LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Extensive missionary efforts and a nimble church structure have helped fuel a Southern-tinged "Mormon moment" in Arkansas as the church's numbers have nearly doubled over the past decade, say experts and church leaders.
Arkansas ranks fifth in the nation in the rate of growth for Mormons. Indeed, the South — long evangelical — has proved most receptive to the Mormon message in the first decade of the 21st century as four of the five fastest-growing states for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are below the Mason-Dixon line.
The social and political conservatism of many Mormons meshes well with an increasingly GOP-dominated South. And Sun Belt boomtowns have beckoned to Mormons.
The 84.8 percent growth in Arkansas was documented in a national religious census released Tuesday. The Salt Lake City-based church now boasts 27,559 members statewide.
Nationally, Mormons increased in every state, with the church's U.S. membership increasing from 4.2 million to 6.1 million.
Catholics, numbering nearly 59 million, remain the largest religious group in the country. At nearly 20 million, Southern Baptists are still the largest Protestant denomination.
George Wing, an Arkansas Latter-day Saint leader, says Mormonism's success in the state can be traced to vigorous missionary efforts and logistical agility.
Since most Mormons tithe — or give 10 percent of their income to the church — the national church is able to pay for every dollar of a new church building, helping local congregations avoid lengthy capital campaigns.
That kind of ready cash translates into plenty of brand-new church buildings where they're most needed.
"We've found that people are more likely to stay active if they don't have to drive too far to go to church," said Wing, the public affairs director for the North Little Rock Stake, similar to a diocese.
Add manpower to money and a message, mix well, and you'll get converts.
About 140 full-time missionaries serve central Arkansas. And many of those who open their doors and hearts to the Mormon gospel are newly arrived immigrants, especially Hispanics, Wing said.
"It's abundantly opportune when you have people displaced from their comfort zone," Wing said.
In 2000, Arkansas Mormons numbered 14,916, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which organized the sixth census of American religious membership since 1952.
Even the bulked-up totals, based on 2010 data, pale in comparison with the state's largest religious groups: Southern Baptists (661,382), Methodists (158,574) and Catholics (122,662).
But out of those churches, only the Catholics have grown statewide since 2000 at the much lower rate of 5.8 percent.
Southern Baptists witnessed a slight dip (0.6 percent) in membership and Methodists suffered an 11.6 percent drop.
Mormonism is expanding close to Arkansas' borders as well. Texas' Mormon population has exploded; its 90.5 percent growth rate leads the nation. The Lone Star state is now home to 296,141 Mormons.
Such robust growth is mostly a good thing, said Patrick Q. Mason, chairman of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.
But church leaders have become concerned in recent years about "real growth," Mason said.
"It's one thing to baptize a lot of people. But one of the fears is that a lot of Mormons aren't active. On the surface it looks pretty impressive, but when you peel back the layers it's a different story," Mason said.
In the 1990s some religious experts predicted Mormonism would rival Islam in size across the globe. But the past two decades have seen a slight cooling off, he said.
"Most scholars are backing off those predictions. It's not the kind of rocket-propelled growth of the 1980s and 90s," Mason said.
But the trend lines are impressive. The American church has seen growth every year since the 1850s.
Mason said he's heard of "internal talk" among church leaders about placing "a higher bar for new converts to slow down the process."
Mormonism's success in the South is partially because of the rise of Southern urban centers such as Houston, Charlotte, N.C. and Atlanta, Mason said, but also the changing political leanings in the region.
As the South has grown more Republican and conservative, Mormonism's emphasis on family and self-reliance has more appeal, Mason said.
Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University in Wichita, Kan., agrees.
An active Mormon, Fox said he is somewhat skeptical of the reported increase in Arkansas because the church — like several other religious bodies — keeps membership rolls based on baptisms. Some "members" may have not attended a Mormon church in decades, he said.
"Often people will attend for a little while, but they don't stick around. It happens a lot," said Fox, who attended a Mormon church in Jonesboro for three years within the past decade while teaching at Arkansas State University.
Still, growth is undeniable. Fox attributes it to the positive image that Mormons have as clean-living, patriotic people, especially among conservatives.
Not all Americans — or Arkansans — harbor warm thoughts toward the church founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, an area of the country called the "burned-over district" because of the high rate of religiosity during 19th-century religious revivals such as the Second Great Awakening.
A Pew Research Center poll of 2,001 U.S. adults in November showed one-third of non-Mormons don't believe that Mormonism is Christian and nearly two-thirds don't know much about the church.
The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.
A persistent subplot in the presidential race is whether voters, especially evangelicals, will refuse to vote for Mormon Republican candidate Mitt Romney because of his religion.
Although the religious census numbers show a record number of Mormons — most of whom support Romney according to pollsters — the continued boom in Mormonism also may contain the seeds of a backlash, Mason said.
"There's a strong tribal identity among Mormons. I know a number of Democrats who are Mormons who will vote for Romney, saying, 'This is our chance to be accepted nationally,'" Mason said. "But in a sense (the census) gives numbers to what some people already fear — that they're stealing our congregants."
Fox said some Americans remain suspicious of Mormons.
But the recent "I'm a Mormon" public relations campaign by the church, which portrays church members as ordinary Americans, could help among political moderates, Fox said.
"It could mitigate the weirdness factor," Fox said.
A January report by the Pew Forum for Religious and Public Life polled 1,000 Mormons nationwide and found 63 percent of them thought acceptance of Mormonism was increasing.
The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
The increasing confidence of Mormons together with Romney's strong political performance, prompted the study's authors to echo other commentators who have termed 2012 a "Mormon moment."
Wing counts himself among the optimistic Mormon majority. He said he's lived in Arkansas for decades and finds the level of discrimination against Mormons to be "very minimal."
"You'll have the occasional hotheads who have some interpretations of our 'lack of Christian faith,' but those are by far the minority. Our attitude is 'Gee, we have to be patient.'"
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.comTags: