The following is a guest post from Stephen Cranny. Stephen Cranney is a Washington DC-based data scientist and Non-Resident Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. He has produced over 20 peer-reviewed articles and five children.
I calculated the percent of people who self-identify as Latter-day Saints who are “active” (attend Church about once a week) from the early 70s to today. The estimates are a little unstable because of the small numbers involved, but suggest that “activity” has actually been increasing.
The numbers are derived from the General Social Survey, a large, representative survey of the US taken almost every year that has questions on just about every major behavioral, demographic, and social variable, including religious affiliation. Because there are only a handful of Latter-day Saints each year, I combined years to get larger samples for each point so that the trend wasn’t so bumpy. The 1972-1976 bracket at the beginning, for example, pools together all the self-identified Latter-day Saints in the GSS survey from 1972-1976, the next bracket includes all the self-identified Latter-day Saints from 1977-1983, and so forth. I used the supplied “survey weights,” multipliers attached to each respondent to make sure that the survey sample as a whole is representative (so if the survey captured half as many of one demographic as there are in the US, that person’s response would be worth twice as much in terms of averages). The code is on Github here.
Again, the denominator is the number of people in the survey who self-identify as Latter-day Saints, and the numerator is the number of those who self-identify as Latter-day Saints who also report going to Church “nearly every week” or more. The estimates are a little unstable because of the small numbers involved, but they suggest that “activity” has actually been increasing. (More formally, I performed a simple logit regression which showed that year number is a positive and statistically significant predictor of being active.)
Now, this could be because activity has in fact been increasing, and people who self-identify as Latter-day Saints are increasingly likely to go to Church. However, it could also be that the kind of cultural “Jack Mormon” who maintained a cultural or hereditary affiliation is less likely to do so now than they were in the past (for whatever reason). Or, it may be that the hereditary Mormons make up less of the Church now than they did in the past due to the decentralization of the Church from its Utah base. In other words, it may be an issue with the denominator, not the numerator.
My anecdotal experience, for what that’s worth, suggests that the rural seventh-generation cultural Mormon-Utahn who gives up her coffee for a month to attend a temple wedding is becoming less of a thing. In terms of implications, there’s an ongoing discussion about the extent to which non-practicing, non-believing members who see the Church mostly as a community or heritage should have their particular religious needs put on similar footing within the institution as the TBMs who, in the words of Sterling McMurrin, are the ones who “pay the tithing and do the believing.” Whatever position one holds on this, these results suggest (although not definitively, since there are other explanations that fit the data) that the former group is declining, and that, by dint of numbers alone, whatever influence they had in the past will decrease, as the Church community will increasingly be catering to TBMs who are actually in the pews.*
* Yes, just because one goes to church doesn’t mean that one believes the truth claims, but I’m assuming here that they usually go together. Again anecdotally, the only occasion when I’ve seen a non-believer consistently keep going to church is when there are family connections. The proverbial non-believer who makes the sacrifices of church activity for the sake of community or heritage sometimes makes an appearance in these discussions, but I strongly suspect they’re a small minority.