Redefining the Mormon Empire

President Thomas S. Monson inherits a church with a political and social hold on the Mountain West that is changing but still strong.

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 28, 2008

Brigham Young called it "Deseret."

To writer Wallace Stegner it was "the Mormon Empire," a vast swath of Great Basin territory from Mesa, Ariz., in the south to Boise in the north, and from Reno, Nev., in the west to Grand Junction, Colo. in the east whose residents looked to Salt Lake City for religious and political guidance.

The profile of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America is still centered in the Mountain West, where more than three-quarters of U.S. Mormons live. Mitt Romney's bid for the Republican presidential nomination demonstrated their influence in the region as Latter-day Saints boosted him to easy primary victories in Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming.

But today, more Mormons are moving east and west, setting up enclaves on both coasts. Pockets of LDS strength have sprung up in places such as Alpine County, Calif.; Blaine County, Neb.; Conejos County, Colo.; and Liberty County, Fla.

Meanwhile, new studies of American religious demography show Utah and surrounding states are no longer the cohesive religious paradise Stegner described in his 1942 book, Mormon Country, with their cooperative economics and small-town feel.

The Intermountain West has become "the most urban area of the country," says University of Utah historian Paul Reeve. The region's 19th century agriculture-based economy has been replaced by a service economy that increasingly attracts job-seeking outsiders.

Outside influences have diluted Salt Lake City's dominance of the region. While southeastern Idaho's population continues to mirror Utah's, Mormons in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California have developed their own political and social patterns.

Diversity and change within U.S. Mormon populations make it increasingly difficult to define the church, says Kathleen Flake, who teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "The Intermountain corridor no longer gives a full view of the church's contours."

Next week, Mormons worldwide will raise their hands at the church's 178th General Conference to signal support for Thomas S. Monson as their 16th prophet. The U.S. church he inherits is distinct from that led by former presidents. Here's how it looks.

Mini-Utah: Southeastern Idaho is Mormon country, to be sure. Franklin County has the largest percentage of Mormons in the country, 91.5 percent, outpacing even Utah County's 88.1 percent. And influence from Salt Lake City is huge. The church's twice yearly General Conferences are broadcast on commercial TV.

Pocatello was once a railroad center, hugely diverse - ethnically and religiously - and a Democratic hub with big union influence, says Jim Aho, 65, an Idaho State University sociology professor who has lived in Pocatello since 1970. But its complexion changed in 1980 with the "Reagan recession" and loss of industry, which forced many to leave. In the vacuum, the LDS Church and Republican Party made inroads, gaining influence, changing the city's tone, and introducing tensions and suspicions that weren't there before, Aho adds.

This plays out, for example, in occasional letters to the editor, such as "I can't watch my NASCAR because of conference," Aho explains. "It's the kind of thing that goes on in any community. People are scared of anyone who's different from themselves."

George W. Katsilometes, 65, of Pocatello runs Lava Hot Springs Inn. His grandparents came from Greece in 1903 to work for Union Pacific Railroad.

"My take on the LDS Church is that they are very communal," he says. "They tend to be together in their group and help each other a lot. . .They want others to mingle with them; they want their church to grow. But they don't necessarily go out of their way to learn about others."

With each generation, his family has seen the diversity decline.

"It's not impossible to get elected or make the team [if you're not Mormon,]," he says, "but you have to be pretty outstanding."

The Arizona experience: Jacob Hamblin began leading Mormon missionary settlers into Hopi country as early as 1858, and they continued to work their way south. Eventually, Mormon outposts sprung up along the Little Colorado, Salt and Gila rivers.

Mormons learned to get along with their neighbors, says LDS historian Charles Peterson. "Never did they get into quite as much difficulty and bitterness over polygamy as they did in Idaho. Other groups were very grateful for the know-how and tradition of Mormon irrigation. That made for some better feeling." Some towns today, such as Snowflake, Gilbert and Thatcher, are still overwhelmingly Mormon, while others have lost their LDS hegemony. In the past three decades, the LDS population in Mesa has declined from nearly 50 percent to less than 8 percent, says Eric Paul, a Mormon architect. Mormons still play a significant role in state and local politics, with more than a dozen members in the Legislature and one - Republican Jeff Flake - in Congress. One of the two candidates for Mesa mayor is LDS.

Arizona Mormons feel no need to attend BYU to be among their own people. The state schools have strong LDS Institutes of Religion adjacent to their campuses, providing social ties and church education.

"Most of the kids here go to local schools like Mesa Community College," Paul says. "They are all staying home."

Mellow Mormonism: A year before Brigham Young uttered "This is the place" on a hill above modern-day Salt Lake City, some Saints sailed into the San Francisco Bay. Many of today's California Mormons point with pride to that parallel history.

Though the state boasts many homegrown Mormons and recent converts, most LDS leaders still are first or second generation Utah transplants, says Russell Frandsen, an LDS attorney who lives in La Canada.

