New U.S. Religion Census sheds light on LDS Church membership

Here’s one anomaly: The number of Latter-day Saints in Utah’s Rich County is greater than the county’s overall population. Huh?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A 2019 General Conference session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.

What’s the current status of religion in America? How about in Utah?

That’s the question that the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) tries to answer every 10 years in conducting the U.S. Religion Census. The goal is to get a total picture of the number of adherents and congregations in each church across the United States, broken up by state, county and metropolitan area.

The national story has been summarized as a rise of the “nones and the nons” — those who say they have no religion, and the continued growth of nondenominational churches. But here in Utah, we have a dominant religious group, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it’s interesting to track the status of that faith, plus other denominations in the state.

So let’s dig in to the data. First, we’ll look at how the census was performed (including a big qualm with the data collection), and then we’ll see what it says.

Methodology — and my misgivings about it

There’s nothing better than the U.S. census for data researchers. Rather than relying on polls that are then extrapolated over the whole population, the goal is to get a complete tally of everyone who lives in the U.S. Truthfully, census researchers do a darn good job, all things considered. But there has not been a question about religious affiliation on the census since 1950, due to the government’s stated goal of separating church and state.

The U.S. Religion Census conducted by the ASARB tries to fill that void by counting every church in the U.S., every congregation and every congregant. But the data collection method is different: Rather than going person by person like the U.S. census, researchers interview church by church, asking how many adherents each denomination has in all of the cities and counties and then interview all of the thousands and thousands of nondenominational churches separately.

To be sure, they spend thousands of hours in doing so, and their work is valuable. However ...

We should note that the U.S. Religion Census’ definition of an “adherent” is about as wide as possible. According to the USARB, “adherents” include all those with an affiliation to a congregation (children, members and attendees who are not members).

Relying on self-reported data from the churches themselves means that the U.S. Religion Census winds up with some inflated counts. And from the data, nowhere is this tendency more obvious than from two groups: Baptist churches and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In particular, both of those groups report multiple counties in which they say there are more adherents to their churches than there are residents in the county.

For the LDS Church, Idaho’s Franklin County and Utah’s Rich County are reported to have 16,095 and 2,763 adherents, respectively. Those counties had 14,194 and 2,510 residents, respectively, in 2020. Given the location of both counties, I suspect that this might be a case of double-counting people who attend church for a weekend at Bear Lake. Regardless of the exact reason, some inflation is occurring.

We should note also that this means inflation is occurring on the official Latter-day Saint rolls. The number of U.S. adherents reported by the Utah-based faith in the U.S. Religion Census is 6,721,031, which is the same number the church reported on the official membership figures at the time.

U.S. map of denominations

Still, the data is valuable and interesting enough, if you’re willing to take the figures with grains of salt.

For example, here’s the USARB’s map of denominations in the U.S. Note that “major” here means the predominant faith in that county.

Note: You may have to click on the image to be able to see the map’s legend. (https://www.usreligioncensus.org/sites/default/files/2022-11/2020%20USRC%20Families%20Map%20high%20res.pdf)

With these numbers, you can see that all of Utah, western Nevada and southeastern Idaho are majority Latter-day Saint counties, along with a few counties in Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, even Alaska. Beyond that, you can see the influence of the Baptists in the South, the Lutherans in the north, and Catholics in the Northeast, Southwest and Florida.

How religious is each U.S. county? Here, darker reds mean more religious.

We talk about the Bible Belt impacting politics in the South, but it’s interesting to see just as dark of a red reaching to the top of the Midwest, in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.

Utah religion

OK, but let’s zoom in to what most of y’all really care about: Utah. Which counties have the highest proportion of Latter-day Saints?

Again, note that there could be some sketchy accounting here. I remain skeptical that 110% of Rich County’s residents are Latter-day Saints. Still, on a relative basis, Grand County is Utah’s least Latter-day Saint county. Salt Lake County is in the middle of the pack.

We can also focus on Utah’s metro areas. Which cities have the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints?

Denominations in Salt Lake County

Finally, we’ll do one look in particular at the denominations prevalent in Utah’s largest county: Salt Lake County.

Catholics, Muslims, nondenominationals and Pentecostals round out the top five of most common denominations in Salt Lake County.

This isn’t all of the information we can get from the U.S. Religion Census. For example, it will be cool to see the growth and/or decline in church populations over the decades, comparing where we were in 2020 to where we were in 2010, 2000 and earlier. But we’ll save that for another column. I’ve had my fill of religion data for this week. Blame my big Thanksgiving dinner.

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

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.