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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended April 23, 2000
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and the LDS Church
Sent on Mormon-News: 25Apr00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

How Many Mormons Are There?
Spokane WA Spokesman-Review (Los Angeles Times) 23Apr00
By Teresa Watanabe: Los Angeles Times

SPOKANE, WASHINGTON -- While many people have complained about the sometimes invasive questions on the U.S. Census, distributed to every household in the U.S. this year in the normal decennial count, the census doesn't include questions about religion. Now some religious leaders are calling for the census to do just that. Bedeveled with questions of how many members they have and how many are moving to other faiths, they and academics note that the counts provided by the churches themselves, including those from the LDS Church, are in many ways inaccurate.

The U.S. Census Bureau has asked about religion only once, in 1957 as part of a voluntary survey. It has never asked a religious question on the count it takes every decade as mandated by the U.S. Constitution. And in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting it from doing so. But some religious leaders are looking for more accurate information, and hoping that the Census Bureau can provide it. In particular, some Jews, concerned with allegations that as many at half of all Jews marry outside their faith, want the count so that they know the truth.

But others worry that such a count would only lead to increased competitiveness between religions, and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches has even decided to discontinue its count. Yearbook editor Eileen W. Lindner says the group discontinued the count last year to promote cooperation among religions, "We don't think, at the present moment in America, counting is the best way to understand our increased religious pluralism. We now have a critical mass of people from different religious traditions. Whether we have the numbers or not ... (we) need to learn ways to engage with them."

But the lack of a neutral survey from the Census Bureau or another disintrested party only heightens the uncertainty that churches face because of the difficulty of obtaining reliable data on religious trends, "Any religious data you see (are) highly biased, and most of us tend to be very leery" of them, said Samia El-Badrey, who tracks Arab American demographics, of the Texas-based International Demographic and Economic Association. "Most data (are) collected by religious organizations; hence they tend to be higher than reality because the sources want to make sure their numbers are high."

A lot of the problem comes down to how the data are collected. Churches like the LDS Church or the Roman Catholics, who have an established hierarchy, keep registration records, tracking how many people show up to services and how many have been baptized or christened. But other religions, such as Buddism, don't have any hierarchy, and often aren't very concerned about how many people belong to their community.

In 1991, a Jewish population survey caused a storm of controversy when it reported that 52 percent of Jews marry members of other faiths. But some demographers questioned the survey's validity, saying that the way the data was collected was flawed, skewing the result. Several new surveys show rates ranging from 25 percent to 41 percent. United Jewish Communities plans another survey this year in an attempt to get a more accurate count.

Controversy has also followed claims of an explosion in the size of the Muslim community in the U.S., which reportedly grew from 527,000 in 1996 to 3.3 million in 1998, or about 250% annually, according to figures reported to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. The claim was attacked as 'improbable' and many Muslims admitted that the numbers were suspect.

Demographers that track religion, used to many other countries which do collect and report information by religion, also call for the Census Bureau to collect information in the U.S. Encyclopaedia Britannica demographer David B. Barrett, who charts world religions, says the lack of data is pathetic, "I have never met anyone who thinks asking about religion is a dangerous question," he said. "Ignorance is the danger, when you make decisions without any basis in fact."

It is exactly who will use the data that is at issue. U.S. Census data is used first by the U.S. Congress, to provide information on which legislation and regulations are based. But the idea of legislation or regulation based on religion is uncomfortable to many in the U.S. and would likely lead to a constitutional challenge.

But other big users of Census data include businesses and organizations that are attempting to define or study their markets or reach new ones. With religious information, businesses might create new products or change existing products to orient them to specific religions. Churches would likely use the data to understand who is joining or leaving their organizations.

The Spokesman-Review article then looks at religions in the Inland Northwest, guessing the religious makeup of the area. But like most areas, the data is not available and demographers simply guess.

"We're pretty sure Roman Catholics are the biggest faith group," said Mary Stamp, editor of the Fig Tree, an ecumenical newspaper published by the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, a council of churches. "After that it's probably Mormons or Lutherans and it dwindles from there." Her information is based on reports from the denominations.

According to the article, Roman Catholics report 79,631 registerd members in Eastern Washington. The LDS Church counts 80,000 members in Eastern Washington and North Idaho according to Stamp. But it is difficult, if not impossible to compare these numbers. They use different geographic boundaries and different standards for defining who is a member.

Catholics count everyone who registers with a parish, even if they only come to Christmas and Easter Mass. The LDS Church is more likely to drop members, according to the article.

But, as most LDS Church members know, even these counts don't tell the whole story. The LDS Church keeps on its records everyone alive that has been baptized and who hasn't been excommunicated or asked to have their records removed. Members hope that they can eventually persuade those that don't participate to return.

Worse, attempts to count only active members are difficult because it is difficult to define who is active and who isn't. Is someone who comes to church once a year active? What if they come once a month, but only to Sacrament meeting? While most LDS Church members are familiar with these issues, the Church itself generally only releases the number of members on its rolls, not the activity rates it collects.

Other churches aren't any better. Most Christian churches count baptized members, just as the LDS Church does, but each has different standards for who can be baptized. Others don't have membership lists at all, but instead keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever attended. And some, like the Buddists, don't even do that.

The Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries tried to get member churches to report the number of members for its annual directory, but eventually gave up, "We have churches with 150 registered members, who get 1,000 people attending weekend worship services," Stamp said.

"I'm not saying it can't be done," Stamp said. "But if someone were to try and do a good survey, it would have to be done taking into consideration the unique way that churches operate. Because we are all different."


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