The Religious Changes the Next Six Months

So here’s the question. Given recent political changes – both nationally and in places like California – what changes do you expect to see relevant to religion the next six months or so? (Try and keep it focused on religion)

1. Obama his first week removes the embryonic stem cell research ban.

I should note that to me this would be a good thing. The lines Bush approved turned out to be highly problematic. While the immediate consequences of research have been vastly overhyped by supporters the fact is that there is a lot we can learn here. The amount of research possible in the US without this ban will increase significantly.

However clearly for some pro-life people who take a more (to me) extreme position this will be bad. I’m not sure what effect, if any, this will have on the pro-life movement since even most people opposed to abortion appear to favor stem cell research from what I can see.

2. Obama will remove abortion restrictions on US overseas aid

This one is more controversial. I expect he’ll do this since typically Republican President reinstitute the ban and Democratic Presidents remove it. I think abortion in 3rd world nations is a cheap way out but this is to be expected.

3. Obama will remove the abstinence only programs both nationally and internationally

This is one I agree with. I think the evidence is overwhelming that abstinence only programs don’t work well. Especially in nations like Africa. While I favor abstinence I also think that teaching the truth about birth control is pretty important. I’d rather have someone alive and able to repent than ignorant and unable to repent because they are dead.

4. Baptisms in the US continue to decrease

This has been a trend the last decade and unlikely to be reversed. I think that our support to Prop-8 and activism against us because of that might decrease the rate more. It’s hard to say though since the only faiths in America that appear to be growing fast are those that advocate traditional values. So maybe this will actually help?

5. Mormons become more acceptable to Evangelicals

I think that the cumulative effect of Romney running and losing to McCain along with the hype about Mormons in California may have effect. While a lot depends upon how he reinvents himself the next 3 years I can see Romney as being much stronger if he choses to run for 2012.

6. Democrats don’t make further inroads with the religious

Democrats did a big religious push this year. While there were more religious voters for Democrats overall that was due to more Black and Latino voters. (See this Kevin Drum essay) On the other hand Obama did significantly better in Utah than Kerry. I don’t see a resurgent Democratic party in Utah though.

I’m sure I’ve missed many. Tell me yours.

39 thoughts on “The Religious Changes the Next Six Months

  1. Interesting thoughts, Clark. It’s hard for me to believe that Mormons will become anymore acceptable to evangelicals, though Romney may very well become more acceptable to evangelical voters.

    I think you’re right on with #4, though it is possible that international baptisms could see a pickup (assuming that Obama’s international appeal translates into a more favorable opinion of Americans generally, and also that the general perception of Mormonism as an American religion persists).

  2. Has there ever been a correlation between baptisms and politics and/or international perception of America and the Church in any way? Did baptisms internationally soar during the Clinton years and decline because everybody hated Bush? I think actually the opposite, but I could be wrong.

    The only correlation I can see is that freedom tends to increase baptisms. As countries in Africa and Latin America have slowly thrown off dictatorships, and freedom has slowly advanced, baptisms have increased.

  3. It’s hard to say though since the only faiths in America that appear to be growing fast are those that advocate traditional values. So maybe this will actually help?

    I think it will. I bring this book up too much, but The Churching of America pretty much proves this concept: successful churches are the ones that advocate strong values and demand a high degree of commitment from their members.

    Our absolute numbers may go down a bit, but relative to the “market share” of religions, we will likely still be one of the top performers.

    The decrease in baptisms is attributable to many things. One of them is that there are a lot more religious choices available and accessible than there used to be.

  4. “Especially in nations like Africa.”

    Sounds like you’ve been pallin’ around with Palin too long.

  5. I think the Church’s image suffered more because of the FLDS situation than Prop 8. I didn’t hear much on the news here about Prop 8, honestly, while the FLDS situation was everywhere.

    And lets not forget that Prop 8 passed.

  6. Geoff B, I only have anecdotal information from a number of missionaries who served in Europe in the last four years. They have all noted that European frustration with the policies of President Bush and American arrogance in general have made it difficult to convince the Europeans that they are anything other than American missionaries.

  7. Ivan, Finke and Stark were almost universally criticized for oversimplifying the argument presented in The Churching of America. I would be careful in claiming that they proved anything.

    This is not, of course, to say the book has no value and that their argument is completely flawed; just that it might be safer to say that Finke and Stark have presented evidence that suggests a direct correlation between church growth and and membership requirements/value system of said church, as opposed to claiming they proved any such thing.

  8. Geoff, I don’t know the relationship between politics and baptisms. I suspect American baptisms dropped in the late 19th century and it is undeniable that around the 40’s through the 80’s they were quite high. But I don’t have the statistics in front of me (US vs. other regions) and growth rates.

