President Monson’s call for “the less-active, the offended, the critical, the transgressor” to come back to the fold gained strength in an interview of Sister Elaine Dalton, President of the Young Women. She was asked by the media, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune “how they [the new Young Women’s presidency] planned to cope with the fact that as many as 80 percent of the single Mormon women between 18 and 30 are no longer active in the LDS Church”. She reportedly responded that she did not know.
At first the number in the question surprised me. Is the inactivity rate for young women really that high? That number needs to be placed in a context. It is a number that refers to young women in the whole Church.
If, as in Mexico and some other countries, only some 20-25% of the people listed on the roles of the Church claim membership when asked by census agencies then the number does not sound so alarming. It is akin to what one would expect. But not all countries are showing such high discrepancies.
In the US, the Pew Trust Religious Landscape Survey shows that 30% of those born in the Church, in their sample, change their religious affiliation. 70% remain. The percentage that leaves is lower than that of other non-Orthodox Christians. Mormons born in the Church stand out for their religious loyalty.
But that percentage is only for those born in the Church. 26% of the Pew Surveys Mormon sample were converts to Mormonism from other traditions, about half Protestant, roughly a quarter Catholic, and about a fifth from the ranks of the disaffiliated. Those registered in the sample are the ones who chose to stay and claim Mormonism as their religious affiliation.
The Pew Survey does not tell us what percentage of the converts in the United States, to our highly missionary Church stay. It emphasizes changes from the tradition of birth to the religion one holds at the time of the survey. It does not pick up what anthropologist Henri Gooren calls ‘religious careers”, i.e. the multiple affiliations people may have over the course of their life.
The Pew data do show that Mormons do show a net decline from 1.8% of the total sample compiled for childhood religion to 1.7% of adult religion. While this decline is much less than that of many non-Orthodox Christian groups, it is also higher than many. We are not converting enough to replace our losses and, as a result, show a one-percentage point decline in our total standing. This suggests that most converts probably do not stay in the Church.
However the Pew Trust does show that the broader Mormon tradition which all these numbers refer to, although the LDS Church is by far the largest in their sample (about 94%). We do not know, as a result, how different the patterns of retention and disaffiliation are for the Utah-based Church as opposed to other Mormon Churches and what impact those differences might have on the trends cited above.
Nevertheless the Pew data are a wakeup call. That one point net loss over time suggests difficulties in the US. It also makes us ask about other countries, where converts make up a much higher percentage of the membership. What are our retention rates of converts and of those born in the Church?
We need more studies of what the sociologists are calling “disaffiliation” and of Gooren’s religious careers to understand how Mormonism is or is not fitting and staying in people’s lives.
While the context I find for the question posed to Sister Dalton suggests the issue is not that of young women alone, we can ask if women or men show higher rates of inactivity or religious switching. The Pew data do not give us numbers specifically for Mormonism. The Survey does say, “men are only slightly more likely to switch affiliation than women (45% vs. 42%)” (p.33 of Chapter 2). Nevertheless it is possible, given the social place of women and the emphasis given on women’s roles (e.g. Elder Ballard’s address) that young women may show higher rates of inactivity and abandonment than may young men. I do not know.
If so, the 80% figure quoted by the journalist is alarmist. It overstates the issue in relation to a general context of very high inactivity. Nonetheless, it is important to ask if Mormons buck the general trend that men show greater rates of disaffiliation than women.
I do not know and I wonder what people are seeing in their neck of the Mormon woods. Is it fair to ask where have all the young women gone?