About those International Conversion Rates

Church spokesman Michael Otterson wrote recently about just how white the Church is not. Although,

naturally, Utah will always be associated with the church … today there are more Mormons outside the U.S. than in it. Today, Mormons are Bolivians, Ghanaians, Koreans and Russians, all an integral part of the church family.

He gives us numbers to combat the “myth” that the Church is a white church. If there were 100 people in it, in 1980, 73 of them would have been from the US and Canada (presumably mostly all white), whereas in 2010, this number drops to 48. So, the Church is not only not white, but it’s also not American. It’s a multiracial, multinational Church.

Of course there are a couple caveats that Otterson fails to mention.

The first is that of correlation, and how the Church never syncretizes with host cultures, but instead sits adjacent to them. This tapers both growth and the activity rates of overseas baptized members. So, as Jan Shipps has said, “It’s not just a question of numbers.”

The second caveat is thatbecause Joseph Smith was a prophet and the first president of the Church (and all presidents after him have been prophets, as well), the faiths organizational structure reproduces itself in a top-down fashion. Converting people for the sake of diversity keeps things fresh and has the appeal of truthiness (white Mormons are ever-so-pleased to hear a person of color testify of Smith’s prophet status). But actually giving top-tier leadership roles to those with different cultural backgrounds is a recipe for discord, which the Lord wouldn’t want (who apparently only recently became a fan of interracial marriages). Let’s take a look at the General Authorities roster to see just how many non-American and/or non-white GAs there are (answer: few). Yes, as time goes on, this number may come to better reflect the actual membership, but let’s not forget how people of color can benefit from their possessive investment in vicarious whiteness (George Lipsitz as quoted in Smith, Darron, 2004, Black and Mormon, p159). There’s little sign of this whiteness abating.

Consider the following account from Keith Hamilton, a black Mormon from North Carolina who has served as a bishop and was part of a 2003 Sunstone panel regarding the worldview differences between black LDS Americans and black LDS Africans and Caribbeans.[1]

Hamilton is married to a woman from Haiti, whom he met at Salt Lake Citys Temple Square. He argues that African and Caribbean peoples have been ruled by those of their own color, so their perspectives on race are different. In Puerto Rico, where Hamilton served his mission, there is “no black/white church issue” and he feels that black leaders in America promote a “historical chasm” that does a disservice to their constituencies. He is thankful that “the Lord allowed [him] to overcome racial issues with the priesthood and history quickly” and adds that “different peoples of the world tend to move forward a lot quickerlike those from Cambodiaor Vietnam[who] can tap into economic fortune, even though they went through a horrendous period [with regard to American intervention in their countries].” This moving forward “doesnt only work in the economic sense, but it tends to work in the gospel sense, [too].”

Hamilton is intent to take race out of the equation when it comes to the movement of the truth of the Gospel in a global perspective. But his account only illustrates the multiple ways that race is written into the discourses of American nationalism, neoliberalism, colonialism (including, for example, the stereotype of the Asian as a “model minority”). So long as everyone has a forward outlook without looking back, everything will be okay, right? Or perhaps nothing will change.



[1] Keith Hamilton, Renee Olson, Natalie Palmer Sheppard, Ted Whiters. LDS BLACK EXPERIENCE PANEL I: a foreign message?: Why do black Americans react Differently to the Church than do Black Africans? 2003 Salt Lake Symposium, August 15. https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/audio/SL03232.mp3

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30 Responses

  1. Chino Blanco says:

    Mike O’s graphics crack me up, Mormons shoulder-to-shoulder across North America… just like the real Mormonia.

    Mormonia mostly consists of Utah towns that are highly connected to each other, with an offshoot in Eastern Idaho. It’s worth separating from the rest of the West because of how interwoven the communities are, and how relatively unlikely they are to have friends outside the region.

    It won’t be any surprise to see that LDS-related [Facebook] pages like Thomas S. Monson, Gordon B. Hinckley and The Book of Mormon are at the top of the charts. I didn’t expect to see Twilight showing up quite so much though, I have no idea what to make of that! Glenn Beck makes it into the top spot for Eastern Idaho.

