Polls have always shown that the vast majority of Americans believe religion is “an important part of their daily lives” — 65% in a recent Gallup poll versus just 34% who said it wasn’t.
But that national average obscures a stunning variety by region.
For starters, the Gallup poll shows that there still is a Bible Belt. The 10 most religious states were: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Texas.
And just as remarkable, all of the least religious states were in New England or the West: Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut.
The gap between the poles are remarkable: in Mississippi, 85% said religion was important; in Vermont 42% did. Different planets.
What are we to make of this?
Some of the perceived cultural difference between “red states” and “blue states” comes down to religiosity. Note that nine of the 10 most religious states went for McCain, and nine of the 10 least religious states went for Obama.
But it’s oversimplifying to say that divisions between religions have been supplanted by the gap between religious and “secular.” On average, we’re still quite a religious country. In 46 of the 50 states, more than half the population said religion was important in their lives.
Now, I’m struck that Gallup asked users about “religion.” My experience at Beliefnet has been that there’s an increasingly large group of people allergic to that word. Some are secular but many would reject that label too, preferring “spiritual” or “faithful.” Indeed, while 65% say religion is important to them, 75% in a Pew survey said they pray weekly and 81% at least several times a month.
That means millions of Americans have deep faith but say religion is unimportant. We might call this group “pious but not religious.”
So when you look at this map, remember that the lighter shades of green may reflect a weaker connection to church, but not necessarily to God.
First printed on WSJ.com