The Mormon Sort

April 1, 2009 | 23 comments
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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.]

23 Responses to The Mormon Sort

  1. Julie M. Smith on April 1, 2009 at 11:40 am

    I see a lot of the big sort here, because I live in a ward that has split every 2 years for over a decade due to move-ins, largely people escaping high home prices on the coasts. Living here, they have space and money for a gaggle of kids and a SAHM. It creates a great deal of homogeneity in the ward, which has its advantages and disadvantages, I suppose.

    I worry more about the virtual big sort that creates people who get all of their news from The Drudge Report or The Huffington Post.

  2. Melissa on April 1, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Julie’s comment about the “virtual big sort” is right on. My parents get all or most of their news from their small-town, conservative, Mormon-corridor newspapers, radio stations, and local TV. I live in central Illinois and get most of my news from, yes, The Huffington Post and the New York Times. When I talk to my mom on Sunday evenings we have often heard completely different “national news.” Last week, her news sources had commented extensively on President Obama’s “special Olympics” gaffe on Jay Leno. I had heard/read no criticism on that comment at all. This is funny, but a bit troubling to me.

  3. Ida Tarbell on April 1, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Dave–

    When you say “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” I am sure that you refer to areas where the density of Mormons is high enough that such benign gerrymandering can take place. My ward boundaries are more or less coextensive with my county’s boundaries–with a few townships added and subtracted. This creates a default socioeconomic diversity that is not quite the same thing.

  4. Ariel on April 1, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    “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.”

    My last stake re-did ward boundaries a few years ago. Every ward fit this description, except one extremely small ward, which corresponded exactly to the one extremely wealthy subdivision in the stake- a subdivision providing almost all the stake leadership. Given that the reason for the redo was to redistribute the welfare load more evenly among the wards, many people found this particular new ward strange, and (if only in private) many expressed the opinion that the leaders didn’t want to have to associate with the middle or lower classes.

    Incidentally, the previous boundaries had been drawn about five years prior, and at that time so many people were so upset about them (due to mixing of classes) that an amazingly large percentage continued to attend their “old ward.” Several were even able to obtain special permission to move their records to the ward of their choosing, i.e. the ward with their friends, i.e. the ward with people like them.

    Maybe that stake is an anomaly. I’d like to hope so, but I’m not convinced.

  5. Jacki on April 1, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    This past month my husband and I looked at houses in a major metropolitan area. The process of determining which type of area we’d like to live in, based on the house itself, was further complicated by local friends telling us who we’d be surrounded by- Yuppies in one area, hicks in another, suburbia in another, lower income in another. Part of me wanted variety in the people we’d live around, and part of me wanted to ensure I wouldn’t feel out of place there for the next 10 years. People do tend to stratify themselves unless some external factor, like housing prices or availability force them to be in the same place.

    I will say it was a little bit creepy going into target, in one of the neighborhoods we looked at, at 10 am and in 2 minutes seeing 10 different moms with two kids under the age of 4, all under the age of 30, (my demographic) wearing similar clothes to mine and similar haircuts. It was eery. And made me want to pick a neighborhood unlike how I would define myself.

  6. Christian on April 1, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Jackie:
    Have you thought about changing your hairstyle or your clothes and shopping at Walmart instead?

  7. Steve on April 1, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Every time I move (which is far too often), my wife and I attend Sunday meetings at the local ward before choosing a new home, and our experience with the ward is a significant factor in our decision as to where to locate.

    I don’t think we’re exactly looking for a congregation of people “like us,” (that would be a long and probably futile search), but definitely for a place in which we can be comfortable. It’s not so much the demographics of the ward that influence our decision as it is the total experience of the meetings. What I’m looking for are:
    1. Gospel Doctrine meetings where there is active discussion and participation but few screaming matches;
    2. An Elders’ Quorum in which the writings of Cleon Skousen are not, repeat NOT, recognised as the authoritative Word of God;
    3. Sacrament meetings with just the right amount of baby noise…not too much, not too little.

    Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’d be comfortable in a ward mostly full of people in a much higher income bracket than myself. It’s probably not something I ever have to worry about, as I probably can’t afford a home within the boundaries of such a ward.

  8. Gina on April 1, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I read The Big Sort and found it unsettling. However, I kept thinking throughout that although there is some degree of “sorting” in our wards, overall it is the one anti-sort influence I could see in my life. I felt so grateful for things like visiting teaching that encourage us to actually associate with and serve people not of our choosing and who may be very different from us. It is a modest program, but reading that book you realize how easy it is in our country to never associate at all with anyone not of our choosing, and how damaging it can be.

  9. Red on April 1, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    We had to move back to Utah five years ago for my husband’s job. We chose a home in an area of Salt Lake that is known for being politically and religiously diverse: a little funky, a little hippie. We were definitely in the minority religiously and were one of only a handful of families with young children. It was great in many ways, but last year we moved out to suburbia for financial reasons. There are so many more children and families and our lives are so much more convenient. It’s easier to live here.

    I feel guilty for loving the suburbs so much, but man, we sorted and it worked.

