One of my recent articles caused quite a stir.
You see, a few weeks ago I wrote about the official membership numbers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had just been released. What they showed was a faith that has grown in numbers over the past two years in the United States – but which has grown at a slower rate than before and, notably, at a slower rate than the overall population growth of the United States.
Unexpectedly for me, it turns out that this has been brought to the attention of the highest levels of church leadership. Apostle David A. Bednar was asked about this at a luncheon held at the National Press Club in Washington. (By the way, I commend Bednar for speaking there. It was the first time a Latter-day Saint leader had addressed the group in 22 years since then-President Gordon B. Hinckley did it in 2000.)
When Bednar was asked about the article, he mostly cited a lack of familiarity with statistics. But he made a good point: “If you look at the church as a whole, it’s growing, which in the climate we find today is pretty newsworthy in itself.”
The “climate” to which Bednar refers is the religious landscape in which the United States, and much of the Western world, finds itself: nearly 30% of Americans now see themselves as unaffiliated with religionalmost double the percentage of 15 years ago.
Other churches – and religion in general – are in trouble, no doubt. Is Utah’s predominant faith performing better or worse?
Answering this question turns out to be a bit tricky, but we can look at data from a number of sources to get the best picture. (If you want to skip the data-gathering weeds and just jump to the graphs and conclusions closer to the bottom of this article, you certainly can.)
The religious data ecosystem
In my previous article, we used official LDS Church membership statistics to analyze state-by-state growth. But most churches don’t post a similar number of people on their rolls. If they do, they follow different rules than the LDS Church for putting people on those lists or removing them. Our comparisons would not be equal; apples would be matched against non-apples.
What would be nice, from an analyst’s point of view, anyway, is for the US census to ask about people’s religion. This would allow us to count almost everyone and help us see how different denominations have risen and fallen over time. But the census was Prohibited from asking about religion by US law since the 1970s and I didn’t really ask about it before, anyway.
Instead, we will have to work with smaller surveys that attempt to model the full range of American adults. What are our options here?
Survey No. 1 • The gold standard for this type of research is called the General Social Survey, which has polled Americans once every two years since 1972. The folks at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago do a ton of work to make sure their respondents are proportionally representative of the country as a whole, and then go out and interview these selected Americans in person. They spend about 90 minutes with each of them, asking hundreds of questions about their life, their habits, their points of view.
Here’s the thing: it’s all really expensive. As a result, the General Social Survey only interviews about 3,000 people per year, which means researchers only speak to a few dozen Latter-day Saints per year.
Therefore, you see fluctuations in the estimated Latter-day Saint population depending on the luck of the draw. The 1.2% drop in respondents calling themselves Latter-day Saints in 2018 from the 0.9% saying they are in 2021 is not statistically significant. The difference is about nine people.
Survey No. 2 • Next on the list is the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas survey. These researchers have operated every year since 2013, and they use the same National Opinion Research Center methodology when selecting respondents, so they are likely to be representative. However, they too only survey about 3,000 people a year, online and by phone. More frequency is good, but otherwise the arrangement isn’t too different.
Their results show stable levels of respondents reporting the LDS Church as their religion from 2013 to 2018, then declining thereafter.
Survey No. 3 • A much larger study is the Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study, which surveyed 35,000 Americans in 50 states by telephone. Unfortunately, the center has only done this twice: once in 2007, and again in 2014. Latter-day Saints surveyed fell from 1.7% to 1.6% between those two years, but most of the other Christian religions recorded larger declines.
Fortunately, there is a large survey that has both a high sample size and an annual frequency.
The most important and useful survey?
We arrive at Survey No. 4: the Cooperative Electoral Study. Designed by Harvard government professor Stephen Ansolabehere, it has polled between 20,000 and 60,000 people a year since 2006 with an online-only survey that takes about 20 minutes to complete. This means that we have a sample size around 10 to 20 times larger each year than other surveys, which is a real plus.
Researchers select their online participants from people who have signed up to receive surveys on the website YouGov, then weigh those answers based on a formula that takes into account age, gender, race, ethnicity, and level of education. Their goal was to make the audience for their survey match the audience for the census distribution of these numbers.
What did they find? Well, to be honest, a significant drop in the number of people surveyed over the past 10 years who call themselves Latter-day Saints. Much like church membership rolls, 2021 has been a particularly troubling year.
Again, you see declines in other Christian religions over the same period, especially among Protestants. In this poll, however, the number of respondents who call themselves Latter-day Saints is dropping faster than any other religion.
Because the CES polls so many people, there are actually a statistically significant number of Latter-day Saints who respond to their polls. This means that, if we are careful, we can look at the church subsample and compare it to people who reported belonging to other religions. One of these questions: what importance do they give to their religion?
Protestants saw an increase in the number of people who said their religion was very important to them from 2010 to 2020. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, saw a decrease in the number of people who considered religion very important to them. important. Columnist Jana Riess pointed out that the decline is occurring across all age groups: Fewer Latter-day Saints over 40 and under 40 say religion is important to them.
What about church attendance? Here we will compare 2010 to 2019 to try to avoid the effects of the pandemic.
Latter-day Saints clearly attend their worship services in a more “religious” way than people of other faiths. But their self-reported attendance has also fallen over the past decade, while more Protestants and Catholics said their church attendance had increased.
Now, I at least understand the hesitation in the face of these results. These are statistical estimates of the population as a whole drawn from a hopefully representative sample. There is no relevant census data. Even though statisticians are fine-tuning their sampling and weighting processes to accommodate the U.S. population, there can be a difference between people who spend time completing surveys (online or offline) and those who don’t. don’t.
But, well, there’s a pretty general agreement here: if the small-sample in-person polls, the small-sample phone polls, and the large-sample online polls all show movement in the same direction, I’m going to be pretty confident in these results. If there are underlying numbers that support a decline – less church attendance, less religious significance – then we have an even fuller picture. And, given that the official LDS Church lists show the same thing, albeit on a different scale, the pattern is simply clear.
What have we learned?
In short, the percentage of Americans who call themselves Latter-day Saints is decreasing. There is no doubt about it. Surveys and official data come to this conclusion.
Also, when you compare the LDS Church to other religions, it doesn’t seem that hot. Yes, other religions, especially Protestants, have seen declines. But the declines have been more pronounced among Latter-day Saints than among other religions. To be sure, those who profess their Latter-day Saint faith still attend church very frequently — more than those of other faiths — but they consider religion less important in their lives than 10 years ago.
So probably the biggest unanswered question is whether this is a short-term event or a decade-long trend.
LDS Church News published an article last week touting growth in 49 of 50 US states since 2011, according to official listings. Data released in April, however, shows declines in 21 US states since 2019, and 34 states are down in percentage terms since 2019.
Before that, the polls above tend to show stability or decline rather than growth over the period 2010 to 2019. Depending on which source you prefer – surveys or official lists – you can reasonably argue both ways. But there is agreement from official and unofficial sources on a drop out since then.
Bednar, in his response to the National Press Club question, noted that church membership has its ups and downs.
“In the United States, the growth is not as fast as in Africa. And my observation is that over the history of the church in different parts of the world there are different growing seasons,” he said. “In the beginning, in the 1830s, 1840s, mass migration of Saints from Europe to the United States, we don’t have as many converts in Europe today as we did then. So there is an ebb and flow and seasons in growth all over the world.
This assumption may well be true. But right now we’re in a Latter-day Saint ebb in America.
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