    If anything real was happening overseas, church funds would be flowing out rather than into Utah-based for-profit investments. Get while the gettin’ is good, I suppose. Very few younger members are gonna wait around for the leadership to figure out that no PR campaign is gonna help the LDS church survive the disastrous policy of keeping their Q15 around until they kick.

  2. Seth R. says:

    Alan, what evidence do you have that “correlation” really forces every Mormon in the world to run their programs without regard to local cultural and physical realities?

    This wasn’t even true in my Japanese mission in the early 1990s. How much has it changed since then?

    Isn’t this favorite gripe of the bloggernacle and DAMU simply the result of a bunch of 30 something former missionaries sitting around and assuming that everything today is exactly the way they left it back in the late 80s and early 90s?

    Heck, we didn’t even use the standard handbook of instructions. We had our own unique programs.

    And don’t forget that the LDS Church soon after the turn of the century DE-CENTRALIZED administration of the worldwide church. Everything is now being run through the regional offices. Saints in Japan are not administered by Salt Lake. They are administered by Tokyo. And it’s the same throughout the world.

    In short, this smacks of a really “1980s” argument to me.

  3. Seth R. says:

    And Chino, you seem to think that being a Christian requires that you act like a complete financial moron in your investment strategies.

    That’s a… interesting perspective, I guess.

  4. Alan says:

    Alan, what evidence do you have that correlation really forces every Mormon in the world to run their programs without regard to local cultural and physical realities?

    I’m not saying syncretism is lacking utterly. That would be impossible. And sure, internationals administer the middle-rungs of the ladder. That’s to be expected when there’s so many people. But there’s definitely not a Japanese Quorum of the 12 with the same ecclesiastical authority as the Salt Lake Quorum of the 12. It seems you’re missing the thrust of the argument.

  5. Alan says:

    being a Christian requires that you act like a complete financial moron in your investment strategies

    It’s not about “being a Christian.” It’s about having a gerontocracy.

    Joseph Smith was 24 years old when the First Quorum of the Twelve was formed, whose oldest member was 35. As the years have gone by, the Quorum has gotten markedly older and older.

    The culture is basically structured around men gaining power as they get older and certain men (white, English-speaking men) gaining the most. The world is moving away from this set-up, and thankfully viewing it as spiritually-lacking.

    Mormons seem to mistake this critique for gerontophobia. But it’s really a critique of why there’s no women or people of color in the top rungs of an “international church.”

  6. Seth R. says:

    I’m not sure what sort of hostility you have toward old people that you think this “gerontocracy” thing automatically a bad thing.

    And I guess I don’t get your connection that having a centralized leadership automatically means that an organization lacks diversity.

  7. Equality says:

    it should be noted whenever a church PR hack makes an argument based on membership statistics that the church does not publish a meaningful set of statistics about its membership and the numbers it does publish are problematic to say the least. In other words, garbage in garbage out. It is an open secret that the LDS church’s claims about its membership are inflated, and that the international numbers are more inflated than the U.S. numbers. Until the church opens its books and records worldwide, we are all probably better off ignoring “Salt Lake Mike” and his PR spin. Let’s hear how many temple recommend holders there are in the church and see that broken down by U.S. versus the rest of the world. And Sacrament meeting attendance. Those would be meaningful numbers. As it is, the LDS church has a long way to go to catch up the Church of Equality. I have over 6.5 billion members in my church, the vast majority of whom are not in the U.S. and non-white. You see, everyone in the world is automatically a member of my church. To disaffiliate, a member need only send me a written letter asking to be removed from my church’s membership rolls, along with a small processing fee of $29.95. So far, I have had no resignations, which makes the Church of Equality the largest church in the world.

  8. Chino Blanco says:

    Seth R., back in the real world, I’ve seen company stock rise when issues like separate and unequal classes of shares get resolved in favor of transparency and fairness. Who’s gonna invest in an org that obviously has several different classes of shareholder? LDS is like a family-owned concern that went public decades ago and frets that its stock is in the toilet but refuses to fix the reason why: common shareholders don’t get the same say (or returns) as other classes.

