An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

In his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray quotes statistics demonstrating the loss of religiosity in American life. This surprised me because I’m always reading surveys showing American church attendance is higher than that in European countries. And during an election year, it seems like every voter in the country is more interested in a candidate’s religious views than in his economic or foreign policies.

While the U.S. may be more devout than Europe, surveys tracking regular church attendance over the past half century show a steep decline, one that is tied to economic and educational status. Where church attendance of the top 20% of Americans declined from 65% to 55% in that time period, the decline in the bottom 30% was from 55% to 45%. In some lower income neighborhoods, church attendance is now below 40% of the population.

I would have expected these statistics to be reversed with wealthy people spending their Sundays sailing on their yachts or schmoozing at the country club. Maybe my perception of lower class religiosity is because I associate fundamentalist churches with the less affluent. Murray’s statistics show that only 34% of the new lower class belong to fundamentalist churches. Apparently, their political influence is out of proportion to their numbers.

Murray sees the decline in religious activity in the new lower class as a social problem because churches play key roles in a community. Churches teach values and promote social stability through youth programs and other community activities. They also sponsor community improvement projects as well as charity work. If too few people attend, churches have no one to teach Sunday School, raise funds for charity, take youth groups on outings, or keep a multitude of other activities going. (Contrary to popular Mormon belief, other denominations do have many jobs for volunteers. The minister does not do everything singled-handedly.)

Having lived and taught in the heart of Zion for most of my adult life, I have noticed that the majority of dysfunctional families appear to be cut off from any kind of religious support in their lives. Certainly, members of my extended family who have experienced divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and a skid into poverty no longer attend the Mormon services in which they were raised, despite parental efforts to bring them back to the fold.

My cousin mourns that their daughter who has been an inactive member her entire adult life won’t start going to church and force her grown sons to get jobs and marry the girlfriends who share their bedrooms or kick them all out. While I see the need for religious values for this family, I can’t imagine a family as dysfunctional as this daughter’s ever feeling comfortable in a Mormon meeting. The bar is too high. They wouldn’t even have the right clothes to attend.

And what would they hear in the talks and lessons? Admonitions to honor the priesthood and follow Church leaders, hold Family Home Evenings, go to the temple, share the gospel. They would hear warnings about immorality that would convince them they could never be as good as people who had not transgressed. Unless they’re in an exceptional ward, they wouldn’t hear much about God loving and forgiving them or of the opportunity to start over.

Our oldest son and his family are members of Mars Hill, a Calvinist denomination in Seattle. This rapidly growing church offers music that rocks, casual dress, and short, punchy sermons laced with humor. It’s an easy place for those turned off by more traditional churches to attend.  Doctrine is strict and standards of conduct are high, but our son knows many young men who have cleaned up their lives after hearing straight talk from the head pastor, Mark Driscoll : “Yes, Jesus loves you. Now, be a man. Get a job. Get married and raise a family—that’s what gives life meaning.”

This kind of church might give my cousin’s daughter and her sons better direction in their lives. Unfortunately, my cousin would be distraught if they made that kind of choice. I don’t expect the Mormon Church to change any time soon. Why should it, if it’s meeting the needs of most members? But, it obviously doesn’t fulfill the needs of all. Maybe it’s time Mormons stopped judging other denominations as being deficient and respect the fact they are a force for good in the lives of many people.

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