Kudos to the Salt Lake Tribune's Peggy Fletcher Stack for smelling something fishy in the new decennial numbers showing Mormonism to be the country's fastest growing religion and determining what it is. The LDS Church didn't actually add two million members between 2000 and 2010, as the latest Religious Congregations and Membership Study indicates. Rather, they've changed the way they count their members to include not just those on congregational membership lists. As LDS spokesman Scott Trotter told Stack, "Total (LDS) Church membership numbers are derived from those individuals who have been baptized or born into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
The fact is, however, that this actually exacerbates an already existing LDS tendency to overestimate their numbers. Let me explain. There are two ways to determine the number of religious adherents in the U.S. You can ask the religious bodies for their numbers or you can ask individuals for their religious identity. And in most cases, the number of adherents given by the religious bodies will be fewer than the self-identified adherents of those traditions. The reason for this is simple: More Americans consider themselves as belonging to a particular faith tradition than actually belong to a congregation.
Thus, in the Religion by Region project we conducted at the Greenberg Center in the last decade, 12.3 percent of the population belonged to mainline Protestant churches, but 17.5 percent considered themselves as adherents of one or another brand of mainline Protestantism. Membership in Baptist churches totaled 11.4 percent of the population but 16.3 percent of Americans said they were Baptist. The Catholic Church reported membership at 22 percent, but 24.5 percent said they were Catholic. And so on.
Yet that's not how it worked for Mormons. Whereas Mormon denominations reported a membership of 1.5 percent of the population, self-identified Mormons added up to only 1.3 percent. In other words, in contrast to most other religious groups, in 2000 fewer Americans considered themselves Mormon than Mormon denominations counted as members. And that's because a significant proportion of Mormons remained on the congregation lists after they ceased considering themselves Mormon. Now that the LDS Church is basing its count on birth records rather than congregational lists, the discrepancy only becomes greater.
What's going on here? I guess one can consider the question in terms of this world and the other one. In thisworldly terms, we get to have a debate over the size and growth rate of Mormonism relative to other religious traditions. And no doubt, some in the Mormon community are happy to assert the bragging rights that the bigger numbers afford. On the other hand, however, we're dealing with a church that is eager to allow as many folks as possible access to the best the next world has to offer. Why else do they set about performing proxy baptisms of the deceased?
So I'm not unsympathetic to the Mormon tendency to inflate their numbers. It just doesn't make for very good thisworldly religious demography.