    My point is less about Obama than about baptisms in the US and the effects of the three main events this year. (Romney, FLDS, Prop-8)

    Chris, that might be true, but let’s be honest. Even if Europeans had a more positive image it’s not like they were apt to be more accepting of the gospel. Which was I think Geoff’s point. Missionary work in Europe is just plain slow.

    Julie, what can I say? (grin) I meant to say, “like nations in Africa.”

    Ivan, a lot of sociologists think Stark overstated his case. Also there is the big question of whether the trends will end as new sociological factors emerge. I think there is a huge generational gap between people of ages 16-30 and those who are older with respect to sexual politics. I don’t think we can say that what was once true will remain. Also I’d note that while conservative churches are growing the ones that are also tend to be decentralized. The biggest movement is in non-denominational movements. So the distrust of centralized faiths, like our own, also has to be taken into consideration.

  9. Did baptisms internationally soar during the Clinton years and decline because everybody hated Bush?

    I certainly don’t think that it was tied to U.S. politics, but baptisms did, in fact, soar during the 1990s and decline dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century.

  10. Wilfried Decoo, a former high level church leader in Europe, has indicated that he believes that there is a correlation between the image of the US and the image of the LDS church in Europe. While I do not think this translates into immediate differences in conversion rates, I think it does have an effect on the long-term growth and stability of the Church.

  11. Christopher and Clark –

    I’ve read many of the criticism of Finke and Stark, and frankly they often rely on simplifications and ad hominem attacks. So, I disagree. I can agree that Stark’s attempts to predict the future are oftentimes wrong, but his analysis of the past is, I think, spot on.

    Can you point to any serious, sustained critiques that actually show they are wrong?

    Most of the sociologists who critiques Stark are, in my opinion, engaging in wishful thinking. They want religion to be a certain way, whereas Stark talks about how it actually is.

  12. Clark –

    Also I’d note that while conservative churches are growing the ones that are also tend to be decentralized. The biggest movement is in non-denominational movements. So the distrust of centralized faiths, like our own, also has to be taken into consideration.

    Actually, that’s exactly in-line with what Finke and Stark show happening throughout American history. Methodists and Baptists started out as extremely decentralized “upstart sects” (that’s the term they use) that were outside the mainline/mainstream cenralized denominations. That’s where the growth occurs – older sects become secularized, newer “upstart sects” appear, and over time secularize (to them, Southern Baptists and Mormons are two of the very few sects to avoid secularization).

    So your factoids there actually support Stark rather than showing how he might be wrong.

  13. Bill, speaking of lack of interest in coalition building, here’s an interesting tidbit from an AP article on myway news about the new power’s take on the minority party.

    Podesta also said Obama is working to build a diverse Cabinet. That includes reaching out to Republicans and independents – part of the broad coalition that supported Obama during the race against Republican John McCain. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been mentioned as a possible holdover.

    “He’s not even a Republican,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said. “Why wouldn’t we want to keep him? He’s never been a registered Republican.”

    * You can delete my comment also, Clark, with my apologies. In my defense, it does however refer to prominent LDS Senator Reid.

  14. For those who might be confused by the last comment:

    I made an intemperate, immature comment that was totally out of place. I almost immediately deleted it, but not before Bill responded. Once Bill saw I removed it, he said I could delete his comment as well. That’s who/what Bull Moose is responding to.

    I apologize for derailing the thread momentarily. Back to our discussion …

  15. Another on topic comment:

    I also somewhat disagree with the last point. I do think Democrats will make some inroads with religious voters. It likely won’t be enough to cause a major partisan re-alignment, but with Evangelical churches jumping on the global warming bandwagon, and the increasing acceptance of a “social gospel” that is tied to a conservative and demanding way of life (rather than the sort of “social gospel” that doesn’t make many demands of the adherents that is too common on the religious left), either Democrats will make inroads, or the Republican party will pulled a little more to the left in those areas.

    Of course, I’m not a sociologist. I study rhetoric, and that’s where I see the rhetoric going anyway. We’ll see if the reality follows the rhetoric.

  16. “Julie, what can I say? (grin) I meant to say, “like nations in Africa.””

    And, FWIW, I don’t think we have any reason to believe that Palin does either. [I’m not big on unnamed sources on Fox News. . . .] It was just too weird to see that typo in the same week that Africa’s nationhood was already a (pseudo-)headline.

  17. Ivan, I don’t have time to do a literature search on JSTOR for criticisms of Stark. I can but relate that I’ve read in the past criticisms that seemed pretty persuasive. So I’ll let you have the last word on that one since there’s no realistic way I’ll have the time to be able to say anything particularly cogent.

    Regarding your second point though I think the problem is that the non-denominational sects today aren’t outside the mainline/mainstream cenralized denominations. That is they end up being pretty similar. The main emphasis is that they aren’t sects. Beyond that I think it’s pretty hard to distinguish the typical non-denominational congregation from a batpist congregation.

