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Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith

The theme of this month’s Nautilus is “Mutation.” Like Aeon Magazine, Nautilus consistently produces very high quality science inflected journalism. I highly recommend it. A piece in the current edition is titled How the Mormons Conquered America. It is a well written feature which plays with a common theme, the rise and mainstreaming of Mormons in America. One has to be cautious here of the hyperbole though which often underpins these articles. The American Religious Identification Survey reports no change in the proportion of Americans who were Mormon between 1990 and 2008. This isn’t that bad, as the United States became notably more secular in that period, with many groups suffering significant decline, but, it belies the idea that Mormonism is sweeping across America. Rather, these sorts of features in the press likely reflect further integration of Mormons into the American cultural scene, and to some extent prominence. Again, one has to be careful of not getting carried away, as Mormon demographics are not nearly as exceptional in terms of education and income in comparison to the American norm as is the case for Jews, or Episcopalians.

So why the focus on Mormons? Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the only distinctively American sect which emerged from the Second Great Awakening to be a possible claimant to the label “world religion.” This was a period of incredible religious and cultural innovation, but even among the broader class of American Restorationist sects Mormons stand out as exceptional in their numbers and public profile. Naturally people are prompted to ask why this is so. If you read the article in Nautilus it is rather clear no one knows why the history of the Mormon church is at such variance with the vast majority of radical sects which were founded in 19th century America.

51zpAJqpkiL One of the most prominent commentators on the issue of Mormon demographic growth is Rodney Stark, who has projected exponential international growth into the 21st century, and worldwide numbers on the order of hundreds of millions. Such sensational claims naturally draw notice, and he’s quoted in the article. But Stark’s academic work also gives us a glimpse into why he thinks Mormons are successful. As outlined in A Theory of Religion what he proposes is that religions are “firms,” which provide “goods & services” to “consumers.” Competition between these firms results in a winnowing process where those which provide a better product flourish. The aggregate choice of individual consumers is ultimately what is determinative as to which religion rises and which falls. This model focuses on individual action, and is supply side. Stark applies the same model to historical events such as the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire (and in his telling the enforcement of Christian monopoly in the 4th and 5th centuries actually hampered the development of a vigorous religious culture by forestalling the competition between Christian sects). Additionally his method is deductive, as he makes predictions which have the virtue of being falsified.

English American distribution

English American distribution

For many reasons which I have outlined elsewhere I find this model not particularly persuasive as a general explanation for religious change (though in particular epochs and places, such as much of 19th century America, it does explain much). Rather, I would like to focus on one aspect of the rise of Mormonism which is not highlighted much: Mormons are just one of the many religious movements which arose out of Joseph Smith’s community. They just happen to be the most successful by a very wide margin. Though the different religious groups which derive from Smith’s community have diverged greatly over the years, their differences in theology and practice were initially not so stark, and even today they often share commonalities such as prophetic revelation. I think the key fact which is a necessary precondition for why the Mormons have been so successful is that the group which became the Mormons separated themselves physically from the rest of American society, and had decades of institutional development in the American West as a de facto theocracy. In this fashion the Mormon church became a folkway, which seamlessly integrated into the life of an ethnic group, as settlers in Utah tended to be from New England Yankee stock (later European converts often came from regions of Europe, such as Scandinavia, which were extremely assimilable into Yankee society). Firms and corporations rise and fall, but entire peoples can persist over thousands of years. Other American radical sects did not develop in the same fashion as Mormons because they often remained more physically in contact with broader society. The economics inspired model of Stark and his fellow travelers does not explain religious change because consumer choice alone is too protean, fickle, and evanescent, to give rise to the cultural features which make for a robust religion.

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Mormons 
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A few weeks ago over at Slate Dave Weigel stated that “Electing Mitt Romney in 2012 would mean electing, for the first time, a president whose religion is not part of orthodox Christianity.” I tweeted to Weigel that this was just plain wrong. There have been plenty of presidents who rejected orthodox Christianity, the last one being William Howard Taft, a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity. And now Jeffrey Goldberg is saying the same thing in Bloomberg View:

But theological honesty demands that we recognize that. Romney would be the first president to be so far outside the Christian denominational mainstream.

There is much in Mormonism that stands in opposition to Christian doctrine, including the belief that the Book of Mormon completes the Christian Bible. Christianity had an established creed about 1,500 years before Joseph Smith appeared in upstate New York with a new truth, codified in the Book of Mormon, which he said was revealed to him by an angel named Moroni.

