Andy Larsen: Short-term blip or longer trend? Surveys shed light on the LDS Church membership stagnation.

Is the Utah-based faith really outperforming other religions in the U.S.?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Tabernacle Choir performs a hymn during General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 3, 2022. Surveys show the number of Americans who say they're Latter-day Saints is declining.

One of my recent articles caused quite a stir.

You see, a few weeks ago, I wrote about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ official membership numbers, which had been freshly released. What they showed was a faith that grew in numbers during the past two years in the United States — but one that grew at a slower pace than before and, notably, at a slower pace than overall U.S. population growth.

Unexpectedly to me, it turns out that it was brought to the attention of the highest levels of church management. Apostle David A. Bednar was asked about it at a luncheon held at the National Press Club in Washington. (Props, by the way, to Bednar for speaking there. It was the first time a Latter-day Saint leader had addressed the group in 22 years, since then-President Gordon B. Hinckley did so in 2000.)

When Bednar was asked about the article, he cited mostly a lack of familiarity with the statistics. But he did bring up a good point: “If you take a look at the church in the aggregate, it is growing, which in the climate that we find today is rather newsworthy in and of itself.”

The “climate” Bednar references is the religious landscape in which the U.S., and much of the Western world, finds itself: Nearly 30% of Americans now consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, almost double the percentage from 15 years ago.

Other churches — and religion in general — are struggling, there’s no doubt about it. Is Utah’s predominant faith outperforming or underperforming those?

Answering this question turns out to be a bit difficult, but we can look at data from a number of sources to get the best picture. (If you want to skip the data-gathering weeds and just jump down to the graphs and the conclusions nearer the bottom of this article, you certainly can.)

The religion data ecosystem

In my previous article, we used official LDS Church membership stats in analyzing the growth state by state. But most churches don’t release similar numbers of who is on their rolls. If they do, they follow different rules than the LDS Church does in putting people on those rolls, or removing them. Our comparisons wouldn’t be equal; apples would be up against non-apples.

What would be neat — from an analyst’s point of view, anyway — is if the U.S. census asked about people’s religion. That would allow us to have nearly everybody counted and help us see how different denominations have grown and shrunk overtime. But the census has been prohibited from asking about religion by U.S. law since the 1970s and didn’t really ask much about it before then, anyway.

We’ll have to work instead with smaller surveys that try to model the full spectrum of American adults. What are our options here?

Survey No. 1 • The gold standard of this kind of research is called the General Social Survey, which has polled Americans once every couple of years since 1972. The folks at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago do a ton of work to ensure that their respondents are proportionally representative of the country as a whole, then go out and interview those selected Americans in person. They spend about 90 minutes with each of them, asking hundreds of questions about their lives, their habits, their views.

Here’s the problem: All that is really expensive. As a result, the General Social Survey interviews only about 3,000 people a year — which means that researchers are talking to only a few dozen Latter-day Saints a year.

As a result, you see swings in estimated Latter-day Saint population depending on luck of the draw. The fall from 1.2% of respondents saying they’re Latter-day Saints in 2018 vs. the 0.9% saying they are in 2021 isn’t statistically significant. The difference is about nine people.

Survey No. 2 • Next up on the list is the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas survey. These researchers operated every year since 2013, and they use the same National Opinion Research Center’s methodology when selecting respondents, so they’re likely to be representative. However, they too interview only about 3,000 people a year, online and through telephone interviews. More frequency is good, but otherwise the arrangement isn’t too different.

Their results show steady levels of respondents reporting the LDS Church as their religion from 2013 to 2018, and then a drop after that.

Survey No. 3 • A much bigger study is the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, which interviewed 35,000 Americans across 50 states via telephone. Unfortunately, the center has done so only twice: Once in 2007, and again in 2014. Latter-day Saint respondents fell from 1.7% to 1.6% between those two years, but most other Christian religions saw bigger drops.

Pew Research Center (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/)

Luckily, there is one big survey that has both a high sample size and an annual frequency.

The biggest, most useful survey?