    So Stark is right about formulation but wrong in that the characteristic today seems to be that the doctrinal or practice issues that created all the forms of protestantism in America are seen as irrelevant today. It’s that post-denominational thinking which I think Stark is missing. Contrast this to the early 19th century where what characterized all the congregations were their differences from more established groups.

  18. Regarding deleting comments. Huh? I didn’t see any problematic unless someone else did and did something.

    Ivan, I think the “social gospel” movement will continue. I just don’t think it’ll help Democrats. Rather you’ll get economic populism ala Huckabee. This is part and parcel of the fracturing of the Republican party. The traditional coalition that brought economic conservatives, social conservatives, hawks, and some libertarians together is gone. Part of this is due to Bush but a lot of it is simply because Reagan was too successful. While the House is quite liberal I’d note that all successful Democratic Presidential candidates have run as economic centrists buying into most of Reagan’s views. And Republicans have gone the other way.

    The Republicans have simultaneously lost their core issues because the problems aren’t the same anymore while having to deal with a history of corruption and incompetence. It’ll be interesting to see what emerges.

    This is where I think religion will be of issue. Evangelicals want to flex their power but moreso than in the past they are alienating many traditional Republicans. Will Republicans coalesce, as some suggest, around Palin as a social conservative? I doubt it, but it is quite possible.

  19. Ivan,

    You said that Stark’s “analysis of the past is, I think, spot on.”

    Yikes. The portrayal of America’s religious past is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book. I recommend reading Jon Butler’s review of the book in The American Historical Review (Feb. 1994). Butler notes that

    Most of the study is consumed by an unsophisticated, confusing, and thoroughly derivative “history” that lurches from one
    well-known revival to another (while still skipping some), reprints long narratives drawn from familiar sources, and seldom even explains why some revival groups succeeded while others obviously failed.


    Historical variation, change through time, sophisticated if conditional explanation, much less an appreciation for the complexity of American Christianity or American religion generally are largely lost in this account.

    Other problems with the book include a complete ignorance of the vast secondary literature treating the subject the authors address and disregard for evidence that directly contradicts their thesis. As an example of the latter that relates directly to my own research, their suggestion that Methodist growth dwindled as the Methodist Episcopal Church “secularized” and the Holiness and Pentecostal offshoots began to fill the void left by Methodism’s decline ignores the fact that in the last decades of the 19th century, the MEC-North tripled their membership numbers.

  20. Yes, I’ve read Jon Butler’s review. And it left me with the impression he hadn’t actually read the book – at best he skimmed it. It’s a rather inaccurate summary.

    As for this comment:
    gnores the fact that in the last decades of the 19th century, the MEC-North tripled their membership numbers.

    Actually, that ignores Stark and Finke’s point. They acknowledge several times that many of these mainline denominations increased in actual numbers. They acknowledge in several places the arguments that sects like the United Methodists doubled or tripled their absolute numbers.

    But, they argue, that the “market share” of these denominations went down. They gained absolute numbers, but relative to other denominations, they decreased in the percentage of total church goers. Your critique there is rather disingenuous and unfair, to say the least.

  21. I think the problem is that the non-denominational sects today aren’t outside the mainline/mainstream centralized denominations. That is they end up being pretty similar. The main emphasis is that they aren’t sects.

    That’s a good point. But a lot depends on what you mean by “sect.” It may not be an official sect in the way a Southern Baptist is, but since many of these “non-denominational” churches form umbrella organizations (or join other ones) they are hardly completely free and independent.

    It seems to me that what they are doing is using something other than doctrine to differentiate themselves, which is fine. That act still puts them a little outside, making them something of a lot of individual “upstart sects” rather than a large group one. It seems to me that they still fit the definition of an “upstart sect” as used by Finke and Stark and that they fit the pattern they describe.

  22. Hmm, I guess we’re going to have to agree to disagree on Stark and Finke’s interpretation, as well as the accuracy of Butler’s review. I do take some comfort in finding myself in company with virtually every American religious historian on this issue, though.

  23. Well, Christopher, you could perhaps be a little less condescending.

    However, Finke and Stark ably, I find, detail that there is a rather interesting “mainline” bias in the field of American religious history. I find it too. Most texts I read on American religious history seem to (at times subtly, at other times overtly) have a bias towards favoring mainline denominations. There seems to a too prevalent idea that religions really should be more mainstream and less socially conservative (much like how I think too many Mormon intellectuals wish that the LDS church was more like liberal Protestantism in its behavior).

    I will grant that you are more widely read in the field than I am, so perhaps my subjective, limited impressions are wrong, or I’ve read the wrong texts.

