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:
- 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.
- 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.
- I didn’t know David Campbell was raised a Latter-day Saint!