    And suggesting this is about hostility toward old people is ridiculous. It’s about hostility toward an organizational structure that makes obviously-needed changes all but impossible to implement. Are we also not allowed to criticize the U.S. Senate? ‘Cuz I see both bodies ailing from similar afflictions.

  9. Chino Blanco says:

    P.S. Speaking of old, can we stop pretending that the existence of outliers counts as evidence of diversity?

    P.P.S. Re LDS membership stats, a quick glance here has got me wondering: Whether reported total membership happens to be 4 million (80’s) or 14 million (now), somehow the official number of folks who fall off the rolls each year remains roughly the same. How does that work? Anyway, the longer this garbage 14 million figure keeps getting repeated in every single piece by/about Mormons, the better the odds that eventually Nate Silver is gonna post a NYT takedown that embarrasses everyone who’s ever parroted that pile of perfidious prevarication.

  10. Alan says:

    Gerontocracies are not automatically bad. But inflexibility is not the same thing as stability, particularly where capitalism is concerned — and Mormonism is indeed a capitalist enterprise. Gerontocracies abhor innovation and change, which is central to capitalism.

    As much as Mormonism wants to be thought of as a stable, tradition-based religion, on par with other global religions, it has nowhere near the kind of cultural and historical entrenchment needed to actually be this. It concerns itself with silly things like who the media calls “Mormon.”

  11. Chino Blanco says:

    The current LDS management looks like the cargo cult the natives formed after the USS HarvardMBA left its temporary base behind on the island of Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

  12. Badger says:

    Gerontocracies are not automatically bad.

    OK, name three good ones. I understand that Mormons will view the LDS leadership as a special case, so consider it an honorary good gerontocracy for purposes of discussion. I can’t think of any other examples. Suspecting that I might be interpreting the term too narrowly, I looked it up in Wikipedia and found the following examples:

    1. China during the 1980s and 1990s, starring Deng Xiaoping;
    2. The later decades of the USSR before Gorbachev;
    3. Assorted communist oligarchies in smaller nations (quite a few);
    4. Present-day Iran;
    5. The Vatican;
    6. The traditional Samburu society of Kenya;
    7. The LDS Church;
    8. A few honorable mentions, including the US Senate, with gerontocratic tendencies but falling short of the examples above (in my opinion).

    I know nothing about the Samburu, and have temporarily excluded the Church from criticism, but I can’t say any of the others look good. To me, gerontocracy’s shortcomings for organizational or governmental organization parallel primogeniture. In the extreme form, a single quality (seniority or heredity), with only very loose inherent connections to merit, crowds out every other basis for selecting leaders. Sooner or later, it probably won’t end well.

    What’s striking to me about the list is how strictly the LDS succession follows seniority. The nearest comparison is the Catholic one, where the cardinals choose the next pope by vote, but–get this–cardinals older than 80 can’t vote! You call that a gerontocracy? OK, seriously, in theory they can elect almost any baptized Catholic man, but in practice, the plausible candidates are not young. However, there are almost always several to choose from, and there is no expectation that the oldest or most senior cardinal will be offered the papacy. It seems to me to be every bit as flexible as your average hidebound communist politburo. The LDS system for selection is not. Under the working assumption that it’s a good gerontocracy, we seem to be witnessing a miracle.

  13. Seth R. says:

    Actually, China under Deng can be viewed as a relative success story.

    I just found it interesting that the observation “it’s full of old people!” was thrown out there with the obvious expectation that everyone would be nodding their head along murmuring “how horrible.”

    Chino, you make cracks about “statistical outliers” when you actually have a grasp on what the majority is or is not doing.

    At the moment, I don’t have all that much confidence that you do.

  14. Chino Blanco says:

    I was gonna say the same thing about Deng. Impressive. And not just b/c Shenzhen dwarfs the SLC mall project.

    Seth R., how much confidence do you really have in the LDS project? Just curious. Is there a set of metrics you can suggest we should be using?