    Virtually though, I go out of my way to read both right and left sides of the news: I consider it a necessary part of being a good citizen, even if I don’t agree with some interpretations.

  10. Bookslinger on April 1, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Dave B: I think I disagree with your premise. Because LDS members are still people, we still sort ourselves geographically when choosing a home, and because the wards are geographical, the wards are in turn “sorted.”

    Yes, there is gerrymandering for purposes of getting leadership into a ward, but I haven’t seen gerrymandering for purposes of distributing the welfare load. Here in Marion County (Indianapolis) Indiana, the divisions are mainly by school district, so that all Seminary students in a given ward essentially go to the same school, or two at most.

    The suburbian wards’ boundaries are pretty much drawn according to political (city/county) or natural (river or street/highway) boundaries.

    Ever since the 1970′s, even though there were members “downtown”, the church built chapels in the suburbs. In one respect it was good, because eventually the suburbs were where most members moved _to_, and they became the population centers of the church.

    But at the same time, I wonder how many inner city people stopped going to church because of the hassle of driving so far. It wasn’t until 2002 and 2004 that the church built chapels in downtown or inner-city Indianapolis.

    It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question. And I can see that the church’s building priorities have changed a little. In the 70′s and 80′s, chapels were built with an eye toward _future_ growth (which did indeed occur in the suburbs). And starting in 2000′s, the church finally responded to the needs of the growing membership in the inner cities.

    Maybe this is a root/branch question also, as the inner cities are a net consumer of church resources, not a provider of resources (both in terms of leadership and operating funds).

    So while I’ll agree that the church’s growth pattern has always been inspired (as much as we allow it to be), I can’t agree that Mormons don’t “self-sort.”

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 1, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    If you are buying a home, and you are not wealthy enough to pay college-level tuition for K-12 private school, one of the major factors in choosing a neighborhood is the general quality of the public schools your kids will go to. That has a strong tendency to sort families into neighborhoods, and in higher-LDS-concentration areas of Utah and Idaho, into wards.

    One reason I think it is a good idea to give control over education funds to the parents of school-age kids, through vouchers, is that it would let a family decide to put less money into a house and more into education, and decouple education from neighborhoods. It would make it easier for families to move into cheaper homes in less costly neighborhoods and mix up the demographics in a way that no “diversity planner” could achieve by ordering children of certain races to ride buses to certain schools (as was being done in Seattle until a US Supreme Court decision a couple of years ago).

    Ward boundary changes have to be approved by a committee of General Authorities at Church HQ. One of the several boundary changes we had in our growing ward on the western edge of Idaho Falls was done specifically to bolster a neighboring ward that was losing active membership as older members died and younger families declined to move into the old neighborhood.

    When I lived in Marin County, the cost of housing was so high that many young Mormon families with children could not afford to live there. The ward sizes dropped as older members died, no young families moved in, and mature families decided to sell their homes and move to Utah, where they could get a larger house, send their kids to BYU, and start retirement early with the rest of the proceeds. I was on the High Council, and several members of the stake presidency and high council, as well as bishopric members, joined the exodus to Utah, while young families moved to cheaper parts of the Bay Area or left the state entirely. Additionally, many Mormons were members of the military, and as a military base gradually closed down and military members were reassigned, we lost another large part of the wards. An area that once held 4 or 5 wards probably has one now, with the main membership further north in slightly less expensive areas like Petaluma and Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa. People in Marin County are either paying high prices for pretty average housing, or getting buy in near poverty conditions. The middle income people are finding it easier to leave.

  12. Sterling Fluharty on April 1, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    One of saddest results of the big sort is what happens to the children. The schools that get left behind when we move to the suburbs are underfunded. The new schools that are built cater almost exclusively to white students. I wonder whether Mormons are content with the consequences of this big sort or whether they would support more equity and opportunities in our educational system. What I have seen suggests that many Mormon families are pulling their children out of public schools and either home schooling them or putting them into charter schools. Have we stopped caring about the quality of education that the child in the inner-city receives? So much for living within the world but not being part of the world.

  13. Kent Larsen on April 1, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Wow, great topic.

    I have to agree that while Mormons escape the “Big Sort” that Christian Megachurches foster, we have some of our own. The reasons given above are true for the more common suburban assumption. They aren’t necessarily true in an urban environment.

    Here in New York City, housing cost is certainly part of sorting, but it is mitigated by the size of the Church here (which makes wards include a large number of neighborhoods and people, even if geographically rather small), by New York’s unique neighborhood and public housing mix, which often puts low-income housing next to relatively expensive housing, and by the existence of rent-controls on many New York buildings. While some wards here may be getting close to gentrification, they all still have a significant distribution of income levels.

    Where local schools is a large issue in most suburbs, here it is possible for parents to send their students to any school in their district (through middle school) or to any high school in the city — so it doesn’t matter that much exactly where you live. [Of course, that makes seminary logistics much more challenging.]

    Still, in spite of these differences, I still hear concerns expressed that one ward or another has ended up racially or economically out-of-balance.

