Author: Stephen C

Filling the Measure of Their Creation In Pioneer Utah 

I like people; that’s why I got a PhD in demography. My ideal existence is some rural village where my bevy of kids play outside in the streets with all the other neighborhood kids while the adults chat on front porches, where life is essentially an expanding cycle of weddings, births, and reunions (which according to my reading, is essentially what the celestial kingdom is). While most people aspire to some complex mix of competing goods in an attempt to “have it all,” the simple archetype for my ideal life is an old Jewish woman in New York City with 2,000 descendants for whom faith and family were everything, while the my antitype for society is the childless, future-less dystopia portrayed in the PD James book/movie Children of Men.   This attitude is to some extent embedded in our theology and culture, and I think that’s one reason why our birth rates are so high. Not as high as the Hutterites, Amish, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, but still high nonetheless. From the folklore and early histories I absorbed being raised in Utah Valley (and from my and my children’s love of The Great Brain Series) I’ve always envisioned Pioneer-era Utah as a golden age for this kind of family-centered, youthful communitarian existence. (And yes, like all golden ages I’m sure it was complicated). Maybe because I’m raising my bevy of children in a relatively childless environment outside of DC and I’m pining for…

The Future of the Church is Orthodox

I recently helped conduct a much-overdue national survey of Catholic priests that, among other things, confirmed what most informed Catholic observers already knew: younger priests are much, much more conservative than their older counterparts. While a significant proportion of older priests disagree with fundamental Catholic Church teachings regarding homosexuality, for example, among the latest generation there are few priests that think that contraception among married people is okay. The gulf is pretty big.  Now, there are fundamental dynamics and background histories at play with the Catholic Church that aren’t relevant to the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I do not want to overdraw the parallels. Still, some comparison is useful.  One explanation for our results is that in the past the clerical collar carried with it a cachet and social esteem among certain communities that they no longer enjoy. (On a related note, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the 12 receive more jeers than cheers when they travel in certain sections of Salt Lake City.) Yes, in the case of the Catholic Church scandals are part of the story, but it is also symptomatic of a broader decline in authority and religion more generally. Consequently, people who join the Catholic priesthood are more likely to do so out of personal devotion, and they will be more likely to choose the Church when its teachings do not comport with modern day norms. Similarly, while…

Are Latter-day Saint Marriages Happier?

A few weeks ago I posted some numbers that suggested that Latter-day Saints have significantly lower divorce rates than non-Latter-day Saints. Fair enough, but are these marriages actually happier, or is this just because the stigma against divorce in Latter-day Saint culture is keeping marriages together that would have otherwise divorced? Unlike the divorce question, I am not aware of anybody else who has tested whether Latter-day Saint marriages are happier. Thankfully, every year the US General Social Survey (discussed in the last divorce post) asks married respondents about their happiness with their marriage: “Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” I pooled the last 10 years in order to get enough Latter-day Saints (although the results don’t substantively change if we include the last 15 years like I did with the divorce post), and scored “very happy” as a 3, “pretty happy” as a 2, and “not too happy” as a 1. If we do this, we have 96 randomly sampled married Latter-day Saints to compare to everyone else (with 159 if we extend it back 15 years). The average non-Latter-day Saint marital happiness score is 2.59, whereas the average Latter-day Saint happiness score is 2.71. While both groups on average indicate that their happiness falls somewhere between “very happy” and “pretty happy,” Latter-day Saints are closer to “very happy.” This difference is…

Is the COVID Slump in Church Growth “Real”?

In a previous post I discussed how, according to reported baptisms, 2020 was a particularly low Church growth year, presumably due to COVID.  Thankfully, the 2021 General Social Survey data recently dropped, so we can look at whether the COVID slump is “real,” in terms of people identifying as Latter-day Saints, or whether it’s just an artifact of the weirdness of a COVID year.  The GSS is the standard survey used for measuring religious identification on a year-by-year basis in the US. It is not as big as the Pew surveys, but it has the advantage of being taken on a more or less yearly basis.  In the year 2021, the GSS shows that .9% of people in the US self-identify as Latter-day Saint. While this is a decline from the previous year measured (1.2% in 2018), the exact number bounces around a little at about 1% each year, so for all intents and purposes it appears that the percentage of people in the US who identify as Latter-day Saint has been flat for about a decade (the chart below smooths the trend with a 4-year moving average; as always, the code is on my Github page). Now, the GSS is a blunt tool; it is possible that COVID will have longer term effects on the Church’s vitality in the US that we cannot pick up yet. With a larger sample size we could get more precise and possibly detect a…

