More Mormon men are leaving the LDS Church, say researchers — but especially in Utah

A new study shows that Mormon men are leaving the fold in greater numbers, but it's particularly noticeable in Utah. Why is this happening, and what are the long-term ramifications?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the growing disparity between the numbers of single Mormon men and single Mormon women

But amidst all the hand-wringing about what this means for dating and marriage, there are larger implications for what it means for Mormonism, and I had quite a few follow-up questions.

So I tracked down sociologist Rick Phillips, who with Ryan Cragun has authored the forthcoming study on the sex ratio disparity among Utah Mormons. Both scholars are past presidents of the Mormon Social Science Association.– JKR

RNS: You note that Mormonism has the worst sex imbalance ratio of any church except the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And this is especially true in Utah as compared to the rest of the nation. Why?

Rick Phillips: Conservative denominations in the United States tend to have more women than men, so the sex ratio imbalance in Mormonism is not particularly surprising, even if it is rather severe. What is surprising is the regional concentration of this imbalance.

We began to investigate sex ratios in the church when we compared data from two large censuses of religious bodies, one conducted in 1990 and the other in 2008. The data show that between these two censuses, the proportion of self-identified Latter-day Saints that were female increased rather dramatically … but only in Utah. Outside Utah and Mormon strongholds in the Intermountain West, sex ratios within the church remained stable, and were closer to parity than in Utah.

The “shortage of Mormon men” we’ve heard so much about lately is far worse in Utah than it is in the rest of the nation.

9.16 landscape chart

RNS: Your research suggests that the increasingly imbalanced sex ratio among Utah Mormons is like the canary in the proverbial coal mine: this is a sign of something bigger, that Utah Mormons are actually becoming less religious. You attribute the gender gap to a growing trend of apostasy among Mormon men. Can you explain?

Phillips: There has been a general secularizing trend in the United States for the past 25 years. People are abandoning organized religion in large numbers, and those with no denominational affiliation now constitute about 20% of the population. Mormonism is not immune from this trend, and defections from Mormonism are more common than they have been in the past. In the 1970s and 80s, surveys showed that the church retained about 90 percent of its cradle members. But in the latest Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 36% of respondents raised LDS have abandoned their faith. Just as women outnumber men in conservative denominations, men substantially outnumber women among those abandoning religion. This is true for Mormons as well.

Also, this trend in religious disaffiliation is most pronounced among young people in their late teens and early 20s, which is a datum that is important to remember.

So, one explanation for what’s going on is that we are seeing how a general pattern in American religious demography is manifesting itself in a Mormon context.

RNS: You note that in Utah, Mormonism is losing “market share,” with only about 60% of Utahns now being LDS. You also say this has an impact on people leaving the church. How?

Phillips: We noticed that the widening of the sex ratio in Utah is accompanied by another, concomitant trend. Beginning in about 1990, the percentage of Utah’s citizenry belonging to the LDS Church began to decline, and has continued to drop until stabilizing just recently.

Utah’s Mormon majority has always fostered a unique religious subculture. The sheer density of Mormons in Utah means that ward boundaries and neighborhood boundaries are often coterminous. Associates at work, school, and in the community are also likely to be co-religionists in this setting. This fuses church and community norms, and makes violating church standards subject to disapproval and sanction in non-church settings. Traditionally, this has provided added incentive for Utah Mormons with marginal personal religiosity to remain in the church, and to follow church behavioral mandates.

However, as Mormon majorities in Utah have declined, the salience of this religious subculture is waning. And once offices, neighborhoods and civic organizations became sufficiently stocked with non-LDS associates, Latter-day Saints who are not constrained by their personal religious commitments have less to worry about if they are observed wearing apparel that is incompatible with garments, or shopping on Sunday, or putting coffee in a grocery cart.

RNS: Why does this affect men more than women?

Phillips: We hypothesize that the consequences of declining Mormon majorities in Utah affect men more than women for one simple reason. At age 18 (19 when these data were collected) LDS boys are confronted with the mandate to serve a full-time mission. This is precisely the age when religiosity is at its nadir. In the past, social pressure to serve a mission prompted many young men in Utah with marginal religious commitment to bite the bullet and go. The stigma of failing to serve a mission in some Utah towns was severe, and had serious social consequences. This is well documented in the sociological literature. Now however, the stigma is waning. Non-LDS friends and others who have chosen not to serve missions are more abundant, and provide refuge from disapproval.

We suggest that the mandate to serve a mission forces the hand of young men in Utah, and essentially “outs” those who don’t want to go as less committed to the church. Being thusly “outed” then lowers the costs of, and provides a pathway for, eventual disaffection. And this contributes to a rising sex ratio disparity among Utah Mormons that doesn’t manifest elsewhere.

RNS: Finally, what do you see happening over the next ten years? Are Utah’s rates of gender imbalance going to become more common elsewhere? And will the rate of people leaving Mormonism continue to rise?

Phillips: Only a foolish social scientist predicts the future. But we suppose this is where fools rush in …

The most firm prediction we can make is that as the religious demography of Utah comes to resemble the religious demography of a typical state, the church activity of Utah Mormons will come to resemble the church activity of Mormons in a typical state. This is not all bad news for the church. The good news is that those who stay are staying largely because they are personally committed to the cause. Latter-day Saints in the “mission field” are fond of saying that where Mormons are a small minority, one must stand on one’s own testimony. You are either in or out. Well, now Utah is the mission field too.

With respect to the sex ratio imbalance, there is preliminary evidence that women’s patterns of religious apostasy are beginning to resemble those of men. If this is true generally, it will probably be true within Mormonism.



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