Why Mormons Succeed and Catholics and Other Christians Fail

The downward slope of faith is slippery and steep.

By Maggie Gallagher Published on May 4, 2017

In 1822, Thomas Jefferson predicted that Unitarianism “will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south.”

Oops. Today there are only 211,000 Unitarians in the whole country.

If current trends continue, the last American will celebrate Easter in a mainline Protestant church in the year 2039: Just 23 Easters left.

But it’s not just the liberal Christians now. As Patrick Deneen points out: “Every religious tradition, with the notable exception of Mormonism, saw extensive losses in adherents, especially pronounced among the millennial generation.”

Only Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Orthodox Christians are younger than the average American. A 2011 study found that younger Mormons (under age 50) are slightly more likely to be highly committed (70 percent) than older Mormons (67 percent).

But according to an April 26 Pew report, Christians are bucking one national trend. Christians college graduates are as likely to keep the faith as the less educated.

College Graduates Who Are Christians

“Among those who do identify as Christians, college graduates tend to be about as religiously observant as those with less education.” Some 52 percent of Christian college grads attend services weekly. That’s compared to 46 percent of Christians with a high school degree or less. But once again the Mormons top the charts: Fully 92 percent of college-educated Mormons are highly religious. So are 78 percent of Mormons with a high school diploma or less.

College may tempt some kids to apostatize, but it encourages them to marry.

Why do college grads who are Christian keep the faith? No one knows for sure.  I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the rising importance of college to male wages and stable marriages.

Stable marriages are the key to transmitting Christian faith in America today. Christian Smith’s data tells the story. Few children exceed the religious commitment of their parents. Delayed marriage, minuscule families and divorce: Each seriously interferes with a family’s ability to transmit its faith.

Second, white men without a college degree are losing economic ground. Working class white men saw their income drop nine percent between 1996 and 2014, from $40,362 to $36,787. College educated white men saw their income soar by almost a quarter, from $77,209 to $94,601.

Here’s the most recent Census data on the decline of men’s earning power. Since 1975, the proportion of men aged 25 to 34 who made less than $30,000 (in constant dollars) skyrocketed from 25 percent to 41 percent. More women (40 percent) than men (34 percent) graduate from college. Men between the age of 25 and 34 are also more likely than women to be living with their parents. Guys are not bowling alone. They’re bowling with Mom.

Third, men who cannot or will not make enough money to provide for their families tend not to form stable marriages. Less than nine percent of college educated women have children out of wedlock, compared to 49 percent of women with only a high school degree. 

Blue Collar Men Need Help

Scholars Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen recently summed up the evidence:

Women are not likely to marry men whom they view as poor providers, regardless of their own earning capacity. … [W]e also need to improve the economic prospects of men, especially men with no more than a high school degree. … [N]othing could be more important for preserving the institution of marriage.”

College may tempt kids to apostatize. But the college-educated are more likely to marry and stay married. And to have their children within marriage.

Declining Church Attendance

Other than mainline Protestants, what’s the most endangered species in America? Catholics. The Pew report shows that just 39 percent of Catholics say they attend religious services weekly. But 77 percent of Mormons do so, and so do 58 percent of evangelical Christians.

Christian Smith issued the 2014 study “Young Catholic America.” He found that Catholics are much less likely “return home” as young adults than are evangelicals. Catholics who “attend Mass more regularly are slowly being replaced, though aging and death, by Catholics who were born in more recent decades and attend Mass less regularly.”

Smith interviewed some Catholic teens to supplement his nationally representative data. Of the 41 practicing Catholic teens interviewed, just 12 were still practicing Catholics in early adulthood. A sobering 23 had left the church definitively.

Even worse, Catholic school attendance in his study had almost no impact on whether Catholic teens attend Mass as young adults.

Catholics and other Christians face an urgent need to try something new or different to stem the tide.

The Future of Christianity? Community

Thomas Jefferson was right about many things. But he was wrong about the Unitarians. There is no future in liberal Christianity. The success of Mormons and the failure of Catholics tells us what works in today’s America: Demand more, not less. Don’t just work for the common good. Offer practical help to your own kind. Build a communal identity. Encourage acts of the imagination. Remember the future. Imagine the past. Tell stories. Strongly encourage marriage and children. Create emotionally warm relationships in the home and in the pews.

Teach thrift, self-denial, and hard work. Practice thrift, self-denial, and hard work.

Help your men get good paying jobs.

Is that the Benedict Option?

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