Jana Riess: For U.S. Latter-day Saints, religiosity has declined over time

They remain more religious than the nation as a whole, but they aren’t as devout as they used to be.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conferencegoers leave the Conference Center during the afternoon session of the 191st General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. The conference was livestreamed worldwide but seating was limited at the center due to COVID-19.

In 2008, more than three-quarters of U.S. Latter-day Saints said that religion was “very important” to them, but by 2020 that had declined to just under 62%, according to the national Cooperative Election Study as analyzed by sociologist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University.

This finding, drawn from nearly 7,000 Latter-day Saint respondents over the course of 12 years, is in line with what is happening to other religious groups in the United States. More people are leaving religion, and many of those who stay are characterizing themselves as less religious than they once did. In terms of long-term trends in America, here’s a telling factoid: in 1952, Gallup found that 72% of Americans ranked religion as “very important” in their lives, and by 2018 that had dropped to 51%.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it would seem, are still more deeply religious than the nation as a whole, but not quite as devout as they used to be. And that’s not even factoring in the possible effect of COVID-19 on religiosity, which future studies can track.

There are some silver linings in the data. For example, while the percentage of Latter-day Saints who rank religion as “very important” in their lives shows a clear decline, if you add together the percentage who said it was “somewhat important” with those who called it “very important,” that hasn’t changed much. In 2008, 93.4% of U.S. Latter-day Saints said their religion was either very or somewhat important to them. In 2020, that same combination yielded 88.5%.

So basically, roughly 9 out of 10 Latter-day Saints in the United States still say religion is important to at least some degree.

There were other interesting findings. I asked Burge to investigate whether the data showed generational difference, with the theory that these declines might be outsized among young adults, with older Latter-day Saints holding steady.

However, that did not seem to be the case. There was not a big gap between the under-40 group and the over 40s. In fact, only a few points separated them. This means that it is not a simple story of young people driving the drop in enthusiasm for religion. Instead, the decline seems to be spread across all age groups.

Those are findings about people who say they are members of the Utah-based church. How many members are there? The CES and other national studies can shed some light on that question.

And it’s good that we have this data, because the church itself appears to have stopped providing it.  Normally, the church releases its global membership number during the April General Conference and then follows up with country-by-country information less than a week later. This year it did the first (global numbers), but not the second, for the first time in my memory. The worldwide number showed a slight increase in membership around the globe, but it did not provide the country-by-country statistics that are so important for researchers. I requested that information in April and was told the numbers would be forthcoming, but they have not appeared after seven months.

My worry is that they never will, because the church does not have a history of dealing with membership declines. In fact, back in the 1980s and ‘90s, when some other churches were beginning to show declines, Latter-day Saints routinely congratulated ourselves on being the Lord’s true church as evidenced by the fact that we continued to grow. When the numbers become flat or even fall into negative territory, what does that do to a triumphalist theology that has been predicated upon having success after success?

In any case, the church’s official membership data is always going to be higher than the number of people who claim a Latter-day Saint religious identity on a national survey. In the church, members stay on the membership rolls until age 110 unless their death is recorded, are excommunicated or have gone through the formal process of requesting that their records be removed. Most people who stop attending do not pursue that formal channel, meaning that there are many more people who are officially members than would identify themselves that way on a survey.

Even understanding that inflation, the church’s official rolls have still been an excellent way to chart trends over time. For example, here are the membership statistics for the United States for the past several years:

2011 • 6,144,582

2012 • 6,321,416, +2.9%

2013 • 6,398,889, +1.2%

2014 • 6,466,267, +1.1%

2015 • 6,531,656, +1%

2016 • 6,592,195, +0.9%

2017 • 6,641,886, +0.8%

2018 • 6,681,829, +0.6%

2019 • 6,721,032, +0.6%

What we see is that even before the disruptions of the pandemic, the church’s rate of annual growth in the U.S. had been gradually slowing. An educated guess would be that with the suspension of missionary work and the many disruptions COVID brought in 2020, the U.S. church entered negative growth for the first time since 1857.

The CES confirms the general trend of more people leaving the fold, as a smaller share of the population claims a Latter-day Saint identity now than in the past.

For the past three years, about 1.3% of Americans have said they were Latter-day Saints. This is a decline from the earlier years of the study; for instance, from 2008 to 2010, 1.8% or 1.9% of the population identified this way. As political scientist David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame has analyzed the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, the trend line for Latter-day Saints shows some decline compared to two other minority religions over the same period. Jews have held steady and even increased their share of the population slightly, and Muslims have roughly doubled their share, from just below half of a percent to just below 1% of Americans.

On the face of it, moving from roughly 1.8% of the population to roughly 1.3% doesn’t sound like a huge decline. But when you think about the context, it’s a decline of 27% in just over a decade. That’s not great news, even if it is entirely predictable based on what’s happening with other Christian religions these days.