Thursday, September 12, 2019

Statistics, Misconceptions, and the Imperatives of Millennialism

The Deseret News ran an article this week about the American Family Survey, an annual nationwide study conducted by the Deseret News, BYU, and YouGov. First, the statistics. The percentage of children born outside of marriage (34%) has stayed about the same or dropped slightly over the past ten years. The percentage of high school students who have had sex dropped from 48 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2017. In 2006, 40 of every 1,000 births were to teenage girls age 15 to 17; ten years later, that rate was 20. There were 3.6 divorces per 1,000 Americans in 2007; in 2017, that rate was 2.9 of 1,000. These statistics are relevant to the American Family Survey. One final statistic that wasn’t mentioned in the Deseret News article: the national abortion rate declined 26 percent between 2006 and 2015, hitting the lowest level that the government has on record.
The survey is enlightening because it shows that most Americans are wrong about the direction of the trends shown by the first four statistics. They would likely be wrong about abortion too, but that question was apparently not asked. Another enlightening result of the survey is that Republicans are more wrong than Democrats. In other words, conservatives have a more pessimistic view of American morals than liberals do. This, I believe, is not coincidental. I think this reflects two realities. First, conservatives tend to be backward-looking. America was somehow better in the past, so they have to bring back some lost America that they yearn for with nostalgia. The only problem with this perspective is that the statistics in so many ways don’t bear this out. Progressives, on the other hand, are forward-looking. They not only believe in progress, but that progress is the consistent long-term trend that humanity follows. This is an optimistic view. Still, more than half of Democrats were wrong about each of the trends mentioned above. Just not as wrong as Republicans.
The second reality is perhaps explanatory: a large percentage of the Republican base is composed of Evangelicals and Mormons and other religious groups who believe in some form of millennialism. The Deseret News article makes this point: “White evangelical Protestants also stand out for their poor performance on some of the trend-related questions. While members of most faith groups were wrong about as often as an average U.S. adult, white evangelicals were more likely to hold incorrect assumptions about rates of teen pregnancy, births outside of marriage and teen sex.” I think the reason for this is that millennial religions have a core belief that the world is going to hell. Everything is getting worse. It has to. Otherwise, there is no urgent need for the Second Coming.
And Latter-day Saints fall into this trap. Our whole religious outlook is colored by the belief that the end is coming, soon. The world is getting worse and worse, and when things get bad enough, then Jesus will come and create a paradise. We no longer have prophets who predict that the Second Coming will happen by a certain date or claim that people in the congregation will live to go back and build up Zion in Jackson County (see Lorenzo Snow in about 1899). But we are told that Satan is quadrupling his efforts and that the world is becoming increasingly evil. The only problem with this rhetoric is that many statistics suggest Satan is not very effective. Another statistic that contradicts this apocalyptic view is that violent crime has fallen sharply over the past quarter century. So, in terms of many behaviors Christians would consider immoral, America is actually becoming more righteous, not less.
Our leaders also use coded language sometimes that is understood to mean we are near the end. For example, when the age of missionaries was lowered to create a brief surge in the number of missionaries serving, it was labeled “hastening the work.” The unspoken implication here was that we have to hasten the work because the end is coming. But when the surge didn’t last, and when the results (say, baptisms per missionary) were disappointing, this slogan sort of went away.
My point here is both political and religious. I believe we should take the statistics seriously and adopt an optimistic view of human potential and societal progress. I also believe we do ourselves a disservice when we insist that our nation and the world are going to hell in a handbasket, just to support the idea that the end is nigh, regardless of societal trends. My own feeling is that if we can survive Donald Trump’s presidency, and I firmly believe we can, then our society will continue to move in positive directions, especially in addressing some of our most serious challenges—global warming, health care, gun violence, and income inequality. Oddly, on these fronts, it is the Republicans who are intentionally trying to make our world worse. But perhaps that is consistent with their millennial views. Maybe they are trying to make the Second Coming happen by torpedoing the world we live in—a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.