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
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
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
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
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