Commentary: 10 ways Utah Latter-day Saints are different than other U.S. Latter-day Saints

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 6, 2018. New survey results reveal differences between Latter-day Saints in Utah and members elsewhere in the United States.

When I lived in New Jersey years ago, Utah Latter-day Saints would sometimes move in and out of our ward, having come East for their educations.

It was a bit of a shock for some of them. A few commented on how, well, lax the New Jersey members seemed in our observance of things like the Sabbath and the Word of Wisdom.

Other transplants felt invigorated by being a tiny fraction of the population rather than part of a herd. I remember one sister commenting that she’d never had to stand firm in her own testimony until she moved away from Utah and was surrounded for the first time by people who did not believe as she did.

With this in mind, I wanted to mine the Next Mormons Survey data in a way I don’t get into much in the forthcoming book, which focuses primarily on generational difference.

I wanted to know: Are Utah Latter-day Saints really different from Latter-day Saints elsewhere in the U.S.?

(Photo courtesy of Jana Riess) Jana Riess, Latter-day Saint writer, researcher and editor.

There are some previous statistics about this, but they tell conflicting stories. In the late 1960s, sociologist Armand Mauss conducted a study comparing Mormons in Salt Lake City and San Francisco. The Salt Lake City Mormons were more orthodox than the California ones by a factor of a third or more. In a more recent study, though, David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson found few differences between Utah and non-Utah Mormons, except that the Utah ones had more friends who were Mormon (which is no surprise).

The 2016 Next Mormons Survey results were more like Mauss’ from the 1960s, as you can see below. Keep in mind that the margin of error is higher for the study’s 327 Utah Latter-day Saints than the 829 respondents who live elsewhere in the U.S. because it’s a smaller group. (For a fuller account of the study’s methodology, see here.) With the exception of No. 10, all of the data below are from people who identify themselves as current Mormons.

According to the NMS, Utah Mormons are:

  • More religiously orthodox. Utah Mormons were more devout on almost every testimony question. These differences were less pronounced on questions of basic Christian belief (God, Jesus, etc.) and more visible on specifically Mormon questions about the Book of Mormon, church founder Joseph Smith, and the role of apostles and prophets today. For example, there’s a 20-point difference between the Utah Mormons who strongly agree that the Book of Mormon is a “literal, historical account” (69 percent) and the non-Utah Mormons who do (49 percent. In many cases on these testimony questions, non-Utah folks would choose the second option of “somewhat” agree rather than “strongly” agree. So it doesn’t mean they don’t believe in Mormon teachings, but they may hold them less tightly than Utah Mormons tend to.

  • More likely to have been born into the church. That tendency to be less orthodox on specifically Mormon questions may have to do with the fact that nearly half of Mormons outside of Utah were not born into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nearly half (47 percent) are converts, versus just 19 percent of Mormons currently living in Utah. So a good portion of Mormons who live outside of Utah did not grow up steeped in Latter-day Saint teachings, as a supermajority of Utah Mormons did.

  • More likely to tie their church membership to their core identity. Some 68 percent of Utah Mormons strongly agreed that “being a Mormon is an essential part of who I am,” while fewer than half (45 percent) of non-Utah Mormons did. This may have to do with the convert status mentioned above, and the significantly greater likelihood that Utah Mormons will have a majority of their friends and family who are also members of the church. Mormonism appears to be more all-or-nothing for people in Utah, where family networks and identity are more deeply intertwined with religion.

  • More likely to have married a Mormon. Four out of five Utah Mormons who are married are married to a fellow Latter-day Saint (83 percent), versus roughly two-thirds of married Mormons outside Utah (64 percent). For non-Utah Mormons, the top religions among non-LDS spouses include “just Christian” (7 percent), Roman Catholic (6 percent), “nothing in particular” (6 percent) evangelical Protestant (5 percent), mainline Protestant (3 percent), and a smattering of other things.

  • More Republican. More than two-thirds (70 percent) of Utah Mormons self-identify as Republican, versus 52 percent of Mormons outside Utah. (However, that doesn’t mean that Utah Mormons are necessarily fans of President Donald Trump, who actually took a backseat to former candidate Evan McMullin among the most religiously devout Utah respondents; see this recap. Also, see the difference among Latter-day Saint millennials.)

  • More white. Nine out of 10 Mormons in Utah report their racial category as white, versus seven out of 10 Mormons elsewhere. Nearly all of the racial diversity in the NMS came from respondents who lived outside the religion’s home state.

  • More committed to traditional gender roles. About two-thirds (68 percent) of Utah Mormons strongly disagreed that they were bothered by the fact that women don’t hold the priesthood, meaning that they do not think there is any problem that only men can be ordained. By contrast, only 29 percent of non-Utah Mormons chose the “strongly disagree” option, and more than half either “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that they are. This is almost a 2-to-1 difference between Utah and non-Utah Mormons.

  • More opposed to same-sex marriage. Six in 10 Utah Mormons strongly agree with the church’s 2015 policy that church members in a same-sex marriage should be considered “apostate” and subject to a disciplinary council. Only 42 percent of non-Utah Mormons “strongly” agreed.

  • More likely to never turn down a church calling. Half of Utah Mormons say it’s never OK to turn down a church calling from the bishop, even if it feels like the wrong fit or they don’t have time for it. Only three in 10 Mormons outside Utah have a similar no-exceptions policy about always saying yes to callings.

  • More likely to “stay gone” from organized religion if they leave the LDS Church. This was an interesting finding among the former Mormon respondents. Most people who leave the LDS Church don’t tend to join another religion; they’re not switching organized religions so much as leaving altogether, a fact we’ve seen before in the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study. But when we break out the numbers by geography an interesting pattern emerges. About three in 10 former Mormons who grew up outside Utah said they had joined another religion since leaving Mormonism, but only 8 percent of those who hailed from Utah had. This relates to point No. 3 above: There’s more of an all-or-nothing quality to Mormonism as it plays out in Utah families.

So it’s mostly true: There is such a thing as a “Utah Mormon,” who is generally more orthodox, traditional and politically conservative than Latter-day Saints in the rest of the country.

Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.