Watching the media-watchers

By Chris Daly

I love the weekly NPR program “On the Media,” but I suppose even media-watchers need watching. I was disappointed by this past weekend’s segment about Mormons. My sense is that Brooke Gladstone prepared for that piece as if she were interviewing an expert when in fact she was interviewing an advocate. Ron Wilson, who was identified as a “senior manager for Internet and advertising,” was a flat-out advocate, well-prepared with claims, assertions, and soothing mis-directions.

One of the most glaring: Early in the exchange, Mr. Wilson asserted that Mormonism is “the fourth-largest church” in America. That is a deeply misleading statement, which suggests that Mormonism is a large part of American life. Nothing could be further from the truth, since 98.3% of Americans do not belong to it.

To begin with, Mr. Wilson did not define his terms. Clearly, he did not mean “church” in the sense of a building. He meant “church” more in the sense of a distinctive set of beliefs and practices.

For detailed, authoritative information about Americans’ beliefs and practices, there is no better source than the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew Forum conducts an annual “Religious Landscape Survey,” and the results are posted on the Pew website. (For another set of statistics, see the website Adherents.)

If we look at that data set, there are several ways to consider the findings.

First, though, we must consider how to relate Mormonism to other sets of belief and practices. Mormons like Mr. Wilson assert that “Mormons are Christians.” This is a proposition about which people disagree, but if we accept that assertion for the sake of argument, then Mormonism should be counted for these purposes as one denomination among dozens of Christian denominations in America. All told, Christians (including Catholics) make up a little over three-quarters of the adult U.S. population. In this analysis, they are followed by a category called “unaffiliated” (with 16.1%, including Atheists and Agnostics) and all Jewish branches combined (at 1.7%). I guess that if Mormons were trying to justify a claim of “fourth largest,” that is how they would have to do it: All Christians, non-believers, Jews, Mormons. But that would fly in the face of their assertion to be Christians. We know they are not Catholics, so they must be some other kind of Christian. Lets look at other Christians.

Most non-Catholic Christians are Protestants of one kind or another. Among Protestant denominations, the Pew survey makes distinctions between Evangelical Protestant Churches, Mainline Protestant Churches, and Historically Black Churches. Combined, incidentally, those groupings add up to 51.3% of the U.S. adult population.

So, in one sense, it would be accurate to say that a little more than half of Americans are Protestants, about a quarter are Catholics, and a big chunk of the rest are unaffiliated.

Another way to look at the data, of course, (which Pew does not do, probably to keep people from getting mad at them) would be to rank each measurable group of people who share a distinctive set of practices and beliefs. If we do that, the U.S. religious landscape looks quite different. It looks like this:

–23.9% Catholics

–16.1% Unaffiliated, including Atheist and Agnostic (see below)

–10.8% Baptist (evangelical)

–5.4% Methodist

–4.4% Baptist (in the black tradition)

–3.4% “nondenominational evangelical”

–3.4% Pentacostal

–2.8% Lutheran

–2.5% “Other/Protestant nonspecific in the Mainline Tradition”

–1.9 % “Protestant in the Evangelical Tradition”

–1.9% Baptist (non-evangelical)

–1.9% Presbyterian

In this way of looking at “churches,” Mormonism does not make it into the top 10 in America, even if we exclude the “unaffiliated,” which I think would be unfair.

One more point: looking at the details in the survey of Mormons, the Pew data indicate that a group known as “Mormon” makes up 1.7 percent of the U.S. adult population. But that grouping includes three sub-groups:

–1.6% Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the group that Wilson actually speaks for)

–<0.3% Community of Christ

–<0.3 Mormon, not further specified.

That leaves the LDS Church, the one that Republicans Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. belong to, at 1.6 percent. Such a figure leaves them tied with those who are willing to tell a survey questioner that they are Atheist. It also leaves LDS a good ways behind those who are willing to say they are Agnostic, a group that includes 2.4% of Americans. Combined, the number of Atheists and Agnostics – probably an understated number – make up 4%, which is a much larger group than many Christian denominations (e.g., Church of Christ, Evangelical Holiness, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Unitarians, etc.) and considerably larger than LDS.

So, to return to the original issue: in what sense can a “church” like LDS, which includes a sliver of the U.S. adult population, support a claim to be the “fourth largest church” in the country? In my judgment, that is just not a fact-based statement.

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