California is home to more Mormons than any state other than Utah - more than 750,000 - and it proved to have the deepest pockets during Romney's campaign, doling out nearly $8.2 million through Feb. 29 (vs. the $5.5 million raised in Utah), according to the Federal Election Commission.

But Democrats have become more common in LDS congregations, which are increasingly diverse. The area boasts Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Armenian wards; the downtown Los Angeles ward is like a "mini-United Nations," Frandsen says. "We are all entirely comfortable with Latino culture here. Immigration issues are not a big deal with us."

Latter-day Saints are steadily climbing the state's corporate ladders and many are reaching the pinnacle of success in, for example, the computer game industry, the L.A. philharmonic, Disney, Univision and the Dodgers. Though few Mormons are among the state's power brokers, church members in 2000 helped push Proposition 22, which defined marriage as between only a man and a woman. But they haven't yet gotten involved in making it a constitutional amendment.

"The church has actually been fairly progressive in terms of calling for polite and respectful treatment of gays and lesbians. We don't hear too much gay bashing around here," Frandsen says. "We are probably much more tolerant of other views and faith than I remember growing up in Utah."

From West to East: Joseph Smith once spent a month in Salem, Mass., where a recent convert claimed there was buried treasure. After failing to find anything, Smith saw the real treasure in potential converts. Until Young called the faithful to join the westward migration in the 1840s, Boston had between 300 and 400 members, more than any other Eastern city.

At the end of the 19th century, second-generation Mormons began returning to the East to study at prestigious universities. Within decades, dozens of young people had left the "corridor," seeking education or jobs in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles, wrote G. Wesley Johnson in a Meridian Magazine essay on LDS "urban pioneers."

"These early outmigrants not only achieved secular success in business, the professions, or education," wrote Johnson, a retired BYU professor who is studying this group, "but they became the pillars on which the development of the church rested in these new areas."

Between 1950 and 2000, for example, LDS stakes in these metropolitan areas multiplied. Washington, D.C., went from one stake to 15. Half of the current LDS apostles have spent time in Boston - Henry B. Eyring, Russell M. Nelson and Robert Hales have degrees from Harvard; L. Tom Perry was a stake president there; and Boyd K. Packer was a mission president.

"This movement...became one of the driving forces to change the church during the course of the new century," Johnson concluded.

Polynesian culture: Mormonism in Hawaii is more homegrown.

Missionaries arrived on the islands as early as 1850 and the church boomed. Fifteen years later, the LDS Church bought 6,000 acres of ranch land on the north shore of Oahu, which became a gathering place for early Hawaiian LDS converts. The Hawaiian temple in Laie, dedicated in 1919, was the first temple built outside the continental U.S.

Today, Hawaii's Mormon population is more diverse than in the Intermountain West. BYU-Hawaii, for example, draws about 2,300 students from 70 countries.

"Hawaii is kind of a beef stew - such a mixture of things," says Jack Hoag, 75, the LDS spokesman for Hawaii who joined the church 41 years ago. "We have more interracial marriages than anywhere else in the country. More blending of religions than anywhere."

Hoag says he's never seen "any particular tension" between Latter-day Saints and others on the islands, which he attributes to the blending. "There's hardly a family here that doesn't have a friend or a cousin who's on a mission. There's always an interconnection."

In the mid-1990s, Hawaii was the first state to grapple with same-sex marriage. The LDS Church joined Catholics, many other Christian churches and business groups to oppose it. The four-year battle, and resulting vote that overwhelming came out against same-sex marriage (70-to-30), Hoag says, was "a turning point in our coalescing with Christian and non-Christian communities."

Such alliances may have helped Honolulu's mayor, 53-year-old Mufi Hannemann, who is an active Mormon.

Hannemann's religion was never an issue during the election, says Bill Brennan, the mayor's spokesman. "It didn't really come up as it did with Mitt Romney."

Top cities and counties

The top 10 U.S. cities and counties with the highest percentage of Mormons.

Percentage by city

  1. Provo-Orem 88.1%
  2. Salt Lake City-Ogden 59.2%
  3. Pocatello, Idaho 47.2%
  4. Boise, Idaho 14.8%
  5. Flagstaff, Ariz. 12%
  6. Richland-Kennewick, Wash. 6.9%
  7. Las Vegas, Nev. 5.6%
  8. Grand Junction, Colo. 5%
  9. Phoenix, Ariz. 4.9%
  10. Casper, Wyo. 4.7%

Percentage by county

  1. Franklin County, Idaho 91.5%
  2. Utah County, Utah 88.1%
  3. Morgan County, Utah 87.4%
  4. Rich County, Utah 84.9%
  5. Sevier County, Utah 82.2%
  6. Bear Lake County, Idaho 82.2%
  7. Sanpete County, Utah 82.1%
  8. Cache County, Utah 80.5%
  9. Box Elder County, Utah 80.4%
  10. Juab County, Utah 80.2%

Source: ARDA

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