our gain. Conservative religions, at best, used to hold steady as a percentage of the population; now we are not even doing that.

Instead, the real growth has been in nonaffiliation, as people are no longer switching religions so much as dropping out altogether. About 7% of Americans claimed no religious identification in the early 1970s, when the General Social Survey began tracking it. In 2016, according to PRRI, that group (the “Nones”) had nearly quadrupled to 26% of the U.S. population – and there are signs it will only accelerate through cohort replacement. As you can see from the infographic up top, among younger Millennials in 2016, 39% had no affiliation.

So no, it is not a foregone conclusion that strict religious traditions will thrive and liberal ones will fail. With the rapid secularization happening in America, most religions are failing, some worse than others. For this listener to argue that Mormonism did well in the 1970s and 1980s only because of its conservative leadership is a myopic view that misses the larger picture of what was happening in the American religious landscape. It also ignores salient historical factors even within Mormonism itself (for example, that the Church’s lax policies about baptismal preparation in those decades artificially and temporarily inflated Mormonism’s numeric success).

But I don’t think this man is wholly wrong, either. I am skeptical of any one sociological theory that claims to fully explain either growth or decline. One thing I like about Wuthnow and Sherkat’s work, in contrast to Stark’s single-minded vision, is how well they explore how various factors may work in combination. Drawing on their work, for example, I would respond to this fellow that at the very least, the conservative subculture of American Mormonism in the 1970s and 1980s created an environment in which Mormons were receptive to leaders’ insistence that they marry young and have large families – and that those two factors, rather than strictness per se, have shown a high correlation with religious activity.

In short: it’s complicated.

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