Monday, October 10, 2005

Utah Mormon Population Decline and Secularization: Disenchantment or Re-Enchantment?

This last July The Salt Lake Tribune published an article that discussed the shrinking LDS population of the state of Utah. For years the LDS Church, as well as evangelical churches, have been making the claim that Mormons represent 70 percent of the population. This number appears to be inaccurate, with the percentage slipping to 62.4 percent by 2004.

A variety of reasons were cited for this decrease, including an increase in the number of non-Mormons moving into the state, declining birth rates among LDS families, and difficulties in keeping LDS converts within the church. One element was missing from the discussion, and that is the influence of secularization on the religious life of Utah. A demographer was quoted in the article as saying "Utah is essentially becoming more like the nation." I believe he's correct, but the manner in which these changes should be understood, and their importance for missions in Utah are worth exploring.

There are a variety of secularization theses, and I have discussed this briefly in previous comments on the work of U.K. scholar Christopher Partridge related to disenchantment and re-enchantment. One version of secularization sees religion dying on the vine in favor of secularism. Another version, one I resonate with, sees a disenchantment in the West coming as a result of secularzation, but rather than religion dying out, it is traditional forms of religion that have difficulty surviving (including various expressions of traditional Christianity). The pendulum then shifts and the response is re-enchantment, toward individualized, self-oriented, eclectic forms of spiritual expression, along the lines of Do-It-Yourself Spiritualities.

Even with the LDS majority religious population in Utah, it is difficult to imagine that the state is somehow immune to the forces of secularization. The social and cultural tides impacting the rest of the Western world have been touching on Utah's shores for some time, but the question remains as to which direction Utah's population is moving in response to secularization.

In dialogue with former Mormons in Utah I have discovered that when they jettison their LDS faith, they often find traditional Christianity just as inappropriate. Both "versions" of Christianity are, in their minds, tried and found wanting. Many I have spoken with have opted instead for DIY spiritualities and forms of Paganism. Although these alternative spiritual communities remain a small part of Utah's religio-spiritual communities, they may represent a growing segment of it.

What does all of this mean for missional churches and Christians in Utah? While we need to strategize in light of the dominant LDS population, we also need to recognize spiritual diversity, both within the LDS Church itself, and in the declining number of church members who may be turning to alternative forms of spirituality in the face of secularization. Church strategists might benefit from fresh ethnographic and demographic research in the state, and also consider ways in which Utah's minority emerging spiritualties might be missionally engaged.

2 comments:

philjohnson said...

There are probably some other elements that should be identified in the equation that accounts for the decline of the LDS in Utah.

The internal dynamics of the LDS culture plays a great part in sustaining its constituency within Utah. In Utah you have the interesting factor of the LDS carving out the original settler/pioneer culture, and placing its definitive stamp on the territory during the 19th century.

The millennial impulse of its early missions was a key factor in shaping expectations about the fledgling culture too.

The mission was anchored on the in-gathering of the Saints to Zion, hence the emigration of converts from different parts of Europe and the eastern states of America. So the intensity of the in-gathering was linked to expectations of the Prophet's guidance, and the imminence of the Christ's return to America.

However by 1910 that urgent need for the Saints to inhabit Zion had slowed down, as millennial thinking also underwent modification in the LDS church. The need to increase the Saints in Utah eventually tapered off, and we have yet to see a presidential call for the "revival" of the earlier millennial impulses. You could also link this to the polygamy controversies from the 1870s-1890s, and Utah's final acceptance as a state in the Union.

A long standing factor must surely be the patriarchal gerontocracy -- older males who hold the offices of Prophet, 12 Apostles, the 70 etc, with a very predictable line of succession to the presidency. The difficulty for the ruling patriarchy is keeping pace with the wider cultural change of society.

Social mobility contributes to social changes even in a patriarchal context. The fact that the young LDS participate in overseas missions -- they see first hand how others live -- is something that each missionary has to process internally upon returning home. The mobility of the work force, with LDS entrpreneurs, those who find employment in the travel industry, language translators, information technology and so forth -- all these are contributing elements. Personal expectations may be at variance with official goals for the Church and its culture.

The LDS community also experiences some diversity of opinion, so it is evident that not all LDS folk adhere to the official "line".

The fact that dissenting publications exist, is a small and interesting sign that heterogeneity is part of the real culture rather than the image of complete homogeneity, unity and conformity of thought.

There is the theological concomitant that striving for perfection must contain within it the seeds of its own cultural fracturing. That one does not find the "cargo" of perfection delivered in this life, stands in tension with the ideal of being a perfect priest. Surely, for those who struggle to hold these tensions in balance, disenchantment must set in.

I suspect that even the ideals of self-sufficiency must be difficult for some LDS folk. If the crushing realities of debt vs low income emerge, it would be a constant struggle to attain self-sufficiency. And given that Utah has been very susceptible to fnancial scams, those who have been stung deeply by financial loss would find it challenging to sustain a happy commitment to the Church.

All these things cumulatively remind us that no culture is ever static, and unless totalitarianism prevails to censor outside thought, exposure to other ideas and practices, and the impingement of other cultures on Utah, all play a part in the streams of cultural maintenance and cultural change.

Mark Pennington said...

Ineresting to read how the influence of history and theology has affected the LDS cultural dynamic, perhaps leading to a new tipping point. How does this data, i.e. the shrinking of LDS population in Utah, fit in with the decade-long population trends in emigration to more affordable western states? I would be curious to see how the numbers fit with another LDS enclave, such as Idaho, where the influx of, say Californians, has been marked.