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What the 15-million statistic of Mormon church membership really means

January 2, 2014

The post that I am responding to really doesn’t centralize the size of the church at all — it is really a quite thoughtful (though I disagree with much of it), lengthy discussion of the roles and purposes of marriage (especially in light of the recent legal decisions that have made same sex marriage a reality in Utah). I apologize from the start for doing such a disservice to James here for referring to such a tangential matter here, but I just wanted to talk about how one casually mentioned statistic really derailed the rest of the article for me.

First, the article: Three Reflections on Same-Sex Marriage in Utah.

Second, the part I found problematic:

Now, I am not saying a state government couldn’t choose to encourage the formation of such “extended nuclear families.” But it seems clear to me that Judge Shelby’s assertion that same-sex marriage will not affect the culture of marriage and procreation in any way is naïve even in light of the limited data sets we have for same-sex marriages so far. Same-sex marriages are not interchangeable with post-menopausal marriages. The biological realities and their long term cultural implications are fundamentally different.

How did Judge Shelby miss that possibility? Probably because he has thought a lot more about law in and of itself than about culture—and the complex relationships between law and culture.

As it happens, many of the very people whose positions Judge Shelby ruled as having no rational basis have spent significantly more time thinking about the culture of marriage than he has. Recent Pew Research indicates that Latter-day Saints are far more likely than average Americans to rank marriage and parenthood as top life priorities. Utah’s population, as it happens, is heavily influenced by people with a strong culture (by American standards) of marriage and procreation within marriage.

In fact, if we were to assume that there is no God, Latter-day Saint leaders are people who on their own and without any divine help guide a community of fifteen million people with a strong culture of marriage and procreation within marriage. From a secular standpoint, LDS Church leaders ought to be considered among the world’s top authorities on how to maintain such a culture and ought to have a respected voice in the public sphere on issues involving family and procreation.

I want to talk about what the 15-million membership count means to me.

One way you could take a look at it is just to dismiss it: Whether we assume a God or no God, Latter-day Saint leaders are not people who help guide a community of fifteen million people with a strong culture of marriage and procreation within marriage.

However, I want to take an alternative approach. After all, I’m a big tent kind of guy. I will concede the 15-million number, but say this: if you want to take the 15 million number, then the story you must tell with this number must change. If you take the reports from this meeting seriously, then according to emeritus Presiding Bishop of the Church, H. David Burton, you can only count 36% of the number as serious, active Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church Growth blog has been independently estimating church activity rates, and came up with 30% worldwide activity in 2011.

And what does this all mean?

Of the 15 million number, then you can, for example, count someone like me, since I am still on the records. And with the 11,000+ members of the Exmormon reddit (where, according to the January 2013 survey of the subreddit, only 20% have formally removed their names from the record. [Although, admittedly, I have no idea of how representative that 5% represents of the entire r/exmormon, especially as it stands as of January 2014, or of exmormonism in general, I would guess that the disaffected Mormon internet is *more* proactive about taking deliberate steps to leave the church than those folks who don’t post on the internet]), there are a lot of people on record who have substantial disagreement with Mormonism, its teachings, doctrines, or leadership. And this is just the people who talk about it on reddit.

I’m not really going to disagree that institutionally, Mormonism has a strong culture of marriage and procreation within marriage — either from a lived practical matter or from a theoretical/theological standpoint. To the contrary, I think that Mormonism ends up theologically valuing marriage more than traditional [especially Protestant] Christianity.)

Instead, I think what I would point out is that what really gets me about people bandying about the 15 million number is the impression of solidarity that it portrays. Instead, I think the 15 million number, whenever it is used, should be a banner of the diversity, but more importantly, the brokenness and flawed nature of the LDS Church. The 15 million number may accurately capture those touched in this Mormon sphere (and if the activity rates of subreddits like r/exmormon are any indication, the way that Mormonism is deeply embedded even in its former practitioners’ lives), but it doesn’t say that these are people necessarily worth emulating. It doesn’t say that these are people who have gotten life, doctrine, spirituality, family, whatever, right.

Rather, the Mormon community may be people who have a strong culture of family and procreation, but it is also a community that continually births tragic stories of how such a culture can tear apart and impede familial relationships.

For however charged the term is, I think that when people call Mormonism a “cult” they are speaking about to the power and strength and cohesiveness of the Mormon church institution. There is something there. But they wouldn’t agree with James that “from a secular standpoint,” what LDS Church leaders have accomplished (or perhaps just inherited) ought to be promoted.

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4 Comments
  1. Nice post! I agree that the 20% from r/exmormon is likely a higher number than the general public. I am confident from my interactions that most people who leave the church simply stop going and cut off their connections not caring about the formalities of leaving.

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