A great cloud of journalists and scholars have characterized Mormonism as an American religion. Leo Tolstoy reportedly called it the American religion. Born and based in the United States, the LDS Church teaches that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, the American Indians are Israelites, Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, and Utah is a place of refuge for God’s people in the Last Days. Besides baptizing the land itself, Mormons also embody the great American themes: progress, democracy, literacy, exodus, pioneering, and utopianism. In recent decades they’ve even embraced individualism, capitalism, and the nuclear family, American values arguably spurned by early Saints such as Brigham Young.
But not everyone invited to the bar mitzvah has RSVPed. A growing number of wet-blanket sociologists argue that the Church’s official membership figures considerably overstate LDS growth in Latin America and the Philippines, where convert retention is about 25%. The Church is diversifying, to be sure, but at a slower than expected pace. This led one nay-sayer to conclude, as recently as 2010, that “calling Mormonism a nascent ‘world religion’ is premature”; Mormonism is still “best described as a North American church.” Striking a slightly different note, another scholar concedes that Mormonism is likely to become a “global” religion that makes its influence felt around the world, but doubts it will become a “world” religion “that becomes established in many cultures and adapts itself to local patterns of ritual and of thought.” Because of its American headquarters and leadership, it will remain an exotic foreign import in other countries.
Putting Things in Perspective: A New Study in the JSSR
The latest bucket of cold water comes from sociologists Ronald Lawson and Ryan Cragun, the authors of a new study comparing the growth and geographic dispersion of the great “American Originals”—Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Latter-day Saints. This comparative approach puts Mormon growth in perspective and provides a valuable glimpse of some “roads not taken.” While Lawson and Cragun find that all three groups are following the broader Christian trend of globalization—stagnation in the developed world offset by rapid growth in the developing world—they also identify important differences (and for Mormons, important limitations) in the geographic and demographic distribution of said growth in each tradition. Mormons, in this analysis, emerge as almost a cautionary tale: an institutional and strategic recipe for mediocrity.
The first major finding was that, of the three groups, Mormons are by far the most concentrated in just a few countries. There are only eight countries with over 200,000 LDS members, and between them these countries account for 77% of the total membership. The US alone accounts for 44%. Contrast the Adventists, with twenty-nine countries over 200,000 members and only 9% of members in their largest country, which is not the US but India. Jehovah’s Witnesses fall between the other two groups in the extent of their dispersion. Mormon members, to be sure, are considerably more dispersed and considerably less white than they were fifty years ago, but they are still heavily concentrated in the Americas and Oceania, with the Philippines—a former US colony—being the only major exception. Thus while Mormonism has certainly broadened its “American” identity from the national to the continental sense of the term, talk of “globalization” might be a stretch. Two thirds of Asian Mormons are in the Philippines, and there are more Mormons in Argentina (their seventh largest country) than in Africa and the Middle East combined.
A more surprising finding was that Mormons remain as skewed socioeconomically as geographically. In contrast to Adventists and Witnesses, Mormons are overwhelmingly upper and middle class. Nor is this just an artifact of their concentration in the developed world. Even within individual countries where all three groups have established a presence, Mormons are vastly wealthier, more urban, and better-educated than Adventists, with Witnesses falling between them. Data from developed countries such as Canada show a similar pattern, with Adventists having the greatest appeal to immigrants, while Mormons appeal most to the native-born.
Mormonism’s relative homogeneity results partly from the distribution of missionary resources. For one thing, the geography of the Church was heavily constrained by its pre-1978 racial theology, which led missionaries to target “Israelites” from northern Europe, Native America, and Polynesia, while neglecting the “cursed” populations of Africa. International expansion was also inhibited by a strong emphasis on domestic “kingdom-building” and a corresponding mandate to “gather” to Utah, which crippled fledgling missions by siphoning away their most dedicated converts. Missionary emphasis has also been constrained by the mandatory and bureaucratic nature of the modern missionary program, since the Church can’t ask adolescent draftees to violate laws against proselytism or risk their lives in conflict zones. This accounts for Mormonism’s late entry to the former Soviet bloc and its continued absence among the native peoples of China. The socioeconomic imbalance, similarly, may result partly from locating mission centers in relatively affluent neighborhoods which are likely to be safer for the missionaries and more receptive to the message (i.e. literate and Christian). By contrast, the more decentralized structure of Adventist and Witness efforts has allowed entrepreneurial missionaries much more leeway to risk death or imprisonment in unreached areas of the world.