“The Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed settled the basic ideas of Christianity,” said Michael Cromartie, an evangelical who is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. “The canon was closed, and then Joseph Smith comes along and says that there’s a new book, an extra-biblical addition to the agreed-upon canon.”

I know this is a science blog, but sometimes I frankly can’t stand how little specific information generalist pundits seem to have (though Jeff Goldberg is famous for being the guy who got promoted after convincing many liberals of the feasibility and justice of the Iraq War, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised). Here’s a “fact check.” Four American presidents have been Unitarian.

In the United States Unitarianism evolved out of the liberal wing of the Congregational movement (in New England most Unitarian churches used to be Congregational churches, with King’s Chapel in Boston being the primary exception). Today Unitarianism is predominantly a non-Christian denomination, with about a half and half split between ‘humanist’ and ‘theist’ Unitarians. But in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries Unitarians were generally Christian in self-conception, though they rejected the Trinity as outlined in the Nicene Creed. Thomas Jefferson was never an avowed Unitarian, but his personal correspondence indicates that his views toward religion were in line with more radical Unitarians during his presidency, though he did become more of a liberal Episcopal Christian in his later years. It has to be remembered that Jefferson invited Thomas Paine back to the United States in 1802. Keep in mind that Paine was the Christopher Hitchens of his day when it came to religious opinions (Christian churches would not take his body for burial upon his death because of his reputation).

Jefferson’s religious heterodoxy can be understood best by observing the substance of the Bible he produced by redacting much of the material. In content:

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth…It does, however, include references to Noah’s Ark, the Great Flood, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming, as well as Heaven, Hell, and the Devil.

There is a movement in the United States to erase the reality of the heterodoxy of these early Founding Fathers from historical memory, and that movement originates out of the evangelical Protestant Right which puts a premium on theological orthodoxy, and cannot brook the fact that the more prominent Founders were not Christians as they would understand it. Strangely these views are now spreading through repetition. I recall running into a doctor a few years ago who was raised evangelical in Texas who told me that “of course the Founders were orthodox Christians….” This person is no longer an evangelical, and was totally taken aback when I corrected the fake history he’d been fed in Sunday School.

Now, it must be remembered that the Founders themselves conceived of themselves as Christians. Unitarian Christians of the period believed themselves to be the real Christians. Even many of the heterodox Founders with Deist sympathies like Jefferson perceived the Christianity of their day to be in a degraded condition. Kind of like Mormons.

• Category: Science • Tags: Mormons, Religion, Romney 
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Clark of Mormon Metaphysics says below:

My impression is that atheists, Mormons and Jews did best simply because all three groups tend to be well educated. (Someone mentioned stats adjusted for education but I couldn’t see where that was noted although maybe I just missed the obvious)

This is not an unfounded assertion, as it is “common knowledge” in the Zeitgeist that Mormons are high achievers. Ergo, posts such as The Latter Day Ruling Class. There’s one problem here: it’s not really true in a full-throated sense. The sample size for Mormons in the GSS is very small, so that’s not what we need to look at. First, American Religious Identification Survey 2008:


As you can see Mormons have about the average proportion of college graduates for an American ethno-religious group. We can drill-down further with the Religious Landscape Survey. First, comparisons of various religious groups by educational attainment class as proportions:


OK, now let’s look at income:

As you can see Mormons rank below Mainline Protestants, and well below Jews. A notable trend though is that Mormons seem to have lower variance than the national sample. There are fewer Mormons at the extremes.

Finally, here’s how Mormons stack up on IQ using a NLSY sample:


These data data seem to imply that Mormons are average white folk. So why the perception that they’re more educated? Part of it probably has to do with the reality that the “floor” of Mormon achievement is above the national norm. Fewer high school dropouts, fewer poor people. But I think another issue is what I’ll call “The Mitt Romney Effect.” Romney is conventional Mormon genealogically. His roots are in the Mountain West. But he was raised in Michigan, and spent much of his adult life in Massachusetts. I suspect with Mormons there is a much milder version of what has gone on with the Indian American community: strong selection biasing on migrants toward achievers. This gives Americans a skewed view of what Indians are like. While half of Indian Americans have graduate degrees, 1/3 of Indians are illiterate! How’s that for a difference? Similarly,bi-coastal Americans don’t meet many Mormons, and the ones they do are more likely to be achievers, not those of more downscale or modest means who never left St. George, Utah.

• Category: Science • Tags: Data, Data Analysis, Mormons, Religion 
Razib Khan
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