ARLINGTON, Virginia — Two young political rivals shared an apartment outside Washington, D.C., last fall without driving each other crazy.
Clay Marsh was a staff assistant for liberal Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. His roommate Parker Jackson interned for a staunchly conservative member of the House, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming.
The greatest irony was that, in an age when 20-somethings increasingly abandon religion, it was Marsh's and Jackson's Mormon faith and a congregation of ambitious single adults that brought them together and — after long days on Capitol Hill — helped them talk about their differences.
The number of 18- to 29-year-old Americans who say they aren't affiliated with a religion more than doubled from 10 percent to 23 percent between 1986 and 2006. In the following decade, it nearly doubled again. Last year, 39 percent of young adults said they had no religious identity, according to non-profit, non-partisan polling firm PRRI, described as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy."
Those numbers seem hard to imagine inside the renovated office building that serves as a chapel for the Colonial First Young Single Adult Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Here, dozens of striving young professionals who work near or on Capitol Hill, like the press secretary for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, attend church services, practice their faith far from their families and apply gospel lessons to the biggest political issues of the times.
Stability and purpose
Two days after President Trump's inauguration, Marsh, who is 27, was one of the speakers in the Colonial First Ward's hour-long Sacrament meeting. After an hour of Sunday School, he stood up again to teach a lesson in the third and final hour of weekly meetings about the dangers of pride and the need for Christian love and service. Reid had just left the Senate.
"I'm going through a job search right now," Marsh said as he led the discussion in Elder's Quorum, a priesthood group that on that day included 41 men. "That's a real pinch on my resources, but I still go about teaching lessons, I still go about giving talks."
Why would he do that when others his age wouldn't bother? Suveys show some leave the religion of their childhood, whatever that may be, do so because they stop believing, have a negative experience or experience negative teachings or treatment of gays and lesbians.
Research by PRRI and others shows that most who step away from their faith do so by age 18. Teenage and young adult Mormons are not immune. As the LDS Church prepares for its 187th Annual General Conference on Saturday and Sunday, a church spokesman said in a statement provided Thursday that the faith has not seen a spike in recorded defections.
"Despite periodic increases or decreases in requests, the number of people asking to have their name removed from the records of the church has been less than one-tenth of 1 percent (less than 1 in 1,000) for more than 20 consecutive years, including in 2015 and the first eight months of 2016," Eric Hawkins said in the statement, which he first made last fall.
Meanwhile, the church is experiencing growing numbers of church members with temple recommends and who pay a full tithing.
"That strength of commitment is also evident in young church members," Hawkins said. "Following the age change requirements for full-time missionaries, which resulted in a surge in missionaries in 2012-13, the number of young people serving has leveled off at a much higher number than before the surge, and is anticipated to continue on that upward trend."
"My faith," said Marsh, who has landed a job as a congressional affairs researcher at the Japanese Embassy, "is so ingrained in my identity that I couldn't step away if I wanted to. I am a member of the church, and I always will be. I'm incredibly grateful. It creates stability. It creates safety, well-being and purpose."
The Colonial First Ward is known for its Yahoo group listserv, a network for members and those moving in.
"That's how Clay and I became roommates," Jackson said. He regularly came home and talked with Marsh about the news of the day, from the election to health care and abortion.
"It's always helpful to hear from a member of the church on the other side of the aisle," said Jackson, who is from Lyman, Wyoming. "In the West, we get in a rut thinking everyone sees the same way. There are definitely principles of the gospel that can be found in both parties."
The ward formed in 2004 and moved to its current location in 2011. It now is part of the new Washington, D.C. Young Single Adult Stake, which includes six other wards. Marsh said the congregation is politically diverse. Some attended Trump's inauguration. Others joined the women's march the following day.
Mormonism's focus on helping those in need and the disenfranchised and its call for environmental stewardship resonated with Marsh's political views. For Jackson, the LDS virtues of fiscal independence and family life and warnings against harmful substances are meaningful to his Republican outlook.
Firm in faith
Richard Portwood just turned 31. That made the former Utah Valley University student body president ineligible to attend an LDS singles' ward. First, however, he met Berit Green in the Colonial First Ward, and she accepted his proposal on Feb. 7. They plan to marry in July.
Portwood, an organizational strategy consultant, grew up among non-religious friends in Park City, Utah. He believes social media has spread antipathy toward religion and made it mainstream. He said people his age are seeking alternative avenues for spirituality that feel less restrictive and more liberating to them.
"They have this idea that traditional, organized religion is very rigid and dogmatic," Portwood said. "Why go to church on Sunday when I could go on a hike or be with close friends? It's false dichotomy. It's not a binary choice."
Jackson and other ward members found it unfortunate that many young people now dedicate more time to their digital devices than to religion, personal relationships, education or careers.
Megan Swan, 29, of Calgary, Canada, taught one of two Sunday School classes in the Colonial First Ward the same day Marsh spoke and taught the priesthood lesson. She has experienced the decline of religious affiliation within her own circle of family and friends. Raised in a typical Mormon family with six kids, she said her siblings now fall across the spectrum from active temple-goers to formal disaffiliation.
In her Sunday School lesson, she made it clear that the religion is not a passive experience but one that requires an active approach.
A management consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, Swan asked class members to write down a scripture that influenced their lives. Then she asked them to strive to allow it to continue to influence them. Active effort provides meaningful help, she said.
"As you practice your faith and having an active faith in Jesus Christ, your Savior," she said, "I know that when you experience any of the trials and disappointments that overtake all of us, you'll be able to turn to the perspective of the gospel."
Portwood said he appreciates the Colonial First YSA Ward because of its diverse range of life experience, from interns to professionals like Swan.29 comments on this story
"It's very real and honest," he said. "I've appreciated the maturity and sincerity of people's testimonies. Those who are openly gay and still choose to attend, for example, are welcomed openly. We can discuss that and other issues in an open and honest space. That's very refreshing. There's space for everyone that allows them to grow and develop."
For Swan, affiliation with the LDS Church provides a sense of home.
"I certainly embody a lot of the 'millennial mindset' in a lot of aspects of my life, but in spite of that I feel that my membership in the church provides me with a sense of needed security and belonging during a particularly transient time in my life."