Jana Riess: Latter-day Saints still heavily committed to GOP despite Trump effect, study shows

(Evan Vucci | AP file photo) President Donald Trump points to his shopping cart during a tour of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Welfare Square food distribution center, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in Salt Lake City.

Nearly three-quarters of American Latter-day Saints affiliate with or lean toward the Republican Party, according to a Pew Research Center report that aggregates data collected from 88 political surveys over the past decade.

In one sense that’s not terribly surprising, given that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have since the 1950s displayed a strong affinity for the GOP.

“Mormons are a pretty strongly Republican group,” says Gregory Smith, associate director for research at Pew Research Center. Over the course of the decade, Latter-day Saints’ GOP affiliation has remained within the same 10-point range, with a high of 77% in 2011 to a low of 67% in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president.

The “Trump effect” is a real thing: Trump is markedly less popular with the faithful in Utah than previous GOP presidents. For example, 77% of Latter-day Saints approved of George W. Bush’s presidency from 2001 to 2003, compared to just 52% who approved of Trump in a Pew study released earlier this year. That 25-point drop was a significant indication of how many Latter-day Saints dislike the president, with approval being lowest among women (42%) and members under age 50 (46%).

What the aggregated study seems to demonstrate, though, is that Latter-day Saints don’t appear to be applying their coolness about Trump to the party as a whole. Although LDS support for the GOP dipped slightly during the 2016 election, it has stabilized.

Two other items stood out from the decade of Pew research.

First, people who self-identify as Mormons continue to attend church at a high rate compared to others in the U.S. population. In 2009, 87% of Latter-day Saints said they attended church at least monthly, with only 12% reporting that they attended a few times a year, seldom or never.

While the percentage in the “few times a year or less often” category has increased by 6 points and the percentage in the “monthly or more often” category has decreased by 5, Latter-day Saint attendance is quite high when compared to the sharp declines in religious attendance in America as a whole. Among all respondents, 45% reported monthly attendance in 2018, and 61% of those who identified as Christian. Mormons, then, are frequent religious attenders even when compared to other Christians.

“If I was to describe that trend line, it reminds me of the trend line for Christians as a whole, with fairly stable rates of attendance,” says Pew’s Gregory Smith. “Attendance is higher among Mormons than among other Christians, but fairly stable over time.”

Second, the overall share of self-identified Mormons in the U.S. population continues to be 2%, which has been stable over the decade.

However, there are signs that this may be declining. Pew has not broken out each year’s data to the decimal point, which means that a 2% share could represent anything from 1.5% to 2.4%; a 1% figure could represent a range from 0.5% to 1.4%. Among members of two subgroups — men and millennials — the most recent data shows the Mormon share to be 1%.

Mormons are hardly alone in this. Christian affiliation declined among millennials from 2009 to 2018. Protestants lost 6 points among millennials (39% to 33%), while Catholics lost 9 (23% to 14%).

What is growing — and quickly — are the ranks of the unaffiliated, often called the “nones,” who went from 27% of the millennial population in 2009 to 40% last year.

Smith says generational replacement is key to understanding what is happening more generally with religion in America.

“You see older cohorts, the silent generation and the baby boomers, who on average are quite religious,” he said. “Most of them describe themselves as Christians, and they tend to be pretty religiously observant.”

Not so our youths. As the boomers and their predecessors get older, Smith said, “they are getting replaced by a new generation of young adults who are simply far less religious. The share of millennials who have no religion is four times higher than the people in the silent generation who have no religion.”

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.