Across the U.S., the number of people who identify as Christian is declining — except in Idaho’s largest religion.
It’s one of several ways in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is defying trends affecting most other Christian faiths, according to studies from the Public Religion Research Institute and other researchers. PRRI staff included a section called “The Mormon Exception” in a 2017 analysis of U.S. religion data.
“Mormons have always been that exception to that general decline,” said PRRI researcher Dan Cox.
In 2017, Mormons made up 23 percent of Idaho’s population, PRRI found, second only to the 29 percent of Idahoans who identify as “unaffiliated.” Across the nation, only about 1.9 percent of people identified as LDS. The church’s numbers have held steady over the past decade despite the fact that, overall, fewer Americans identify as Christians.
In particular, the number of white Christians across the county has fallen. Between 2007 and 2016, Idaho’s white Christian population declined by 11 percentage points, to 56 percent, PRRI reported. (About 83 percent of Mormons are white and non-Hispanic, PRRI found.) The Pew Research Center in 2016 reported that fewer Idahoans (and Americans) overall participate in traditional religious practices such as praying and attending church.
Part of that decline could be due to many churches’ failure to connect young people with church leadership and activities, said Brent Peterson, the dean of Northwest Nazarene University’s School of Theology and Christian Ministries. That’s one area where the Mormon church really succeeds, Cox and Peterson agreed, with missions for young members and youth-focused seminary classes and wards.
Mormons as a whole are also younger than other white Christians, most of whom are skewing older on average than they did a decade ago. Twenty-three percent of Mormons are younger than 30 and 41 percent are 50 or older, PRRI researchers said. In contrast, about 60 percent of white Catholics and Protestants are at least 50 years old.
Members of the LDS church are also more likely to be married (71 percent of Idaho Mormons are currently married) and have large families, and are less likely to divorce. That’s a great setup for passing along religious values, Cox said. One of the biggest predictors of religious commitment is whether one’s parents remain married, as well as whether families engage in religious practice at home, such as saying grace over meals or the LDS practice of “family home evening.”
“That’s been incredibly effective in transmitting religious values from one generation to the next,” Cox said.
Gallup in 2017 found that LDS members are far and away the most likely to describe themselves as “extremely religious.” Only 37 percent of Americans identified as such; 74 percent of Mormons did.
“Mormons are very, very committed to their religious identity,” Cox said.