Gerrymandered Out of Church

by Johnny Townsend

My mom had few friends in her life. As a kid, I watched her interact with neighbors just twice. My parents never hosted parties, never invited anyone over for dinner, rarely let my sister or me bring any of our own friends over. Once, on a visit back to Mom’s hometown in Mississippi, we ran into an old school friend of hers, and I watched, fascinated to see her so energized and happy. But after we returned to New Orleans, life returned to “normal.”

Then we converted to Mormonism, and suddenly, my mother had adult friends for the first time. Even as a self-absorbed child, I couldn’t help but notice how much happier having the new social network made both my parents.

Then our congregation—Jefferson Ward—split. We lived on the far outer edge of Metairie, a middle class suburb of New Orleans. To our immediate west lay Kenner, a town consisting largely of working class folks. Church leaders made the practical decision to loop our neighborhood into the Kenner Ward to provide the new congregation with more middle class men who could function as leaders.

All of Mom’s friends lived in what was now the Metairie Ward. LDS policy mandates that members attend the ward they have been assigned to. No shopping around for a different congregation is allowed. My mother, who lived only a few blocks from the friends she loved, was cut off from them almost completely.

Granted, there was no real reason these women couldn’t have continued socializing together outside of church. They all had their own cars. They had telephones. They could have met for lunch, gone to see a matinee. But an unfortunate aspect of Mormon friendship is how dependent it is on church. My mother may as well have moved out of state.

Now, I don’t know what other issues my mother may have had with Mormonism. She died of leukemia at the age of forty-three, a few months after I returned from my mission. We had very little time together as adults. It’s possible gerrymandering was her only “problem” with the Church, but it’s just as possible it was simply the final blow to her testimony.

My mother only attended church three more times in the remaining eight years of her life.

Mormons often say that those who “fall away” do so because they were “offended,” the implication being that members leave over trivial issues. But it isn’t trivial to discover that your best friends were never really your friends at all, just pleasant work acquaintances.

Mormons often speak rapturously about the benefits of LDS community. If it is really that great, then it is no small thing to rearrange random blocks of people. Even devout Mormon women aren’t Stepford Wives, interchangeable, with no personalities of their own.

My mom’s friends all came to her funeral. They pulled me aside and told me what a loss it was that she’d died so young.

They may indeed have felt loss, and I know I did, but even then, still a true believer, I knew that the person who’d suffered the greatest loss was the woman who’d died friendless.

Maybe Conservativism Is Hurting Religion After All….

Given that the “liberal churches are losing members because they’re liberal; conservative churches are growing because they’re conservative” argument is invoked every so often here at MSP, I thought people would be interested in this article from Religion Dispatches analyzing some of the problems with that claim.  An excerpt:

Hout and Fischer released a study this year with Mark A. Chaves, which seemed to show that the trend continues. Their original findings have been partly confirmed by the Pew Forum, which found in 2012 that the nones overwhelmingly saw religious organizations as “too focused on rules,” “too concerned with money and power,” and “too involved in politics.” Not on the list: a desire for a stricter moral code. Along with another major study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, the Pew Forum found that Americans without religious affiliation strongly identified with the Democratic party and liberal social positions.

All of which tends to indicate that Hout and Fischer were right when they said that disaffiliation is driven by a rejection of the religious right. It seems perverse to say that members of liberal denominations show their displeasure with religious conservatism by walking away from their own churches, but that seems to be exactly what’s happening.

On the surface, this might seem like a point in Eberhardt’s favor. “Orthodox” churches keep their members in line; liberal ones can’t. But how then to explain that the most liberal of the liberal denominations—the Unitarian Universalist Association—is in fact growing? For that matter, one might argue that Catholics have more to lose by alienating liberals than they have to gain by growing conservative families. The bishops seem to have decided just that when they put together their “Catholics Come Home” a d campaign showing a “kinder, gentler version” of the faith.