This is the second post on the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (see first post). The broad theme of the book is positive: despite high diversity and high religiosity, Americans manage to get along and generally avoid religious strife. But the book also shows that for more and more Americans, religion is less and less relevant. Politics, it seems, is what really animates and divides us. In this post I'll discuss what the book says about Mormonism in particular, most of that discussion coming in the religion and politics section of the book.
The authors devote 17 pages to a discussion of religious practice in the Pioneer Ward in Sandy, Utah. Several similar vignettes are scattered throughout the book, each profiling a congregation in a different religion. Here are some highlights of the authors' account of a Mormon congregation:
- The chapel is described as having "an airy but functional feel," with "not a single religious image adorn[ing] the spare but orderly space." Yes, LDS buildings are very functional.
- "Mormon churchgoers are assigned to congregations ... based on the location of their homes, a practice that is widely adhered to because of the nearly uniform worship experience across congregations." I'm thinking that rather than being a result of uniformity across congregations, geographical assignment creates the uniformity.
- "Theology seems to be the central rallying point for members of the Pioneer Ward, and belief in the unique features of Mormon doctrine is essentially a litmus test for joing the church ...." The paragraphs preceeding this observation discussed LDS history more than doctrine, but apart from adding historical beliefs to the mix, that's a fair summary of how Mormons think about their membership. It also explains why people whose beliefs change often feel impelled to exit, even when no one is encouraging them to do so.
- "Because Mormon congregations employ no professional ministers, all worship, instruction, activities, and pastoral ministry are conducted on a volunteer basis by members." People complain about the detailed Handbook of Instructions, but how else could you run an all-volunteer organization like an LDS stake?
If nothing else, read through that section if you come across the book at your library or bookstore. There is also discussion about politics: "Though the Mormon population in Utah has formed what is perhaps the strongest conservative voting bloc in the country, most members insist that this phenomenon is not the result of directives from inside the church." That is true, but given the strong and public encouragement the Church gave its California members to support Prop 8, that claim carries less credibility than it used to.
The authors discuss at length the nexus between religion, politics, and the specific issues of abortion and homosexuality. Since 1980, opposition to abortion and homosexuality has become a defining position of the Republican Party. The "God gap," where religious belief or adherence seems to determine voting patterns, has emerged in step with this political development. It is likely not a permanent feature of American politics: "[S]hould sex and family issues recede in political significance, religion ... will gradually cease to be such a salient political division. The data suggest that abortion and gay marriage may recede as political issues." If that sort of development interests you, go read the book and get the rest of the story.
A final comment on one of the more unexpected results from the book: churches with fewer Republicans have more political activity at church (see Fig. 12.4). The result is very significant, with Mormon, mainline Protestant, and Evangelical Protestant scoring lowest on "political activity at church" but highest on "percent Republican," and black Protestant, Latino Catholic, and Jewish at the opposite end of both scales. I know this runs counter to liberal dogma (those gun-toting, Bible-thumping conservatives must be preaching politics in church!), but this is certainly not the only liberal belief not based in fact. The authors explain that individuals in the conservative congregations take their political cues from (religious) social networks rather than political preaching in church. Maybe liberal congregations don't network. Conservatives, in other words, do their political talking off-site.