February 3, 2009
(RNS) -- Want to be almost certain you'll have religious neighbors? Move to Mississippi.
Prefer to be in the least religious state? Venture to Vermont.
A new Gallup Poll, based on more than 350,000 interviews, finds that the Magnolia State is the one where the most people -- 85 percent -- say yes when asked "Is religion an important part of your daily life?"
Less than half of Vermonters, meanwhile -- 42 percent -- answered that same question in the affirmative.
Joining Mississippi in the top "most religious" states are other notches in the Bible Belt: Alabama (82 percent), South Carolina (80 percent), Tennessee (79 percent), Louisiana (78 percent), and Arkansas (78 percent).
New England predominates in the top "least religious" states:
Following Vermont are New Hampshire (46 percent), Maine (48 percent), Massachusetts (48 percent), Alaska (51 percent) and Washington (52 percent).
"Clearly, states in the South in particular, but also some states in the Southwest and Rocky Mountains ... have very religious residents and New England states in particular, coupled with states like Alaska and others, are irreligious," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll.
The reasons why, however, are far less clear, observers said.
For example, some might attribute the religiosity of Mississippi to the high percentage of African-Americans -- long known for being comparatively highly religious -- who live there.
"Mississippi is still No. 1, even if we look only at whites," said Newport. "Whites in Mississippi are also very religious."
Overall, Gallup researchers found that 65 percent of all Americans said religion was important in their daily lives. The total sample of
355,334 U.S. adults, including respondents with land-line telephones and cellular phones, had a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point. Some states had margins of error as high as plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Newport was surprised that one state -- Utah -- did not make the "most religious" list, given the state's large Mormon population.
"They apparently have two kinds of people in the state," he said. "They have the very religious and devout Mormon population but it also looks like they have a lot of nonreligious people."
Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, said Gallup's findings reflect research conclusions from the upcoming American Religious Identification Survey, which he is working on with other scholars.
"New England is now slightly ahead of the Pacific Northwest in terms of the high rate of unchurched people," said Silk, co-author of "One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics."
Although evangelicalism may be making some inroads in Western states like Washington and Oregon, he attributes the predominance of New England states in the "least religious" category more other demographic trends in the Northeast.
"What we are finding ... is a considerable drop in New England in the Catholic population," said Silk, whose center is based in Hartford, Conn.
And it's a matter of them moving away from the church, he said, not the region. "Catholics are holding their own nationwide because of Latino immigration but, relatively speaking, there's little of that in New England."
Silk suspects some Catholics have left the church because of the Catholic sex abuse scandal that first erupted in Boston, which "kind of pushed some sort of relatively loose affiliation Catholics over the edge."
For his part, Newport said Catholics overall no longer are more religious than the average American -- when it comes to stating the importance of religion or in attending church services -- -- but it's hard to specify exactly why New England states figure so prominently in the "least religious" states.
"They're about average and that's a change," he said. "It used to be you'd find Catholics significantly higher. ... I don't know to what degree that would affect what's going on in New England."
Following is Gallup's entire list of states, in order of what percentage of respondents said religion is "an important part" of their daily lives:
Mississippi (85), Alabama (82), South Carolina (80), Tennessee (79), Louisiana (78), Arkansas (78), Georgia (76), North Carolina (76), Oklahoma (75), Kentucky (74), Texas (74), West Virginia (71), Kansas (70), Utah (69), Missouri (68), Virginia (68), South Dakota (68), North Dakota (68), Indiana (68), Nebraska (67), New Mexico (66), Pennsylvania (65), Florida (65), Maryland (65), Ohio (65), Iowa (64), Minnesota (64), Illinois (64), Michigan (64), Delaware (61), Wisconsin (61), District of Columbia (61), Idaho (61), Arizona (61), New Jersey (60), Wyoming (58), Colorado (57), Hawaii (57), California (57), Montana (56), New York (56), Connecticut (55), Nevada (54), Rhode Island (53), Oregon (53), Washington (52), Alaska (51), Massachusetts (48), Maine (48), New Hampshire (46), and Vermont (42).