    However, my dissertation partly deals with religious history from 1888 – 1912, and I’ve found that bias in all the texts I’ve read except for Finke and Stark. At the very least, they seem a useful corrective to discipline wide assumptions that should be questioned.

  24. Ivan, I sincerely apologize if I came across as condescending. That certainly was not my intent.

    I was a little turned off by you dismissing my critique as disingenuous, and so in an attempt to gracefully bow out, I stated that we’d have to agree to disagree. Re-reading the last sentence I added about the company I find myself in … I can see how it could easily be read as condescending. Please know that it wasn’t intended to be. My apologies.

    I think you bring up some good points, and I think that Stark and Finke’s conclusions need to be taken into account when discussing the issues at hand (as I noted in another comment on this thread). I simply took issue with your suggestion that they decisively proved anyone of their theses.

  25. Actually it was the “Yikes!” I found a little condescending, but I’ll accept the apology and offer one of my own if I seemed to do the same.

    Also, I will say you are right that “proves” was the wrong verb to use (maybe “strongly suggests” or “gives us reason to believe” or something along those lines). That’s the nature of internet comments, I guess.

  26. Ivan, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I think what’s happened is that Evangelicalism as an umbrella term has become important. Individual governing bodies or even umbrella groups are not. This is, I think, a relatively new social phenomena and one that I don’t think Stark really has dealt with well. (I’d have to do a JSTOR search to see if he’s addressed it in the last 15 years though — probably he has)

  27. This is one I agree with. I think the evidence is overwhelming that abstinence only programs don’t work well. Especially in nations like Africa.

    From everything I have read, the abstinence and responsibility programs were making good progress (better than here), until we came in and just said condoms were the only solution.

  28. Well, you inspired me to do a JSTOR search Clark (I really should be writing my dissertation, but I need a break, and this seems a useful diversion).

    One thing I find interesting is that Stark and Fink, in their chapter on modern American Catholicism, create a list of things the Catholic church could do to stem the tide of secularization. It’s rather enlightening to compare that list to some of the changes enacted by the current Pope.

    Anyway, I’ll report back on my JSTOR search later.

  29. David, all the scientific studies I’ve read have said the opposite. That comparing abstinence with abstinence + birth control was much less successful. What studies are you thinking of?

    Ivan, let me know on the JSTOR issue. I admit I’m pretty skeptical of Stark just because of how he tends to be used in Mormon circles. Admittedly much of that isn’t Stark’s fault. But still…

  30. As to #5, you may be right in the short run. I live in a heavily Baptist and Evangelical corner of the world. Our full time missionaries say that the responses they’ve been getting when tracting, though they are still “no”, are much more polite and respectful these days than they were before the prop 8 stuff hit the news.

  31. On the abstinence issue, it was specifically the abstinence program in Uganda that was being so successful. To be fair, it was not pure abstinence, it was the A-B-C approach — Abstain, Be faithful or use a Condom. The emphasis on condoms over everything else, from both the UN and the US did substantially worse.

    It is easy enough to google, but here is one of the first sites that came up for me.

  32. I don’t think we should discount the possibility that our activity on Prop 8, while certainly unpopular in many corners, will really help attract many people to the Church who might not have given us a chance before.

  33. #5-“Mormons become more acceptable to Evangelicals”

    This one worries me. Over this past week, LDS has been attacked for Prop 8. I attended a charity event at a local Catholic church this weekend. I was amazed how many people there made negative comments about LDS based on Prop 8.

    It was pointed out to me that Catholic and Evangelicals have no desire to allow LDS to become a prominent force in the “Christian” world. In fact, there was much discussion that the Catholics “setup” the LDS Church to take the fall for Prop 8.

    I heard all of the same old lines; “LDS is a cult”, “they are not ‘real’ Christians”, etc. Disgusting.

    So, no I don’t think we will make inroads with Evangelicals. I think we were taken for a ride by the Evangelicals and Catholics.

  34. Chad, when I saw how Evangelicals weren’t willing to go out on the line I kind of figured that as well.

    David, the problem was with abstinence only programs. There’s a lot of evidence that emphasis on abstinence plus teaching birth control is the most effective.

  35. Important safety tip to those planning of writing a resignation letter. First, spell check. The impact of your resignation loses something when the misspellings pop up. Second, don’t imagine that the typical blog carries any influence. i.e. no one really cares.

    I’m saying that equally for this blog. By and large its a way for a relatively small group of people to communicate. It may have minor influence outside of that group. Beyond that? Yeah, pretty well zilch.

    To the typical Mormon if someone resigns over Prop-8 – regardless if you think the Church right or wrong – then there was something wrong with the basis for staying in the first place. I think most of us know enough Church history to be able to point to fairly big mistakes made by Church leaders. (The Kirtland Bank anyone?) Yes folks left. But was it a good justification for leaving?

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