Utah less Mormon than ever
Not since the pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley 160 years ago has Utah's population been less Mormon than it is now.
The percentage of Utahns who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declined every year for at least the last 18 years, according to membership numbers the LDS Church provides the state for demographic purposes.
Utah's Mormon population fell to 60.7 percent this year, according to estimates released Thursday, a mark lower than any publicly available record shows. The previous low was 61.3 percent in 1910 at the height of a mining boom that attracted non-Mormon workers in droves.
If the trend holds, Mormons will make up less than half of Utah's population by 2030.
This steady demographic shift will undoubtedly have major impacts on the psyche of Utah Mormons, the makeup of neighborhoods, the state's political landscape and possibly even missionary efforts internationally.
Academics and prominent Mormons may have different ideas on what those impacts will be, but they do agree that the LDS Church can't stop its home state from becoming less and less Mormon.
"It will always be a dominant center for that religion," said Pam Perlich, a demographer at the University of Utah. "That is not going to change, but a slow, steady decline of the Mormon share will continue as long as the state grows."
And Utah is really growing. More people moved into Utah this year than ever before. The state is experiencing record job growth and record births. Some of those people are Mormon, but not most.
A new Utahn - either a person born in the state or someone who moves here - is almost twice as likely to be non-Mormon as Mormon, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis.
In 1989, the earliest the state kept the membership records, 500,000 Utahns were not Mormon. That number has now surpassed 1 million.
LDS Church officials declined to comment on this trend.
Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, points out that: "Dominance is not the same as majority."
"The Saints will likely surrender majority status in the state within a couple of decades," he said. "But its members are apt to remain the dominant social/political force, albeit in diluted fashion, for the foreseeable future."
That force will be stronger in some areas than in others. Fewer Mormons live in Salt Lake County this year than last year, even as the population grew by more than 20,000 people. While Utah and Davis counties showed strong LDS growth. This "clustering" will have political consequences as the Mormon majority continues to shrink, causing Utah to become less conservative, said Kelly Patterson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.
He expects that political change to lag behind the population shift because of the organization dominance of the Republican Party. Three decades of GOP rule has reduced the skill and resources of the Democratic Party, which will have to fight to catch up even as it identifies more supporters, particularly in Salt Lake County.
Also, Patterson says, Mormons vote at higher rates than non-Mormons, which will give them a larger influence than even their numbers suggest.
BYU exit polls show that 68.8 percent of voters in 2006 were Mormon, a decline from 75.5 percent 20 years ago, but still above their numbers in the community.
Patterson expects the slow rise of the Democratic Party and the growing non-Mormon population in Salt Lake County compared with its urban neighbors to result in more political clashes, which he sees as a healthy thing.
"A competitive two-party system seems to serve democracy better in the long run," he said.
But those clashes may not be so favorable to the LDS Church, said Stuart Reid, a Mormon bishop in Ogden who previously ran for Salt Lake City mayor and for the state Senate.
He foresees "more debate, more confrontation and more controversy," which will reach people all over the world through the Internet.
"For the church, it makes it more challenging in trying to establish an example of the gospel principles as they are lived out," Reid said.
And whether the church likes it or not, people living outside of Utah link Salt Lake City with Mormons.
Reid, who once lobbied on behalf of the LDS Church on state and federal issues, said more political discussion about gay rights or alcohol laws could make potential converts elsewhere wonder why the LDS Church can't persuade the people living around its headquarters to follow its principles.
Barlow said the declining percentages will have a "symbolically, psychologically powerful" impact on Mormons. They have been taught "about the Kingdom of God expanding and rolling forth into all the earth," which implies a growing proportion of the population, not a shrinking one.
But church officials could turn this trend into an advantage as well. For years, church authorities - including President Gordon B. Hinckley - have talked about the LDS Church as a global faith. Decreasing the link between Utah and the faith could help that, Barlow suggests.
Even though the LDS majority in Utah is shrinking, the numbers may still overestimate the reality.
Barlow estimates that of the 1.6 million Mormons in Utah, roughly half of them have little if any contact with the church. That doesn't surprise Reid, who says Utah is full of "the very best Mormons and the very weakest Mormons."
As the population continues to change, Utah Mormons will see their neighborhoods become more religiously diverse, children will have more non-Mormon friends and consequently more of them will have their faith tested than ever before.
This will force them one of two ways, Reid said: "You are either going to become more committed or drop out."
* LDS Web site: 1,789,707
* LDS data given to state: 1,637,160
* In-transit Mormons: 152,547
Why do the numbers provided to the state differ from the population figures on the LDS Church's Web site? Church officials attribute the difference to "in-transit Mormons." These are people who move but do not go to church in their new neighborhood. The LDS Church still counts these people as members in the state until they are located or until they would have reached the age of 110.
Some in-transit Mormons are college students or members of the military. Many are less active in the faith. Some are obviously dead.
Church leaders say they have a scriptural requirement to maintain membership records, even for people who no longer consider themselves Mormon.