Mormons are no longer in the majority in Utah, researchers say
A new paper says three factors are contributing to the massive shift
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Only 42% of the people in Utah are Mormon, contrary to estimates provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and reported by mainstream news outlets. In fact, the number dipped below 50% as early as 2007.
That’s the “provisional” conclusion drawn by sociologists Ryan Cragun, Bethany Gull, and Rick Phillips in a new paper published in the Journal of Religion and Demography. (You can read the whole thing here.)
According to the researchers, there are two ways the number of Mormons in the state is typically calculated. One is based on membership numbers provided by the LDS Church. Take their number, divide by the total population, and there you have it. Based on those numbers, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2020 that the Mormon share in Utah was 60.7%—lower than in previous years (as the orange bars below show) but a clear majority nonetheless.
The other is through surveys where people can self-report their religious identity. In 2022, for example, the Public Religion Research Institute estimated that Mormons comprised 55% of people in Utah. Lower that the LDS Church’s numbers but still a majority.
But both methods have problems, say the researchers.
For one, the Mormon Church has a long history of providing membership numbers that are overinflated. If you were baptized and confirmed as a child, for example, the LDS Church considers you a member, even if you no longer believe as an adult, unless you formally withdraw your name from the membership rolls. If you’re a toddler (i.e. not eligible for baptism because you’re not eight-years-old yet), you’re also considered a member. Basically, everyone’s who’s Mormon-adjacent is considered a Mormon unless there’s a really good reason to say otherwise. And that, the researchers say, is a big problem:
Scholars have noted that local ward rosters are unusable as sampling frames for surveying Mormons… The church’s claimed membership total may exceed the number of self-identified Mormons by 50%…
The Salt Lake Tribune also encountered problems with these numbers. For example, one reporter found that the church claimed more members in one Utah county than there were residents of that county…
What about self-reported numbers? Sometimes, the sample sizes are very small (and therefore more inaccurate). And just as we often see with Catholics, a lot of people who may no longer believe in God, or just don’t take religion seriously, or never attend religious services may still call themselves “Mormon” for cultural reasons. At that point, however, the label is all but meaningless.
Instead of relying on any of those numbers, then, the researchers attempted to get their own data using a larger sample size that was demographically more in line with U.S. Census numbers. This is what they ended up with:
You can see in the final line (2022) that the researchers estimate that only 42% of people in Utah are Mormons.
We calculated a 99.9% confidence interval for this estimate. The upper confidence limit was 45.7%, the lower confidence limit was 38.3%. Thus, we find that Mormons are no longer the majority in Utah.
Even if further research pokes any holes in the specific numbers there, it’s clear from all available data that the trend is moving away from Mormon identification. Which raises an important question: Why is this happening?
The researchers offer three reasons for the shift:
Secularization. Simply put, religion is becoming less important in the lives of many Americans, and that’s also true with Mormons in Utah. The researchers found that 24% of kids who were raised as Mormons in Utah now say they have “no religion.” The more people leave the faith, the less pressure there is for other fence-sitters to remain in the religion for social reasons.
Fertility. Mormons are having fewer babies than they used to. In 2001, people in Utah had about 20 births per 1,000 people. By 2022, that dipped to 14 births per 1,000. Fewer babies means fewer automatic Mormons. It also means Utah’s starting to look more and more like the rest of the country when it comes to reproduction rates.
Migration. Mormons used to flock to Utah in part because it was harder to find like-minded religious communities anywhere else. That’s no longer the case thanks to more Mormon temples existing outside the state and the ability to be part of those religious communities online. Meanwhile, a lot of non-Mormons are coming into Utah because of economic opportunity and a lower cost of living. Both factors lower the percentage of Mormons in the state.
This illustration shows how all those factors contribution to the decline in Utah’s Mormoninity1:
There are other factors, of course, but the bottom line is that the percentage of Mormons in Utah is lower than ever before. More importantly, there’s a case to be made that Mormons aren’t even in the majority in the state—and haven’t been for several years.
In a statement to Jana Riess, who covers the faith for Religion News Service, researcher Bethany Gull noted that we’re seeing the Church’s power start to wane—and that’s going to have huge implications moving forward:
Gull sees this tension now in recent data about LGBTQ equality in Utah, pointing to a 2022 Deseret News survey that showed nearly three-fourths of Utahns supported legal same-sex marriage, a huge jump from earlier years. “If that doesn’t speak to the pushes of secularization and different types of values, I don’t know what does,” she said.
Maybe the biggest implication is that the LDS Church’s loosening stranglehold on the state will make it harder for the religion to dominate the state’s culture and politics. If non-Mormons find it easier to live in Utah these days, and they begin families with like-minded partners, it creates a snowball effect that leads to more kinds of diversity.
Ryan Cragun echoed that point when I asked him if this trend was accelerating:
It is now much easier to leave the religion because there are plenty of people who are not LDS who you can spend time with you who share your views. Leaving the LDS Church in Utah in the 1980s would have been challenging because everyone would know you were no longer a member and you would likely be socially isolated. Today, while family who are still members might engage in some social isolation and worry that the person who has left may try to persuade others to leave or be a bad influence on those who have stayed, there are plenty of support groups in Utah for ex-Mormons and plenty of non-Mormons who are happy to welcome ex-Mormons to their social circles. So, yes, declining religiosity is self-reinforcing.
And as we learn more about how the Mormon Church has shielded itself from accountability when it comes to sexual abuse, and hoarded more than $100 billion meant to help others, and been criticized by some of its most powerful and richest members, it becomes harder and harder for Church leaders to control the levers of power.
That’s not to say the Mormon Church won’t try to stop the inevitable.
While Cragun told me migration is mostly out of the Church’s control, fertility rates and secularization can (theoretically) be altered. To that end, he said, we’ve seen the Church lower the age of missionaries from 19 (men) and 21 (women) to 18 and 19, respectively, mostly to thwart the sort of people who went to college for a year or two and began losing their faith. They’re also supporting (some) gay and lesbian rights in a way they never did in the past, perhaps to prevent in-house critics of their anti-LGBTQ bigotry from leaving the faith.
As for reproduction… well, the Church still wants members to have big families. It’s a lot harder to leave a religion when there’s family pressure to remain in it. The Church knows that. Even if Utah as a whole is seeing lower fertility rates, people in the Church are still having more babies than the typical American. One report from 2016 showed that Mormons had a median of 2.42 kids compared to the American average of roughly 1.7 kids. But even that’s a drop from decades earlier.
The end result is that, while Utah is still very much a Republican state that bends over backwards to accommodate the Mormon Church on all kinds of hot-button issues, that’s slowly starting to change. (Just consider the U.S. Senate race in 2022 when an Independent anti-Trump Mormon ran a valiant (but ultimately losing) campaign to oust a deep-red Republican.)
Utah’s hardly a blue state, but as the demographics shift, the political winds will likely blow a different direction, too.
Is that a word? Sure, why not.