The religious landscape of the United States

That’s the ambitious aim of a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. They interviewed 35,000 people to find out who believes what and where in America. How cool is that? And the study is super user-friendly.

With the click of a button, you find out that the three largest groups are Evangelical Protestants (26 percent of those surveyed), Catholics (almost 24 percent) and unaffiliated (16 percent). What does unaffiliated mean? They were quite precise, actually. That group is made up of atheists (1.6 percent), agnostics (2.4 percent) and unaffiliated (12.1 percent). Of those who said unaffiliated, that includes secular unaffiliated (I suppose that means not agnostic but not religious either?) at 6.3 percent and religious unaffiliated at 5.8 percent.

 The survey also recorded changes in affiliation, and here the Catholics were the biggest losers. Although one-third of the country was raised Catholic, it says, less than one-quarter still is, and apparently it would have been even worse if it hadn’t been for immigration. (Makes you wonder: How many Catholics out there support the idea of a giant wall between us and Mexico, not knowing that Hispanic immigrants have helped keep their faith numerically strong over the years?)

Oh, and now that I’ve read further, “unaffiliated” means that the respondent said “nothing in particular” when asked what his or her religion was. The secular unaffiliated say that religion is not very important in their lives, while the religious unaffiliated say that it is either somewhat or very important in their lives.

There are a kajillion interesting findings in the survey, and I’ll keep reporting on it (unless you want to read it for yourself; in which case, click here), but here’s my favorite tidbit so far. It’s probably not a surprising picture to many of you, and it’s not exactly surprising to me, but it’s revealing, I think.

The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.

Crazy, no? I’m a Colorado girl, so it appears you can take the girl out of the west, but… 🙂 Anyway, it’s interesting to think of the three corners of the country all mixing together in the middle. But I wonder why the West is so unaffiliated/agnostic/atheistic? It’s definitely got that self-reliant, live-and-let-live attitude. And there might be some remnant of the lawless, we-make-our-own-rules kind of ethos that the Wild West was known for. I always think of a quote I once heard from then then-governor of Wyoming, which is about as west as you can get (culturally, that is, along with Montana) and is also a fairly conservative, Republican kind of state. Dick Cheney hails from there, and so did former secretary of the interior James Watt. (If I remember right, my dad knew him at the University of Wyoming.)

Anyway, when Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, the Lou Sheldon creeps headed to Casper to protest at his funeral. In a conservative state like Wyoming, you might expect him to be at least tolerated, if not welcomed. But no less than the governor of the state (who, by the way, recently endorsed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee) made his feelings on the subject clear.

Gov. Jim Geringer said officials cannot stop the group from coming to Casper, but he wants them to know their presence is not wanted.

“They’re just flat not welcome,” Geringer said. “What we don’t need is a bunch of wingnuts coming in.”

Public Safety Director Art de Werk said precautions are being taken in case Phelps and his 15 or so associates show up.

“We won’t allow any kind of disruption of the services, period,” de Werk said. “I’m sure this will raise some freedom of speech issues and so on, but we have to do what’s right, and essentially my first concern in this case is that the family … and the mourning process that they’re in is not interfered with.”

I’m sure not all Wyomingites felt the exact same way about the Shepard case, but the fact that the governor of the state felt free to speak so forcefully about Phelps suggests that he probably knew they would agree that he didn’t fit with the kind of things they believed. Live and let live.

Wow, I’m rambly today, no? Back to the study for more tidbits…

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