Other reasons for Mormon homogeneity lie on the demand-side of the economic equation—or rather, in the poor fit of Mormon outreach strategies to religious expectations in certain parts of the world. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses teach converts from a “universal syllabus,” and their missionary training programs provide little or no preparation for connecting with local cultures. By contrast, the more decentralized Adventists have experimented with methods ranging from holding public meetings, Bible Studies, classes, and radio broadcasts to founding schools, clinics, hospitals, and multinational relief agencies. Their educational and medical institutions have been a particular reason for missionary success and access, since their resources and services are eagerly coveted by impoverished people and governments. Adventists have also been far more willing to adapt and inculturate their message in different parts of the world, reaching Muslims, for instance, by promoting devotion to Jesus within an Islamic framework rather than as an alternative to Islam. Where Mormons have struggled to retain the poorest converts and to find audiences in the “10-40 window,” Adventists have found innovative strategies that work.
Lawson and Cragun’s findings suggest that while the Church has certainly diversified its geographic profile in recent decades, it is not yet a truly global—much less “world”—religion. The American religion remains decidedly American, albeit in a broadly continental rather than narrowly national sense of the term. To return to an example from earlier in this post, the black African Mormon running for president of Mali is the exception that proves the rule. This highly successful, BYU-educated entrepreneur is doing most of his campaign fundraising among Mormons in the United States. As a candidate in a nation that’s 90% Islamic, his viability as a candidate says more about his countrymen’s open-mindedness and disillusionment with the current regime than about the globalization of Mormonism.
If Mormonism has globalized more slowly than the other “American Originals,” the reasons seem to lie in the Church’s highly institutionalized missionary model. Whether the Church becomes a world religion in the fullest sense may depend on the leaders’ willingness to fertilize the grassroots. Of course, it’s not at all my place as an outsider to lecture Latter-day Saints on how they should structure their missionary program. The Mormon mandate to grow and globalize, after all, is not the only consideration; Mormons also have strong theological reasons for correlation and centralization. Perhaps there are yet-unimagined ways to reconcile these competing impulses—to enable entrepreneurial, innovative, and inculturated mission work within a correlated institutional framework. On the other hand, the Church may have to make some hard choices about tradeoffs between its theological priorities—choices that are well above my pay grade. One thing seems certain: the fate of global Mormonism hangs in the balance.
 Stephen J. Fleming, “Becoming the American Religion: The Place of Mormonism in the Development of American Religious Historiography,” Mormon Historical Studies 4, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 3-22.
 F. LaMond Tullis, “Three Myths about Mormons in Latin America,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7, no. 1 (Spring 1972): 79-87.
 David Knowlton, “Thoughts on Mormonism in Latin America,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Studies 25 (Summer 1992): 41-53.
 Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 1–8.
 Andrew Brown, “Mitt Romney’s Mormonism: A Truly American Faith,” October 9, 2011, Andrew Brown’s Blog at The Guardian; Max Mueller, “The Other Mormon Candidate: He’s Running for President of Mali,” February 21, 2012, Slate.
 David G. Stewart, “Growth, Retention, and Internationalization,” and Henri Gooren, “The Mormons of the World: The Meaning of LDS Membership in Central America,” in Revisiting Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons: Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Cardell K. Jacobson, John P. Hoffmann, and Tim B. Heaton (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2008), 328-61; 362-88; Rick Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 10, no. 1 (August 2006): 52-68.
 Ronald Lawson and Ryan T. Cragun, “Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51, no. 2 (June 2012): 223.