With major implications on everything from the classroom to the church pews, from the Capitol to the dinner table, an unrelenting demographic shift has hit a major milestone: Fewer than half the people living in Salt Lake County are on the rolls of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The membership numbers come from the church itself, initially handed over to state officials to assist in making population estimates. The Utah-based faith provided the same numbers to The Salt Lake Tribune.
They show Salt Lake County’s population is now 48.91 percent Latter-day Saint, the lowest since at least the 1930s, according to the available records. There are 558,607 people on the church membership rolls in the state’s largest county, which has an estimated population of 1,142,077.
In Utah overall, the percentage of Latter-day Saints is 61.55 percent, a figure that has also inched down as the state’s hot job market has attracted new residents who are less likely to be members of the predominant faith than the state’s homegrown population.
This shift, decades in the making, has tangible impacts, such as Salt Lake County becoming more politically liberal. It also changes the dynamic in many neighborhoods and schools.
“When I grew up in Davis County, almost all of my classmates were members. My kids have only a few Latter-day Saint classmates in their school,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who is a member of the faith and lives in Sugar House. “I hope they learn respect for the uniqueness of others and learn a little bit about themselves in the process. I don’t think that one experience is better or worse than the other, but it is a perspective that will shape who they are as adults.”
McAdams, who was elected to the U.S. House in November, added: “I know that sometimes it can be hard to live in a predominantly Latter-day Saint community if you don’t belong to the faith. I hope we all can learn to be more inclusive of others and break down some of the barriers that separate us.”
At the same time, for those Latter-day Saints who find themselves the minority in the community, McAdams said it can have a psychological impact, as it did for him when he lived in New York City.
“It made me more sensitive to the different perspectives of others, and my faith became something more personal to me.”
Salt Lake County is now the fifth minority-LDS county in the state, joining Carbon (47.53 percent), San Juan (36.08 percent), Summit (28.69 percent) and Grand (25.27 percent). The next closest to the 50 percent threshold is Weber at 52.72 percent, a decline from 2017, when it was at 53.5 percent.
The most LDS counties are Rich (83.86 percent), Morgan (83.18 percent) and Utah, the state’s second most populous county, at 82.18 percent.
These numbers provided by the church include everyone listed on the membership rolls, including those who no longer participate in the faith.
Independent Latter-day Saint demographer Matt Martinich has estimated that about 40 percent of Latter-day Saints in the United States are “active,” and he guesses that roughly half of Salt Lake County’s members go to church, or roughly 24 percent of the county’s population.
Martinich has been tracking congregations worldwide and believes the data seen in Utah match what he’s seen elsewhere.
He has said Salt Lake County “has become increasingly more cosmopolitan, housing has become more expensive, and the church has overall really struggled in urban areas.”
For members deciding where to put down roots, Salt Lake County “is just culturally less attractive, economically less attractive, socially less attractive,” said Martinich, who lives in Colorado.
That depends, of course, on the Latter-day Saint.
Paul Augenstein, his wife and two sons moved to American Fork in the mid-1990s. They stayed for a year.
“It was just too homogenous for me,” said Augenstein, who grew up in Sandy.
The family moved to Riverton. They had another son and then adopted three children. Through the years, Augenstein has watched as the percentage of his neighbors who are fellow Latter-day Saints has declined. He says it is now 70 percent to 30 percent, maybe closer to 60-40.
“It has increased the diversity and the camaraderie and the ability of us to come together as a neighborhood, not a ward [LDS congregation],” said Augenstein, who was previously the bishop in his area. “It allows people to come out of their comfort zones, to come out of the bubble, so to speak.”
Derek Miller grew up in Provo, home to church-owned Brigham Young University and where he knew only one kid who wasn’t a member of his Latter-day Saint faith. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where religion was never the dominant issue. When he returned to Utah, he and his wife made the choice to relocate to Salt Lake City, moving into the east side’s Harvard-Yale neighborhood.
“It was a very strange experience,” he said. “It seemed like everything devolved into pro-church or anti-church, and I had never experienced that before.”
That was 13 years ago, before he was named a bishop, before he became the governor’s chief of staff and then the president of the Salt Lake Chamber. He’s seen the neighborhood become more diverse. He’s seen two wards combine into one. And he’s seen the tension dissipate some.
“With that increased diversity,” he said, “comes this feeling that it doesn’t have to divide us.”
Miller’s three children have grown up in an area where about half their friends are members and half are not. Religious affiliation isn’t the driving factor when they meet people, and they don’t reflexively view issues through a “pro-church or anti-church” lens.