We come to Survey No. 4: the Cooperative Election Study. Designed by Stephen Ansolabehere, a government professor at Harvard, it has interviewed between 20,000 and 60,000 people annually since 2006 with an online-only survey that takes about 20 minutes to fill out. That means we have a sample size that’s about 10 to 20 times bigger every year than the other surveys — a real asset.

Researchers select their online participants from people who have signed up to receive surveys on the website YouGov, and then weigh those responses based on a formula that takes into account age, gender, race, ethnicity and education level. Their goal was to make their survey audience match that of the census’ distribution of those figures.

What did they find? Well, to be honest, a significant slump in the number of respondents in the past 10 years who say they are Latter-day Saints. Just like with the church membership rolls, 2021 was a particularly troubling year.

Again, you see declines in other Christian religions over that same period, especially among Protestants. In this poll, however, the number of respondents who say they’re Latter-day Saints falls more quickly than any other religion.

Because the CES interviews so many people, there’s actually a statistically significant number of Latter-day Saints who answer their polls. That means that, if we’re careful, we can look at the church subsample, and compare it to people who said they were of other religions. One such question: How important do they consider their religion to be?

Protestants saw an increase in people who said their religion was very important to them from 2010 to 2020. Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, saw a decrease in people who considered religion very important. Columnist Jana Riess pointed out that the decline is happening across age groups: Fewer Latter-day Saints over 40 and under 40 are saying religion is important to them.

How about church attendance? Here, we’ll compare 2010 to 2019 to try to avoid pandemic effects.

Latter-day Saints clearly attend their worship services more “religiously” than people of other religions. But their self-reported attendance also slipped in the past decade, whereas more Protestants and Catholics said that their church attendance increased.

Now, I understand at least hesitancy about these results. These are statistical estimates of the population as a whole taken from a hopefully representative sample. There is no relevant census data. As much as statisticians perfect their sampling and weighting processes to fit the American populace, there may just be a difference between the people who spend time filling out surveys (online or offline) and those who don’t.

But, well, there’s pretty widespread agreement here: If the small-sample in-person surveys, the small-sample telephone surveys, and the big-sample online surveys all show movement in the same direction, I’m going to be fairly confident in those results. If there are underlying numbers that back up a decline — lesser church attendance, lesser religious importance — then we have an even more complete picture. And, given the LDS Church’s official rolls show the same thing, albeit on a different scale, the trend simply is clear.

What have we learned?

In short, the percentage of Americans who say they are Latter-day Saints is shrinking. There’s no doubt about it. Surveys and the official data come to that conclusion.

Furthermore, when you compare the LDS Church to other religions, it doesn’t come out looking so hot. Yes, other religions, especially Protestants, have seen declines. But the declines have been steeper among Latter-day Saints than in other religions. To be sure, those who profess their Latter-day Saint religion still go to church very frequently — more than those of other religions — but they consider religion less important to their lives than they did 10 years ago.

Probably the biggest unanswered question, then, is whether this is a short-term blip or a decadelong trend.

The LDS Church News published an article last week touting growth in 49 of the 50 U.S. states since 2011, per the official rolls. The data released in April, though, shows declines in 21 U.S. states since 2019, and 34 states declined on a percentage basis since 2019.

Before then, the polls above tend to show stability or decline rather than growth during the 2010 to 2019 period. Depending on which source you prefer — the surveys or official rolls — you could reasonably argue it either way. But there’s agreement from both official and unofficial sources on a drop-off since then.

Bednar, in his response to the National Press Club question, noted that church membership has its ups and downs.

“In the United States, the growth is not nearly as rapid as it is in Africa. And my observation is that over the history of the church in different parts of the world, there are different seasons of growth,” he said. “In the early days, in the 1830s, 1840s, mass migration of Saints coming from Europe to the United States, we don’t have as many converts in Europe today as we did then. So there’s an ebb and flow and seasons in the growth all over the world.”

That hypothesis may well be true. But right now, we’re in a Latter-day Saint ebb in America.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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