Mormon, Catholic ranks On the rise

Mormonism is on the rise locally and nationally, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acquired more members than other denominations in Charleston County from 2000 to 2010, a group tracking such information says. The number of members increased by 2,697.

Catholics saw the county’s second largest increase with 2,231 and Episcopalians were third with 2,141, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census recently released by the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Members of LDS are becoming more accessible to potential members through the church’s annual Days of Service, a community outreach program, says James Freston, director of the public affairs council for LDS in the Charleston area.

Recently, 856 LDS members here worked 4,100 hours on 43 service projects such as landscaping, repairing roofs, putting up fencing, cleaning gardens and collecting items for orphans, Freston says.

The projects give people in the Lowcountry an opportunity to see what it means to be a Mormon and lead some to join the church, he says. In addition, some new members may have become more aware of the denomination through its “I Am a Mormon” campaign, which can be found online.

In Dorchester County, Catholic membership increased by 2,988, Mormons by 977 and Episcopalians by 433, according to the tracking group. In Berkeley County, Catholics saw an increase of 2,809, while Mormons lost 494 and Episcopalian ranks were reduced by 333.

Statewide, Catholics led the increase as well, with 45,024 additional members, Mormons were next with 16,987 and Episcopalians third with 2,129.

“What accounts for the increase is retirees moving to the state, families moving here and the growth in the Hispanic population,” says Maria Aselage, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.

The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of South Carolina, says his Episcopal diocese has been focused on increasing its numbers.

“In the last 10 years, we have made a commitment to grow our parishes, seeking to engage the culture while holding faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Lawrence says. “We have put special emphasis on growing churches, engaging in youth and young adult ministries and reaching families.”

As in the rest of the country, the eight largest African-American denominations, including AME and the National Missionary Baptist Convention, prominent in the tri-county area, were represented in the count for the first time. The AME count for 2010 is 120,854, and Missionary Baptist, 4,845.

Independent evangelical Christian churches, which range from storefronts to megachurches, showed a statewide increase of 11,889. Their members in South Carolina are estimated at 1,410,998 with about 120,825 in the tri-county area.

Counted together for the first time, those evangelical congregations make up one of the largest religious groups in the nation, after Catholics and their evangelical counterparts in the Southern Baptist Convention.

In fact, in 48 out of 50 states, “sovereign” evangelicals occupy a top five spot. Meanwhile, Mormons rank as the fastest-growing group in the nation, followed by Muslims.

The 2010 U.S. Religion Census also improved on past years by mapping Buddhists, Hindus, four branches of the Jewish community and practitioners of the primarily Japanese Shinto tradition.

Pennsylvania ranked as the most diverse state in the union with 184 religious bodies.

Religious leaders and sociologists welcomed the overview of America’s religious landscape as a helpful tool for determining where to evangelize and understanding where certain religious traditions thrive.

But some caution that the numbers and rankings could be skewed in some cases because religious groups apply different standards for counting adherents.

The religious census is the latest in a series of reports released each decade to coincide with figures from the U.S. Census. It is compiled by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The 2010 edition is the sixth since the U.S. Census Bureau stopped asking questions about religious affiliation after World War II.

Overall, the study shows a predominantly Christian nation with a lot of variety beneath the surface, including about 150 million Americans — half the population — who aren’t engaged with a religious community.

To compensate for organizations that count membership differently, the numbers represent “adherents,” or members, their children and other participants.

In most cases, numbers are supplied by the headquarters of each denomination, although in a few cases such as the nondenominational and Muslim categories, scholars’ surveys were used. The geographical spread reflects where people worship, not where they live.

Steve Warner, a sociologist of religion at the University of Illinois-Chicago, says the decennial study is the best attempt at mapping religion in America.

“What we get is a geogra-phic distribution about where the heartlands and hinterlands of the religious bodies are. They’re not evenly distributed,” he says, adding that the Methodists seem to be the exception. “They’re everywhere.”

Researchers say collecting data from religious groups produces a more meaningful picture than leaving it up to individuals to self-identify because people who affiliate with institutions tend to hew more closely to religious teachings.

“It’s not enough to say to an individual, ‘Do you identify with a particular tradition?’ That doesn’t have much substance and therefore may not have much meaning rather than an idea just floating around in their head,” says Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. “The real difference comes when someone says that and is connected to a community and is active in the local context. Then you begin to see people who are giving, more willing to reach out to their fellow human beings, more likely to volunteer.”

The study shows Catholics, though still the largest U.S. denomination, declined about 5 percent nationwide. However, researchers warned that numbers from previous studies were not wholly comparable.

Wevonneda Minis of The Post and Courier and Manya A. Brachear of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report. Reach Minis at 937-5705.