“That is what I hope for them and that is what I hope for our community.”
Salt Lake County has not only become less LDS over time, it also has added more people from various racial or ethnic backgrounds, noted Pam Perlich, the director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute, which puts out the state’s population estimates.
“The place is just becoming much more diverse,” she said. “It is not just that data set that is indicating it, there are many data sets showing that.”
As an example, the Utah State Board of Education reported that more than half the new students are minorities and the Salt Lake City School District is majority-minority.
Perlich called Salt Lake County the state’s “economic heart,” which attracts people, and that leads to ethnic enclaves seen in west Salt Lake City, Kearns and West Valley City. Some of those newcomers are Latter-day Saints, but many are not.
Researchers like Perlich consider Latter-day Saints as not only members of a faith, but also an ethnic group. And, like Utah’s Latino or Asian populations, it goes to reason that there would remain LDS ethnic enclaves.
As she said, “People like to live around people who are like them.”
In Salt Lake County, those LDS enclaves tend to be in the southwestern portions of the county — places such as South Jordan, West Jordan and Herriman — though the stronger enclaves are in cities like American Fork, Alpine and Provo.
Salt Lake County actually saw a decrease in not just the percentage of Latter-day Saints, but also in the raw number of members. The county added 13,800 residents at the same time it saw its LDS population drop by 4,700 people. That’s most likely a combination of Latter-day Saints moving out of the county or people who were once on the membership rolls requesting that their names be removed. And, in the state, the church added 9,067 members. In the past 10 years, the previous low was 23,500.
Because of the declining Latter-day Saint populations in parts of Salt Lake City, Murray and West Valley City, Martinich, the demographer, said: “We’ll probably see five to 10 stakes discontinued in the old areas of Salt Lake County in the next five years or so.”
Church officials declined to comment for this story, though in 2017, spokesman Eric Hawkins said: “Many people with families (including church members) have moved to areas where the cost of living may be more affordable or to be closer to new employment centers or schools. Obviously, this impacts the number of church members in both areas. So you’ll see a decrease in [Latter-day Saint congregations] in one area and an increase in another.”
That has taken place in Salt Lake County, where wards have been combined and some meetinghouses moved or even bulldozed as the population shifts away from Salt Lake City and surrounding communities to the north or south.
A Buddhist temple in Salt Lake City is in an old LDS meetinghouse; so is the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Kearns, which has a mostly Vietnamese congregation. In Salt Lake City’s Highland Park neighborhood, an LDS chapel was bulldozed and turned into a community park.
At the same time, South Jordan now has two Latter-day Saint temples and Utah County has four, with plans for a fifth. This year, church leaders announced another in southwestern Utah’s Washington County, where the LDS population is at 61.30 percent.
Latter-day Saints are one of the most consistent Republican voting blocs in the country, and that is true in Utah as well. There’s a correlation between the more politically moderate or even liberal parts of the state and those with smaller percentages of Latter-day Saint residents.
Morgan Lyon Cotti, a political scientist at the University of Utah, said the 2018 midterm elections show the clout an increasingly blue-tinged Salt Lake County can have, pointing to the ballot initiatives on issues like medical marijuana, which was opposed by the church, and an independent redistricting commission, as well as Democrat McAdams’ close victory in the 4th Congressional District.
If the religious diversification continues to lead to a more liberal voting population, “that could have an impact on the state moving forward,” she said.
Even with McAdams joining the state’s previously all-Republican delegation, all of Utah’s federal representatives are Latter-day Saints, as are all of the statewide elected officials and the vast majority of the Legislature. Even though Salt Lake County makes up a third of the state’s population, it will have no member in the Legislature’s Republican leadership come January. All of the Democratic members of the Legislature live in Salt Lake County, except for one, Rep.-elect LaWanna Shurtliff, who hails from Ogden.
It leads to “the push and pull between Salt Lake County and the rest of the Legislature,” Lyon Cotti said.
The divide is particularly stark between Salt Lake County and its southern neighbor, conservative Utah County, but economic opportunities may change that, according to Miller, the Chamber president.
He expects the growth of tech companies along the Point of the Mountain separating the two counties to spur even more religious diversification. That would reduce the cultural divide if these new employees and executives choose to live in these still predominantly Latter-day Saint neighborhoods in Utah County, rather than commuting from Salt Lake County or Park City, though that doesn’t appear to be happening in large numbers just yet.
Either way, Utah won’t stop changing, not while the economy remains robust. The persistent swing toward a less-LDS Utah is expected to continue with every new group of children starting kindergarten and with every new business advertising for open positions.