    Re outliers, wasn’t Japan something of a lab experiment back during your era? What kind of numbers are the missions there producing now?

    I didn’t leave the church lickety-split after my mission b/c it wasn’t true, I left in a rush b/c the level of incompetence offended me.

  15. Badger says:

    Actually, China under Deng can be viewed as a relative success story.

    Well, yes. Comparing Mao with Deng certainly provides proof, if any were needed, that younger leaders don’t guarantee better results, complete with Red Guards to drive the lesson home.

    The general problem with the gerontrocracies on the list is that they are un-representative oligarchies with poor accountability of the governors to the governed. I don’t think the LDS case is an exception on those two points. I’ve heard Mormons essentially say as much, adding that it’s ok in this case because the leaders are accountable to God. I’ve also heard some Mormons say that the Church’s laggard history on racial issues and sexual orientation is related to the age or cultural isolation of the leaders. Such suggestions are very controversial within the Church, of course.

    I think the general weakness of gerontocracy is pretty evident. Mormons can often see the problem up to a point, but tend to find negative conclusions about the Church specifically to be painful. Frustratingly, a convincing argument that the LDS leadership is a special case because of divine participation is next to impossible to make to an outsider, however great its relevance to Mormons.

    The “sen” in “senate” is the same as the “sen” in “senile”, in the sense that both words derive from the Latin senex, meaning “old man”. I’ve always casually thought the Roman senate was so named because age was associated with wisdom, and that may be so. But it’s just occurred to me while writing that the ancient Romans, at least those in a position to be giving a name to the senate, would probably not have been put off by the idea of an unaccountable oligarchy of older men, taking their turn at ruling the world. How else could it possibly be?

  16. Seth R. says:

    I don’t find it “painful” or anything. Quit dramatizing things. This doesn’t have to fit into one of your good-for-all-occasions, look-at-the-poor-Mormon-with-his-cognitive-dissonance narratives.

    I just don’t find the disadvantages hugely compelling. Nor am I convinced the system is decidedly weaker than the alternatives. This is one of those things that is usually confidently asserted in these parts, but usually not really backed-up.

  17. Alan says:

    Nor am I convinced the system is decidedly weaker than the alternatives

    Well, first off a Mormon oligarchy was the intention, but not necessarily a gerontocracy.

    Gerontocracies work for smaller populations where the merit of the older people is that their gains in life are shared with their kin with whom they are in direct relation. Yes, the Church has a welfare system (which is great), but it also commodifies itself for the purpose of growth. It’s for-profit — not non-profit.

    Growth ensures that the leadership will be at least somewhat disconnected from the populace even if they have a series of liaisons. The gains of the old are still shared with kin (since older people eventually die) — but we’re talking nuclear families and inheritance rather than the culture as a whole (since not every old Mormon man ends up as a GA). As Chino says @8, the Church is a

    family-owned concern that went public decades ago and frets that its stock is in the toilet but refuses to fix the reason why: common shareholders dont get the same say (or returns) as other classes.

    This is why the gerontocracy is broken. The privileging of older age is a privileging of the economics of the system over the welfare of the people. Again, the Church has a great welfare system, like it’s one big family, but it has serious problems with financial transparency. Moreover, the gains flow toward the center (toward white Utah families) to be dispersed at the center’s pleasure (for welfare, yes, but plenty toward for-profit ventures, including the Church’s growth). I see very little at work here that is spiritually compelling. Basically, the ethics of the gerontocracy are lost in the materiality of the capitalist enterprise — because the faith actively creates haves and havenots with its organizational structure.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t Mormons have a kind association of profit with God blessing a person?

    I would much rather take a Buddhist monastery that has to beg to keep itself maintained over a system/culture that can’t divorce divinity from economics.

  18. kuri says:

    Re: Japan, my information is pretty old now, but when I left there in 1995, there were 100,000+ nominal members but only about 2,000 Melchizedek priesthood holders. And the MPH growth rate had been flat for 20 years, including during the Tokyo South baptism explosion c. 1980. (As a believer, I found the graph the area bigwig showed us in priesthood leadership meeting quite shocking.) I doubt that the statistics have gotten any better since then.

  19. Seth R. says:

    Alan, a lot of that sounds awfully speculative to me.

    All we really know is that there are for-profit ventures. That’s about it.

    And what’s wrong with that?

    Absolutely nothing as far as I’m concerned. I thought all the bleating about the mall was completely ridiculous. If a charitable group can fund a lot of stuff off the interest rates of profitable enterprises, then more power to them.

  20. Alan says:

    All we really know is that there are for-profit ventures. Thats about it.

    And whats wrong with that?

    Think of it this way. I’m sure you know that there some individuals in this country who are millionaire preachers. At many many nondenominational mega-churches, alms are collected and they basically fill the preacher’s coffers. Charitable gestures are made, sometimes generously (think of it as a lottery or a casino not based on luck, but the man’s whim) but overall the man is running a successful business. He’s using the Bible’s call for charity to the poor and its call to spread God’s word to basically get wealthy himself while appearing like a generous, giving man. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to these churches, but they often have a giant screen that is displaying advertisements for things like the preacher’s new book.

    The LDS Church collects 10% of one’s income (think of it as investment into a stock); the return you receive is a service, but not a profit — unless you’re part of the oligarchy, in which case you do receive a profit by means of access to the coffers for for-profit ventures. Or at least there’s no reason for anyone to not think so, because the financials aren’t transparent.

  21. Badger says:

    I dont find it painful or anything. Quit dramatizing things. This doesnt have to fit into one of your good-for-all-occasions, look-at-the-poor-Mormon-with-his-cognitive-dissonance narratives.

    What I said arose out of a general belief I hold that Mormons in general tend to find negative conclusions about the Church to be painful. I acknowledge and accept your statement that you personally do not find “it” (back to this in a moment) painful, but my general view is compatible with some exceptions to the general tendency. As to the meaning of “it” in the previous sentence, I think in principle you might be referring to (a) hearing me (or someone) state a negative conclusion I have reached, or (b) reaching such a conclusion yourself. I meant (b) originally, although I think a similar tendency exists with the other meaning.

    Every case is individual, though. I recently ran across a Mormon online who said, in effect, that based on his history, Joseph Smith was motivated by greed, so God provided the golden plates to get him going, knowing they would appeal to a treasure-hunter. He still believed in Joseph as a prophet. This was how he integrated the history into his belief system. I wouldn’t say he was casual about it, but he didn’t seem to be in agony over it, either. His approach reminded me a bit of the Sherlock Holmes quote: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. My point is that this sort of approach to Mormon belief is atypical. For every experience like his, I bet you could find 100 stories of resolving a crisis of faith or leaving the church that describe real anguish.

    I just dont find the disadvantages hugely compelling. Nor am I convinced the system is decidedly weaker than the alternatives. This is one of those things that is usually confidently asserted in these parts, but usually not really backed-up.

    My effort at backing it up appears in comment #12. What led to that was that I was reading what went before, saw “gerontocracy”, and thought, I sort of think it’s bad (again, in the abstract), but I can’t give any non-LDS examples off the top of my head. So I went looking (all the way to Wikipedia, so not very hard). I do find the disadvantages compelling, and don’t know why you don’t (unless it’s admiration for Deng Xiaoping, which I don’t think is what you meant). I also think it is weaker than various alternatives, but when you restrict the alternatives to ones that are reasonably available to the LDS church, it’s not clear to me right now that there is a better one. Taking the governance of evangelical Christian churches as an example, there are some social and cultural similarities, the churches are doing well, several potential advantages come to mind, and so forth. But I don’t see how the LDS view of the prophet’s role could fit into such a structure. I think the Catholic system is more compatible, hypothetically speaking, and it’s another gerontocracy. I wonder if there’s something I haven’t thought of.

  22. Badger says:

    Sorry, I hadn’t meant to include the non-italic part of the first paragraph of my last comment. It’s probably obvious, but those are Seth’s words, not mine, even though they appear in the regular font.

