Has Mormon church LOST Utah? 'McDonaldization' of religion has weakened its hold over Beehive State, where just 42% of residents consider themselves members - far lower than the 61% figure touted by elders

Daily Mail, UK/January 14, 2024

By Miles Dilworth

Almost a century stands between the settlement of Mormon pioneers in Utah in 1847 and the opening of the first McDonald's restaurant in California in 1940.

The two events seem world's apart, yet have somehow interwoven to bring you a new 21st century phenomenon: McMormonism.

But, so it turns out, the religion's once devout followers are not lovin' it.

An eye-catching new study shows that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), commonly referred to as the Mormon church, is losing its grip at its seat of power.

Data published in the Journal of Religion and Demography (JRD) reveals Mormons are no longer in the majority in Utah.

In fact, they make up just 42 percent of the population, a significant downgrade on church figures, which have previously claimed that 60.7 percent of all those living in the Beehive State are believers.

And the decline could have something to do with the church's growing corporate culture, or its 'McDonaldization', the report's co-author, Ryan Cragun, told DailyMail.com.

Cragun, a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, believes the church's efforts to streamline and standardize its operations as it expands across the world has diminished the unique experience of its faithful in its home state, lessening its appeal.

He said the report's findings reflected a 'substantial decrease in the influence of the church in the state of Utah' and that LDS leaders had called in social scientists, including himself, to address the crisis.

It comes at a troubling time for the religion that once dominated the cultural and political realm in Utah, as it wrestles with growing disaffection among its followers over its handling of sex abuse and financial scandals.

The rise of McMormonism

The Mormon church has exerted a powerful hold over life in Utah ever since its pioneers established it as its home after fleeing across the Rocky Mountains to escape persecution in what was then the more limited borders of the United States.

Its politicians, most famously Mitt Romney, are commonly from Mormon stock, while the religion's shunning and alcohol and caffeine has influenced the state's liquor laws and paucity of coffee houses.  

But the JRD report found the dwindling proportion of Mormons in the state had diluted the church's influence on everyday lives.

Its authors pointed to declining fertility rates and a more relaxed attitude towards alcohol, caffeine and life beyond the church evidence of its weakened state.

The report found the primary reason behind the church's waning influence in Utah was the migration of non-Mormons - the raw number of Mormons in the state has continued to grow.

But they said the second biggest factor was secularization, or disaffection with the faith.

Cragun said that although the study did not include specific data on why people were leaving the church, he suggested its push for corporate efficiency to ease its expansion across the US and the developing world has lessened its unique appeal in Utah.

The term McDonaldization was first coined by sociologist George Ritzer in 1993 to describe how modern society had adopted some of the dominant characteristics of the fast-food chain, including the standardization of services in the name of efficiency and profitability.

Cragun said the term could be applied to the evolution of the Mormon church over the past decade.

He cited Mormon roadshows and sermons that were once particular to Utah, which have since disappeared.

'This was a really distinct and interesting part of Mormon culture - and now it's gone,' he said.

'On any given Sunday, you'll be getting the same lesson in a rural county in Utah as you would be in Ghana. So if you're a member of the LDS church, you don't really have to be in Utah anymore to get the Mormon experience.'

The church's prioritization of financial success is reflected in its burgeoning investment fund, thought to be worth around $236billion, and its growing property portfolio, which now stretches across 859,000 acres of farmland in the US.

But it may have come at the cost of its following.

Who are the real believers?

The discrepancy between the church's figures and the JRD report is accounted for by how the church counts its membership.

To formally leave the church, a member must request that their records be removed from its internal database.

But the majority simply leave informally, moving away from the church without enduring the bureaucratic rigmarole.

The church's membership count still includes these people as members until they die, or their 110th birthday if their death is not reported to the church.

Cragun's team instead used self-reported religious identification surveys carried out in Utah to get a more representative picture of church membership.

Based on these surveys, the researchers found there were 1,424,094 self-identified Mormons in Utah in 2022.

Although still a significant number, it marks a 34 percent downgrade from the 2,173,560 on LDS Church rolls by the end of 2021.

The report's authors said this aligned closely with their finding that around a third of those born into Mormonism in Utah no longer identify with the faith.

Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa, told DailyMail.com that while Mormons were no longer in the majority in Utah, the proportion of active church members in the state could be as low as 30 percent.

The report found that Mormons stopped being a majority in the state in 2007 and have steadily declined as a proportion of the population ever since.

Scandals rocking the church

Cragun also pointed to previous reports and studies that have suggested a number of reasons specific to Mormonism, including a high number of women deserting the 'patriarchal institution' because of how it regulates their lives and relegates them to a 'subservient role' in congregations.

This appears to support claims from some former members that Mormons are deserting the church in their droves following a series of controversies.

James Huntsman, a member of a powerful Mormon dynasty who is suing the church over its alleged mishandling of members' money, told DailyMail.com last year that followers were 'fleeing' the faith after leaders 'lied' to them over how it spent its secretive $175billion investment fund.

The church is also reeling after dozens of current and former members accused it of 'systematically' covering up decades of sex abuse and incest within its ranks.

DailyMail.com last year revealed the devastating accounts of Mormon women who claimed the church hierarchy has repeatedly protected perpetrators and punished those who speak out.

They alleged that ecclesiastical leaders have repeatedly brushed cases of abuse under the carpet to allow young men to complete missionary programs - a crucial 'rites of passage' trip in which Mormons are sent to spread the word of the gospel.

Cragun, however, said most people who leave religion behind do so simply because they 'lose interest', rather than out of specific ethical qualms.

'They just have other things that they'd rather do,' he said. 'The cultural environment around the world means it's more acceptable to say, "you know what, I'd rather be playing golf on a Sunday".'

The report also said dwindling fertility rates among Mormons in Utah - traditionally known for having large families - were also a factor behind its declining influence.

It said this trend, which runs contrary to the leadership's continued encouragement of large families, shows 'the church is losing its ability to influence behavior in neighborhoods, workplaces, and civic organizations'.

Patrick Mason, professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said the Mormon church has become less influential in state politics in recent years.

'It recognizes that as the cultural winds have shifted, it's not effective for the church to be directly involved in most political matters,' he told DailyMail.com.

'It's simply not good public relations to try to operate Utah as a theocracy.'

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