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SALT LAKE CITY — A new survey found that 60 percent of Utahns identify as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a research economist says that number has stayed pretty consistent since 2005.
Earlier this month, Gallup released the results of a 2013 survey about nationwide religious beliefs. While 51 percent of Americans self-identify as Protestant or other non-Catholic Christian, 60 percent of Utahns identified as LDS, making Utah the “least Protestant” state in the nation.
Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah who specializes in Utah demographics and regional economics, said the number is in line with past data. In 2004, data released by the LDS Church and provided by Perlich indicated 62.4 percent of Utah’s population was LDS.
The newest data set may not actually show a dip in membership, however, since the survey used self reporting rather than membership records. Perlich said an outsider asking a Utahn the Gallup question, “What is your religious preference?” may get a different answer than an insider who understands the complexity of the religious culture who puts forward the question, and another number may come out of membership records.
1990: 70.4 percent 1994: 69.5 percent 2004: 62.4 percent 2008: 60.7 percent 2007: 60.4 percent 2013: 60 percent
“People may or may not be actively going to church, but still they would be very connected to the Mormon culture region through their neighborhoods or through their families,” Perlich said. “We know that Mormonism is an ethnicity. The Harvard encyclopedia of American ethnic groups identifies Mormonism as one of dozens and dozens of American ethnicities. It’s not just a religious affiliation in Utah. It’s also a definition of cultural roots and religious affiliation.”
Some counties — particularly Box Elder, Garfield, Juab, Morgan, Sanpete, Sevier and Utah counties, according to Perlich — have maintained an overwhelmingly LDS population and the LDS Church has grown inside and outside of Utah. However, the overall LDS population percentage in Utah has shrunk over the years.
According to the LDS Church’s numbers, 70.4 percent of Utah’s population was LDS in 1990. In 1994, that number went down to 69.5 percent. Perlich noted that the influx of people moving to Utah during the economic boon before the 2007 recession increased the state’s population but decreased the LDS population to 62.4 percent in 2004.
Perlich sees the change as a reflection of a positive view globally of Utah as both an economic and social power.
“Utah’s just become much, much more a global place; much more connected to the outside world,” Perlich said. “People see Utah as a place of opportunity, a place that they want to establish their lives and build their lives.”
She credits the 2002 Olympics and LDS missionaries with helping break down long-held stereotypes of Utah that, in part, kept some away for so long.
“In many ways that’s a sales force that’s sent out into the world. And so many of those young people, now more young women, are just wonderful ambassadors from Utah,” Perlich said. “Regardless of whether or not the individuals they connect with become members of the church, they’ve still created this really positive impression of Utah to the outside world. There’s been much more outreach, much more connection, and I think it’s an indicator of people from the outside world looking at Utah and seeing Utah as a vibrant place of possibilities and opportunities.”
While Perlich is hesitant to say what Utah will be like in the future, and what share of the population will be LDS, she said she is sure it will be different from the Utah of the past, while maintaining its strong LDS culture. Utah’s success, she said, has been built on the foundation of many LDS institutions and ideals.
“We are the epicenter or heart of the Mormon culture region. That’s going to stay the case,” Perlich said. “But we’re trending more toward the nation in so many ways as more people move here from the outside world.”