    However, since I accidentally brought it up, I’m kind of in the process of making up my mind about the cognitive bias stuff I seem to have been reading everywhere. Mormonism is a rich source of examples, and so are a lot of other things, and it seems to me the main value of the ideas has to be their applicability to making changes my own thought processes. Has this worked for anyone here? I’m skeptical of the value of lists of classical logical fallacies (begging the question, post hoc ergo propter hoc, that sort of thing) except as vocabulary items. Is the cognitive bias stuff—based on real research, or so I’m told—any better?

  23. Seth R. says:

    I don’t want to be too combative. I’ve been a bit irritable.

    Badger, I don’t think I want to guess at the ratios of “anguished” people vs. “composed” people in the LDS Church. I’m not sure you’re well-served in doing so either. To a hammer – everything looks like a nail. And to ex-Mormons who hang in these circles, everything looks like… you can fill in the blank however you like.

    I’m not grasping what you’re asking in #22 (maybe I’m just thick today), but it might not have been directed at me anyway.

    And Alan, didn’t we just have a little exchange a few months ago pointing out that the “oligarchs” as you term them really DON’T seem to be living large or raking in the wealth.

    I’ve seen pictures of Thomas S. Monson’s house.

    It’s smaller than mine.

    Some “oligarch.”

  24. Badger says:

    Badger, I dont think I want to guess at the ratios of anguished people vs. composed people in the LDS Church.

    My experience has led me to some generalizations, but to be clear, what I meant in #21 is that I think “anguish” is much commoner than “composure” for Mormons who are dealing with the possibility of reaching a new conclusion that seriously conflicts with their current faith. However, I don’t think the church has many “anguished” members at any particular moment.

    Im not grasping what youre asking in #22 (maybe Im just thick today), but it might not have been directed at me anyway.

    Or, as you were kind enough not to say, it might not have made any sense. You’re right, it wasn’t directed at you in particular. It was a tangent prompted by the phrase “cognitive dissonance”. I was asking if anyone had found reading about that sort of thing useful for improving their own thinking, as opposed to just providing some descriptive vocabulary. But I withdraw the question. It’s too far off topic.

  25. Seth R. says:

    That’s OK. I think I’ll allow it.


  26. JJL9 says:

    Badger, you were off topic, but I’m curious why you don’t seem to see the value of understanding the various logical fallacies.

    I have found them to be of immense value in the field of debate. Why? Because there is a reason that there happens to be a list of logical fallacies. What’s the reason? They are very common. What does that mean? That means that a log of people are not logical and that their arguments are not based on actual logic. That’s all fine and dandy until you realize that there are a lot of people that might hear or read their arguments and fall for the logical fallacies. Why? I don’t know, but apparently a lot of people’s brains want to link one thing with another based on some sort of logical fallacy, even though it’s not logical.

    I hope I’m being logical here.

    My conclusion is this. Any logical argument can be termed in an “If >___________people often reach erroneous conclusions because of a tendancy to follow any one of a series of logical fallaciesit would be valuable to be familiar with these logical fallacies in order to easily recognize them, understand why a person has failed to reach a logical conclusion, and be able to explain in a coherent way why that person has reached an erroneous conclusion.”

    Is that logical?

  27. JJL9 says:

    OK. Somehow the way I phrased that paragraph caused the HTML to alter what I said.

    I really don’t want to retype it though, but the way it came out makes no sense at all…


  28. JJL9 says:

    For the sake of my own sanity, I’ll retype the statement that got completely messed up.

    If people often reach erroneous conclusions because of a tendancy to follow any one of a series of logical fallacies, then it would be valuable to be familiar with these logical fallacies in order to easily recognize them, understand why a person has failed to reach a logical conclusion, and be able to explain in a coherent way why that person has reached an erroneous conclusion.

  29. JJL9 says:

    I’ll shutup now.

  1. August 14, 2011

    […] Times & Seasons, which led to further discussion about the CoJCoL-dS’s claims regarding international conversion rates and having 14.1 million members. Another myth that got busted in the fray was the CoJCoL-dS’s […]

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