Hugh Nibley Will Never Happen Again

During my time as an undergraduate at BYU I noticed there were certain Latter-day Saint scholars that were looked up and aspired to by different groups. These were the days of Rough Stone Rolling when the “New Mormon History” seemed ascendent after a false labor with Leonard Arrington. Various Bushman acolytes aspired to follow in his footsteps and entered training in history, religious studies, or adjacent fields so that they could bring their formal training to Latter-day Saint related fields and become the kind of authority in Latter-day Saint issues that transcended the academy and had a direct bearing on the Church zeitgeist, much as Bushman did.  Similarly, I had the sense that peak Nibley-ism had crested about a decade or so before my undergraduate years, with his acolytes similarly entering ancient languages and history to become the next Hugh Nibley, and while I’m not involved in the humanities I suspect that Eugene England had a similar effect in some circles, with people wanting to write the next landmark essay that was circled around Latter-day Saint intelligentsia. (As a social scientist we don’t really have an equivalent. Valerie Hudson probably comes closest, although there is the fun fact that one of the early Presidents of the American Sociological Association was a grandson of Brigham Young).  Enough time has passed to see the results of such aspirations. Some have found very rewarding careers, but that original aspiration was and will probably…

From the Mouth of Two or Three Surveys

My post a few days ago looked at whether members of the Church in the US reported a lower likelihood of identifying as “divorced” than non-members in Pew data.  However, afterwards some friends raised valid concerns about the fact that remarried divorcees would have identified as “remarried.” Therefore, if Latter-day Saints were remarried at a higher rate or were quicker to remarry after a divorce, both very plausible given our emphasis on marriage, that could explain the difference.  I since discovered that the General Social Survey, a large survey taken almost every year, has a question that asks married or widowed people whether they were ever divorced or separated. Combined with the marital status question, we can use this to create a measure of “ever been divorced.”  Now, the General Social Survey only has a handful of self-identified members per survey, so you have to combine a lot of years to get a large enough sample of members to say anything interesting, so here I combined all survey years from 2004-2018 (the latest year available); this gives us 220 randomly surveyed members.  Of those who have ever been married in the survey, 28% of members have been divorced at some point, while 42% of non-members have been divorced. This difference is highly significant, with a less than one in a thousand chance that it happened by chance. Taking into account age and/or year of the survey does not change things.  Now,…

Are Latter-day Saint Marriages More Stable?

Various researchers have addressed this question with older (pre-2010 data), and have shown that in general Latter-day Saints have lower divorce rates, but what about more recent years? The largest (relatively) recent survey of Latter-day Saints is the 2014 Pew Religous Landscape Survey which included 661 Latter-day Saints, allowing for a simple comparison of marital status.  Calculating divorce rates is notoriously difficult and complex, because you don’t really know whether the marriage ended in divorce until it ends in either divorce or death. So, for example, we’re just getting the *real* divorce rate of my grandparent’s generation, but there are shortcuts to getting a number that is close to the real rate without having to wait for the entire generation to die off, and there’s a whole methodological debate about how to do that that takes into account age and complete marital history, including remarriages. However, the PRLS allows us to simply identify how many members of the Church identify as divorced. Specifically, they report how many members fit into the categories of married, cohabiting, divorced or separated, widowed, and never married. While this is not going to be as precise as a study using full-fledged divorce rate methods, it’s the best current picture we have about Latter-day Saint divorce. I removed the “never married” individuals from the summary statistics that the PRLS reported so that we’re left with those who had been married at some point. When we do this,…

Is Church Growth Declining?

I’m a Church growth amateur; occasionally I enjoy dropping by Matt Martinich’s blog to look at the latest temple predictions, and I’ll often skim through headlines about the latest data point on Church growth and what it means. However, for some time now I’ve been suspicious that we’re reading way too much into the natural jitters in the data. Church growth was 1.2%, now it’s 1.5%, what does that mean!? What gets credit? In data science this is what we call “overfitting.” Sometimes there’s a random blip in the data that we interpret as meaningful change when in reality, it’s just a random blip. If we’re oversensitive to variations we can read trends into the data that aren’t there, and we’re definitely at a high risk for this when we only look at the data once a year when the latest numbers are announced at spring General Conference.  In reality things like the growth of a relatively developed religion follow slow-moving, long-term patterns. To use a metaphor, some social phenomenon are like a large boat that requires a long time to turn left or right, and short of some nuclear level event like the President of the Church abdicating and declaring the Church a fraud, it is likely that growth trends won’t drastically swing in a real, meaningful sense on a dime.  And even events that might be considered “nuclear level” don’t turn out to be. For example, the Jehovah’s…

Are We Going to Be Able to Buy the Kirtland Temple?

