Sign up for our newsletter
In North and South Dakota, 35 percent of the population is affiliated with a mainline Protestant church — denominations like the Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians. In California, only 14 percent of the population goes to a mainline church.
Normally, the Yonder focuses on rural. The latest survey of religious life in the U.S., from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, makes no distinction between urban and rural in Americans’ faith. But Pew does show how the states vary in their religious affiliations; these variations are considerable and, we can assume, influential. You can pull down the entire report here.
Pew documents a long-standing trend in American religion. Beginning around 1965, mainline Protestant churches started losing members. It was a sudden reversal of fortunes for church denominations that had a nearly 200-year history of continuous expansion.
That decline in the mainline denominations has been going on for 40 years, and the Pew study finds more evidence of the decline of traditional church groups. More than a quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith of their parents. Nearly one in three Americans were raised in the Catholic Church, for example, but only one in four count themselves as Catholics today. Baptists account for one-third of all Protestants and one-fifth of the total US population.
As Americans left the mainline denominations, they became unaffiliated — or they joined independent, evangelical churches. Both groups are growing, according to Pew.
Okay, much of this was in the morning newspaper. Dig deeper into the report and you can find a page in the appendix showing religious affiliation by state. (See the chart below.) Scanning through the columns, the incredible differences among the states becomes clear.
In Oklahoma and Arkansas, 53 percent of the population is evangelical. In Vermont and New Hampshire, only 11 percent say they are evangelical. The national mean is 26 percent evangelical, but very few states are near the average. Only 17 states are within +/- four percentage points of the national average of evangelical membership. Most of these are in the Midwest.
The Midwest is the most “average” in every category. The Midwest is the stronghold of the mainline denominations. The national average for the mainlines is 18 percent. In Nebraska, however, 27 percent of residents claim a mainline denomination. In Iowa, it’s 30 percent; Kansas, 27 percent; Wisconsin, 23 percent.
Catholics are clustered in the Northeast. Some 43 percent of those living in Massachusetts affiliate with the Catholic Church; 42 percent in New Jersey; 43 percent in Connecticut and Rhode Island. The national average for Catholics is 24 percent. In Arkansas, it’s 5 percent. In Alabama, 6 percent.
The nation is not an even map of religions. It’s lumpy. In Oregon, 27 percent of the people say they are unaffiliated with any organized religion. In Mississippi, only six percent are unaffiliated.
Despite national television networks and an unprecedented ability to move wherever we wish to live, it’s stunning how varied the states remain.
Here is a portion of the chart from page 100 of the report. Percentages in dark blue indicate the state is far from the national average. “Hist. Bl.” refers to church denominations that have traditionally had African-American membership.