After seeing a reference or two, I noticed a copy of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart at the library and gave it a quick read. The thesis is simple: increased income and mobility over the last five decades has enabled Americans to self-sort geographically into communities surrounded by people they are most comfortable with, namely people like themselves.
This self-sorting, the author argues, is driving a variety of social and political trends, most visibly an increasing polarization and incivility in politics. As voting in many district becomes tilted toward one party (a consequence of the clustering of like-minded voters), representatives have less incentive to be centrist and, as a result, drift farther “left” or “right,” depending on their party. Result: political polarization at the national level.
There’s a religious aspect, too, visible in the rise of middle-class megachurches giving like-minded suburban churchgoers what they want: lifestyle preaching, amenities and services, lots of parking.
Are Mormons part of the same process? Interestingly, Mormons did their own geographical sort much earlier, in the 19th century. Partly by choice and partly by coercion, the Mormons ended up clustered in Utah. And that did, in fact, lead to polarized, even apocalyptic, politics reinforced by a clustering of like-minded Mormons. But I think our politics has mellowed over the last hundred years.
What about clustering and congregations? Again, we seem out of synch. While Mormons have been as mobile as other Americans, the geographical basis for assigning most Mormons to congregations prevents the self-sorting in like-minded congregations that characterizes megachurch attendance and even mainline and Catholic congregational affiliation decisions. And within a given stake, ward boundaries are often drawn to include neighborhoods spanning the socio-economic spectrum to provide balance and leadership to each ward.
So if “The Big Sort” is a problem for some churches, Mormons are largely avoiding it. Don’t expect to get any credit for it, but it turns out that, at the local level, we are a surprisingly integrated church. [I know some will respond that Mormons skew to the conservative side of the political spectrum, but the point is that Mormon Democrats don’t appear to self-sort by neighborhood or congregation.]