I’ve always been fascinated with sacred real estate disputes, and we certainly have our own. The most salient–the American “Temple Mount”–is probably the Temple Lot in Independence, the story of which makes for fascinating reading: a geographically precise, small plot of land is prophesied by Joseph Smith as the location of a future temple. After his death various branches legally fight over ownership. The ones who end up winning the prize are a small, numerically marginal branch known as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot, AKA Hedrickites), after forming an alliance of convenience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that includes gathering some of the few first-hand accounts from Joseph Smith’s living wives.  While one historically prominent exegetical strand among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds that D&C 57 should be interpreted as indicating that we will some day return to Independence and build the temple at the Temple Lot site now occupied by the Hedrickites, there are other ways to read that scripture given the historical context; I’m personally less inclined to the traditional interpretation, but I might be wrong and would not be surprised if it does end up happening the way Brigham Young thought it would. Whatever the case with the Temple Lot, it looks like the Hedrickites are comfortably ensconced there, have no plans to sell any time…

Is the Church Replacing Itself in the United States? Population Momentum and its Capacity to Hide Decline

The following is Stephen Cranny’s fourth guest post here at Times & Seasons. 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 six children According to conventional wisdom, the Church in the United States and other developed  countries can either be described as in a state of stasis or slow, steady growth. I have no reason to doubt this general consensus, and it appears to be supported by findings by Matt Martinich and others that the Church is consistently adding units in the United States.[1] As I’ve noted elsewhere,[2] raw on-the-rolls membership is not the best indicator of Church growth for a variety of reasons, but increases in units is probably a good indicator of substantive growth, and by these measures the Church appears to be doing fine. However, this superficial reading can be misleading, as it does not take into account “age structure effects” which may hide very real declines in Church growth that are not readily apparent from a surface reading of the numbers. Age structure effects is a very technical subject, but to summarize:  the Church in the US may be forming new wards, registering more members on its rolls, and building more temples to meet increasing demand while actually having undergone changes, such as lower birth rates and a net outflow of members, that will lead to the…

Are Half of All Church Members in the US Single?

Chart showing the percentage of married LDS adults is between 80% and 60% since the early 1990s.

The following is Stephen Cranny’s third guest post here at Times & Seasons. 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 was surprised at the Church’s seeming statement (I’ll discuss why it was “seeming” later), echoed around the standard General Conference post-game analysis that half the Church in the United States was single. The surprise came from the fact that self-response surveys on religion and marital status consistently show that a solid majority of adult Latter-day Saints are married. For example, the largest recent self-report survey (Pew 2014) reports that 66% of self-identified adult Latter-day Sainta are married. I checked the General Social Survey, an omnibus survey taken every year with a wide variety of variables, and found similar results. Now, the GSS only has a couple dozen Latter-day Saints every year so the results are much more sporadic (as can be seen below). However, by combining years you basically get the same picture painted in the 2014 Pew report, with Latter-day Saint marrieds in the low-to-mid 60s range as of the mid-2010s (2018 is also available in a different dataset, but I dashed this off in between errands; presumably that one year won’t radically affect the take-away). So why the discrepancy? I can think of a few reasons, some more convincing than others. 1. Surveys use self-reported members,…

What do people look up about the Church on Wikipedia?

The following is Stephen Cranny’s second guest post here at Times & Seasons. 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. When somebody is looking up material about the Latter-day Saint movement on their own, which themes draw their attention? What do they look up? Despite all the attention given to the media’s role in narrative-shaping, the fact is that Wikipedia is still the primary go-to source of information for most things that happened longer than a day ago. While many people are keeping their ears to the ground about the latest media response to this or that, I’m consistently surprised at how little Wikipedia makes an appearance in discussions about framing, so I decided to systematically analyze the Church’s presence on Wikipedia using software I wrote (available on my Github page here). By knowing what people are looking up vis-a-vis the Church, we get a sense of what people are interested in learning about the Church. In my experience, it seems people often associate the Church with very particular subject(s) (polygamy, LGBT issues, etc.), and they implicitly assume that those issues similarly loom large in the consciousness of others, when in fact that particular issue may never cross into the same stream of thought as the Church for most people. My program builds out a citation network of Wikipedia…

Is Activity Increasing Among US-based Latter-day Saints?

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…