- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

Church membership figures reveal slow, steady statewide shift

SALT LAKE CITY — It was 158 years ago that Brigham Young and his band of pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, starting a migration that quickly turned Utah into a Mormon-dominated desert realm.

That domination — at least in terms of raw numbers — appears to be nearing its end.

Within the next three years, the Mormon share of Utah’s population is expected to hit its lowest level since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started keeping membership numbers. And if current trends continue, Mormon residents no longer will constitute a majority by 2030.

These projections are based on normally secret membership counts that the Mormon church voluntarily hands over to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, under what it assumed was a binding confidentiality agreement. The planning office uses the county-by-county numbers to help estimate future population growth.

Through a public-records request, the Salt Lake Tribune obtained the data for 1989 to 2004. State employees think the Mormon church has provided the records since at least the 1960s but could retrieve numbers only for 15 years and found no such confidentiality agreement.

Still, these 15 years are enough to identify a historic transformation in the makeup of Utah’s ever-growing population.

Stated simply: “Utah is essentially becoming more like the nation,” said Robert Spendlove, the planning office’s lead demographer.

The religious shift is likely to alter the civic discourse, but that doesn’t mean Utah’s Mormon-dominated culture or conservative politics will change dramatically anytime soon. Rather, academics say, it will morph over time as non-Mormon births and move-ins continue to whittle away at the percentage of Utahans who are Mormon.

As University of Utah sociologist Theresa Martinez said: “The core LDS population will always be a force here. In your lifetime, I am sure it is not going to change that much. It will probably be more diverse, but the power structures will probably remain the same.”

The often-cited claim that Utah is 70 percent Mormon is not true — and hasn’t been true for more than a decade, according to the church numbers. Although continuing to grow in actual members, the Mormon share of the state population showed a slow but constant decline every year from 1989 to 2004.

According to the 2004 count, Utah is 62.4 percent Mormon, with every county showing a decrease.

Mormon church officials declined interviews. But they issued a statement in response to questions submitted by the Tribune: “The church has always extended a hand of friendship and fellowship to those of other faiths, and will continue to do so.”

The church said its count comprises “all members” — including children in Mormon families who are younger than 8, when most Mormons are baptized, and nonpracticing members.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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