Failure of Moderation

Comments come into this site on an irregular basis. Usually, I’m around to approve or reject them not long after they are submitted, or I can approve the one or two stand-alone comments several hours after the fact.

Today, however, was different. A bunch of comments came in on the Carrie Sheffield Mormon brouhahahahahaha! I didn’t get around to approving them until just now because I managed to get myself locked out of the website and had to reset the password after an exhaustive search for the old one.

The short of it is: Sorry about that, guys.

More on Mormon Decline

In response to the last blog post, Carrie Sheffield wrote to me the following. I asked if she’d like me to reproduce it here. She said yes, so here you go:

Hey Jeremy, I just saw your blog post. Would have been great if you had asked me for comment beforehand to understand some of the constraints I was dealing with.

A few thoughts:

-My initial draft included a link to an excellent study from Trinity College. This points out that “there are far fewer people who claim to be Mormon than are reported in official church statistics. The American Religious Identification Surveys allow scholars to look at self-identified members of the church in the United States … In early 1990, the LDS Church claimed 4,175,000 members in the United States, or 1.7% of the U.S. population. At the end of 2008, the church claimed 5,974,041 members, or 2% of the U.S. population. This constitutes a 30% increase in membership over an eighteen year span, as well as a 0.3% increase in Mormonism‘s ―national market share.
Numbers from the ARIS tell a slightly different story. From 1990 to 2008, the survey reports that the adult Mormon population in the United States rose from 2,487,000 to 3,158,000 but remained a steady at 1.4% of the U.S. population.”

-Unless someone proactively tells SLC they want their records formally removed through a process that takes weeks, they are still kept on Mormon rolls until age 110. That is why there are many many people, especially outside the US, who get baptized and perhaps never enter a chapel or temple again and yet are still counted as “Mormon” when in fact it has no place in their lives.

-I had more details that were taken out of the piece about research from more than 3,000 questioning Mormons, far from the isolated anecdotes of one person. The table on page 8 shows a multitude of reasons why people leave the church.

-I also had more that was taken out about positive things that the official Church had been doing; this would have struck a more conciliatory tone.

Development of Dougherty Doctrine

The Dougherty Doctrine is a rhetorical trick that makes many political debates much easier to understand. It was accidentally coined by journalist and former roommate Michael Brendan Dougherty in an article for the Washington Monthly. Dougherty took in an intra-Republican debate and wrote, “the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.”

The Doctrine has broader application than Republicans. All political parties engage in it from time to time as its members try to tug it in one direction or other. And pundits practice it constantly, usually without much evidence. (The “radical right” is costing Republicans with swing voters; Dems are losing because they’re “too centrist” or “too liberal.”) Sometimes that’s understandable: television is not the most thoughtful medium and the usual length of op-eds forces writers to use a lot of shortcuts. Still, it’s worth pointing out how identity-driven such politics actually tend to be.

Does the Dougherty Doctrine apply to religion as well? That possibility occurred to me when I read this piece by Carrie Sheffield in USA Today. It’s not a bad piece. Indeed, I led with it on Real Clear Religion this afternoon. But the biographical angle raises certain large questions.

Sheffield is a former Mormon whose work I’ve published in the past, when she was still Mormon. She writes in USA Today that she left the LDS church in 2010 and positions her exit as part of a larger rush out the door that the Utah hierarchy really needs to address.

“Church leaders can crack down and continue to see members, especially young people, leave,” Sheffield writes. “Or they can allow churchwide dialogue and changes relating to the church’s historical and doctrinal claims, financial dealings, proselytizing and treatment of women, skeptics and outsiders.”

Just how large is the problem? Sheffield writes, “This year, Elder Marlin Jensen, the Mormon Church’s outgoing official historian, acknowledged that members are defecting from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ‘in droves’ and that the pace is increasing.”

That sounds alarming, but without the relevant numbers, it’s not terribly helpful. Just how many Mormons are calling it quits and how does that stack up against Mormon births and conversions? She doesn’t grapple with that question. Instead we get a lot of anecdotes about some former Mormon protest groups, a YouTube video with half a million views, and “hundreds” of pro-gay Mormons that marched in something or other.

Nor does Sheffield consider what a sort of Vatican 2 for Mormonism would do to the faith and practice of the large mass of faithful Mormons. Maybe most Mormons would be fine with it, or maybe you’d see LDS participation plummet much like Mass attendance did in the 1970s. I’d guess the latter but it’s only a guess, because I’d like to avoid the temptations of the Dougherty Doctrine on this fine Monday.

UPDATE: Carrie Sheffield has replied here.