Family values help drive Utah's diversity of faith

Published: Thursday, June 12 2014 6:35 p.m. MDT

Updated: Friday, June 13 2014 9:20 a.m. MDT

Imam Muhammad Shoayb Mehtar works Tuesday, June 10, 2014 with a group of children in studying the Quran, at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Non-Christian faiths are beginning to make footholds in counties throughout Utah and the United States.

Buddhism is the second-largest faith in the state behind Christianity, and in Weber and Box Elder Counties, each with 1,250 adherents, as well as in Davis County, with 1,467 combined adherents between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions.

Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism are the second-largest religious traditions behind Christianity in eight of Utah's 29 counties.

The statistics and maps are drawn from the 2010 Religion Census sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which shows majority religions in the nation covering impressive swaths of the country.

The regional majorities include adherents to the Southern Baptist Convention, Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The study also indicates the next-largest tradition by county, with results that are surprising to some leaders in Utah.

Many in Utah are drawn to the Buddhist faith because of the unconditional compassion it communicates, according to Rev. Jerry Hirano, who is over Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temples in Salt Lake City, Ogden and Honeyville.

He credits the presence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for providing an environment of spirituality that causes people to think about their beliefs.

"It's created this type of atmosphere where people are aware of their personal beliefs," Hirano said.

Islam is second to Christianity in Salt Lake County with 4,540 adherents estimated in about six congregations. The leader of one mosque said he is not concerned with growth in membership, but rather focuses on the condition of each member's heart.

"People like me, we never look at the numbers game. We look at the quality of individuals that are part of a … faith," said Imam Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar, of the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley.

A welcoming attitude, strong family values and the curiosity of residents are some of the traits that are appealing to those of other faiths in Utah.

Family values

Islam was the second-fastest growing religion in the United States between 2000 and 2010 according to the Religious Congregations and Membership Survey, adding one million members to its ranks. Membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew by two million people in the same decade.

The association's survey was conducted by asking participating religions to provide the number of congregations, attendees and adherents, along with their methods of collecting data. The association reached out to churches used in prior studies, looked for missing churches in the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches and solicited input from experts in American religions and the study's advisory board.

Utah's "very accommodating refugee program" brings Muslims to Utah, Mehtar said, in addition to the state's universities and family friendly environment. Other attributes of the state and its residents are what help them want to stay.

Muslims, whose teachings advocate abstinence from alcohol and modest dress, appreciate that Utah is a place where they feel supported in living their religion, according to Iqbal Hossain, chairman of the board of directors at the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake.

Schools and universities in the area often send their students to the mosque. The students are positive, curious and politically correct in how they pose their questions, Imam Mehtar said.

Curiosity of locals

Charu Das, temple manager at the Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, has seen locals express a similar curiosity with the Hindu religion.

Hinduism is the second-largest faith tradition in Utah County, with 1,562 reported adherents.

Curiosity brings thousands to the temple each year for Holi — the festival of colors — Llama Festival and Diwali — the festival of lights. Weekly services draw anywhere from 50 to 150 participants. For years the temple sent out a regular radio broadcast in Utah that included Hindu teachings. Other Hindu practices such as vegetarianism, yoga, karma and reincarnation are becoming more mainstream, Das said.

"I think that people that are referring to themselves as Hindus are doing so because they buy into the tenets," Das said, explaining that unlike other religions, Hinduism does not have clergy or specific congregations. "I do think that the ideas are pretty much prevalent anywhere."

Welcoming atmosphere

Reform Judaism is the second-largest faith in Summit County, with 710 adherents. This does not come as a surprise to interim Rabbi Jim Simon, who has seen the growth of Reform Judaism throughout the Western United States.

He has felt that diverse lifestyles are welcome in Park City, a mentality that also exists among those who worship at the Temple Har Shalom, a reform Judaism community. The congregation welcomes all who want to come, from young families and those with second homes, to interfaith and gay couples, couples living together and singles, he said.

"All these who have found that they are welcomed in Park City are also finding that they are welcome in our congregation," Rabbi Simon said.

His work as an interim rabbi has taken him all over the country. During his time with the Park City congregation, he has noticed that members of the community and other faiths have embraced their Jewish neighbors.

"I have really not heard in the year that I have been here of any congregants who have felt that in any way, manner, shape or form that their being Jewish was a problem, an obstacle, a challenge, something that they were not allowed to be proud of," he said.

The global growth of one religion is troubling to Imam Mehtar.

"I personally think the fastest growing religion right now is capitalism and desires. And sadly religion, too, is becoming more of a money-making game, so to speak. Not any particular religion. All religions in general, unfortunately," he said.

The solution is a return to spiritual roots, including living with the Ten Commandments as a guide, the Imam said.

"I think if anyone did that, any faith, whether it's Muslim, Christianity, LDS, whatever it may be, if they just abided by the Ten Commandments, in the proper manner, not with rigidity, not with fundamentalism, not with extreme laxity, just in a manner of moderation, I think we would have tremendous amount of progress on every level," Imam Mehtar said.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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