Myth of the Utah Mormon

Study: Few differences from out-of-state Saints

Salt Lake City Weekly/February 8, 2012

Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are well aware of the perceived differences of the "Utah Mormon" and "regular" Mormons. Some say Utah Mormons are more righteous, while others say the exact opposite is true. City Weekly asked the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life for help in re-configuring some of the numbers from their recent poll on Mormons in the United States to see how different or alike the bees might be the farther away they get from the beehive.

The results of that recalculation of a survey of LDS members across the country show that LDS Utahns differ statistically from other members across the United States in only three areas: immigration, political-party identification and opinion of the Tea Party. But perhaps most striking is how little LDS respondents in the survey actually disagreed on other questions.

"I would have anticipated that people in Utah who are Mormon are in a very different setting than those in California, Virginia or Florida just because of the majority status of the religion here," says University of Utah political-science professor Matthew Burbank. "What's striking is that they're not all that different." On Jan. 12, 2012, the Pew Research Center issued its report "Mormons in America: Certain in Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society"—a landmark report that polled more than 1,000 LDS members across the country about their beliefs and perceptions on morality, politics and other issues. The majority of the survey responses in the report were broken down into those from LDS members in the Intermountain West and the rest of the country.

City Weekly asked Pew researchers to recalculate the numbers for various questions to see how LDS members in Utah responded to questions compared to LDS members outside of Utah. The results indicate that on many issues of morality, politics and perceptions of discrimination, LDS members are in statistical agreement with one another.

For example, 21 percent of LDS Utahns are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, compared to 20 percent of LDS members outside of Utah. The numbers are nearly identical for perception of discrimination against certain groups, with 46 percent of both LDS Utahns and LDS members outside of Utah agreeing there is discrimination against Mormons in general.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of disagreement, however, was how LDS members outside the beehive feel about immigration. Only 35 percent of LDS Utahns considered immigrants a burden, compared to 44 percent of LDS members outside of Utah.

"My immediate hunch is that if Mormons in Utah have a somewhat more compassionate view of immigrants than members outside of Utah, then maybe that suggests the church's efforts to push a more compassionate view has been more persuasive," says Adam Brown, a political-science professor at Brigham Young University. In 2010, for example, the LDS Church issued a statement supporting the Utah Compact, a document espousing a compassionate approach to immigration law that recognizes the impact the policies have on families.

The church also openly supported House Bill 116 in the 2011 Legislature, which sought a federal waiver to allow the state to administer its own guest-worker program.

For Quin Monson, a BYU professor of political science, the church's statements resonated more in Utah than elsewhere, which may have helped shift local opinion on immigrants.

"It wasn't something sent out to be read over the pulpit," Monson says of the church statements, which were most widely reported in the local Utah media.

When it comes to views of the Tea Party, 44 percent of LDS members outside of Utah had no opinion, compared to 53 percent of LDS Utahns. For the U's Burbank, this result may be because the Tea Party was not such a novelty in Utah.

"It wasn't anything new and different. For example, with Senator Bennett, lots of people rush to say that was the Tea Party's doing," Burbank says of the incumbent Republican senator's ouster from the state convention in 2010.

"My view is that it wasn't clear that delegates weren't just unsatisfied with a series of votes Bennett had taken," Burbank says. He says the Tea Party probably was more pronounced in states that had not seen a more extreme branch of the conservative movement before, like when the Tea Party became active in Washington state politics. But in Utah, the right-of-the-right movement had been vocal for a long time before the Tea Party came around.

When it comes to partisanship, 80 percent of LDS Utahns identify as Republican or lean toward the Republican Party, compared to 71 percent of LDS members outside Utah. Only 12 percent of registered LDS voters in Utah surveyed identified themselves as Democrats, compared to 20 percent of LDS members outside of the state.

For Crystal Young-Otterstrom, the vice chair of the LDS Democrats Caucus, it's hard to accept that there are more LDS Democrats outside of the state. After living all across the country, she says Utah was a home for her, and she believes more liberal LDS are finding their place in the state.

"I've just found myself surrounded by more Mormon Democrats," Young-Otterstrom says. "I felt less isolated when I moved to Utah, just because there's a greater concentration of us in Salt Lake City." But for Burbank, the same idea of neighborhoods of likeminded Mormons that may lead Young-Otterstrom to find solidarity with other liberal LDS members is probably also why more Utah LDS members are more conservative.

"That really is, more than anything else, a social factor," Burbank says. "So much of how people think about politics in partisan terms just comes from the people around them."

Indeed, BYU's Monson suggests that the real question to study is how LDS members think alike when they live in concentrations with fellow members. He says the differences from the surveys "may have nothing to do with Utah politics; it may have more to do with the social networks and social contexts of Mormons," Monson says. That LDS members do often live together in enclaves outside of Utah may be a greater determinant of their agreement on major issues, he says.

Still, according to the Pew statistics, by and large, LDS members agree with each other—even the three areas of statistical difference are not divided by a large margin. For Young-Otterstrom, her experience of being a non-native Utahn and also having LDS friends across the country is that members are much the same.

"They really aren't all that different," she says. "The Jell-O thing is still a little weird for me. One day I might try Jell-O with carrots, but I'm not making any guarantees."

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