    I’m not sure what exactly this means. It could be that we just perceive bias when its not there, or it could be that there is sorting among Church members.

  14. ola senor on April 1, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    “So if ‘The Big Sort’ is a problem for some churches, Mormons are largely avoiding it”

    I have to disagree with this. Though this impact has lessened in the last few years, there is an economic type-sorting in place. Zion Mormons from Utah/Idaho etc leave to get a better education and/or job and stay there. I see this a lot in my mom’s grandparents and in laws. They were smart, motivated, and wanted to achieve more than be near the heart of zion. So they moved to L.A., SF, Washington D.C., Seattle etc. Thus the motivations are somewhat different, and this is reflected in the attitudes as well.

    Also – not to put to fine a point on it – but mormons continued attendance at lds churches is its own sort of sorting.

    As to sorting for welfare reasons – I am pretty sure this happens. When I first moved to Las Vegas, I noticed that many of the wards and stakes were long and narrow. So that one part of the ward went into the inner city of las vegas, while keeping one part out more towards the suburbs.

  15. Ben H on April 1, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Part of what makes the counter-sort of LDS congregations bearable and even enjoyable, of course, is the fact that the gospel unites us despite our other differences. As Raymond (#11) points out, to a far too great extent in the contemporary U.S. the sorting is based on money. I agree the way schools work is one of the crucial factors driving the problem. But the dwindling of other allegiances is another important factor. Realistically, I think we need to try to strengthen some of these, churches being one of the more important kinds, if we are going to maintain the cohesion and understanding needed for a healthy society.

  16. aloysiusmiller on April 1, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    I lived in such a homogenous ward in the central stakes of Zion once. It was emotional hell. Ever since I have lived in areas that had bigger ward boundaries and were more diverse. I’ll take the diversity thank you very much.

  17. Mark D. on April 2, 2009 at 1:55 am

    This is a strong argument against gerrymandering.

  18. Ron on April 2, 2009 at 6:26 am

    I used to live in a stake where all the wards but one were basically in the same socio-economic grouping. The one that was not was an enclave of wealthy members who felt themselves superior to the rest of the stake and made it obvious that they believed themselves to be superior. Unfortunately for them, the stake president did not live in their ward…well, I should say the Lord works in mysterious ways, but that ward found itself split in half when it was time to realign the stake. We didn’t hear that much from them after that.

  19. Bookslinger on April 2, 2009 at 8:04 am

    #12: “The schools that get left behind when we move to the suburbs are underfunded. ”

    Here in Indianapolis that is not true. The central-city school system, Indianapolis Public Schools, spends vastly more per pupil than do most local private schools, all local catholic schools, all local township schools (schools in the county but not in the central district), and all schools in the suburbs located in the surrounding counties. And, that is true whether you do or don’t factor in busing costs.

    Please don’t fall for the lie that spending more money guarantees, or is even needed for, quality education. The quality issues are more about politics, management, school boards, bloated bureaucracies in the school system, and teachers’ unions.

    Sending a child to Indianapolis Public Schools is tantamount to child abuse, yet they spend thousands more per pupil annually than surrounding school disctricts (not even counting busing costs.)

  20. bbell on April 2, 2009 at 9:37 am

    I do think that Mormons sort like the nation as a whole Its based on housing prices and school districts nationally. We are experiencing a massive influx of out of state active members here in certain school districts in the Dallas area. I cannot walk down the hall at my local elementary school with out seeing member kids

    In Utah for the last generation a sorting has been occurring. Out of SLC to Davis and Utah counties

  21. Kellie on April 2, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    My family and I recently moved to a large city. We attempted to ward shop, but given the fact that we wanted to live in an urban area–we weren’t able to go to a ward where there are peers for my children. As a value we chose living in an urban setting over the suburbs even though our current ward is a bit nutty. I do worry over how our kids will fare in YW/YM in the next few years, but am at peace with the choice we made. I do feel that there was defintely gerrymandering going on in that none of the neighborhoods that surround our neighborhood are in our ward let alone stake. Our ward boundaries are huge for the area, yet the closest people outside of our hood are twenty minutes away.

    Mormons do participate in the big sort not necessarily in choosing the wards that they end up in, but by choosing where they live. Generally mormons live in the suburbs in communities that are homogenus both economically and politically. But this is not a problem inherent to only Mormons–it effects our entire country. There was a great photo essay on the same subject in Slate–where you had to guess the politics of the neighborhood by pictures.

  22. queuno on April 3, 2009 at 2:09 am

    bbell and I live in the same school district (but in different stakes) in North Texas. Our ward has split numerous times in the past decade, mostly due to economic refugees like Julie describes.

    However, I actually think our ward is more diverse now than when we moved in. We have a different split variety of socioeconomic backgrounds than ever before, and I don’t think that I’ve never seen so many Democrats in one place since I left BYU.

  23. queuno on April 3, 2009 at 2:10 am

    (And for what it’s worth, we’ve been alerted to the fact that people who want to attend a ward not corresponding to their geographic area, need 1st Presidency approval. Your mileage may vary.)

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