Faith and the divided states of America
The cartoon map of North America began appearing after the bitter “hanging chads” election of 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court put Republican George W. Bush in the White House.
In most internet variations, part of the map is blue, combining Canada and the states along America’s left coast, plus the urban Northeast and Midwest, into “The United States of Liberty and Education.” The rest is red, with America’s Southern and Heartland states united into the “Republic of Jesusland” — or tagged with a nasty name beginning with “dumb” and ending with “istan” that cannot be used in a family newspaper.
Variations on the “Jesusland” map have been relevant after nearly every national election in the past two decades. The map’s basic shape can also be seen in the latest Gallup survey probing “religiosity” levels in all 50 states.
Once again, Gallup found that Mississippi was No. 1, with 59 percent of its people claiming “very religious” status, in terms of faith intensity and worship attendance. Vermont was the least religious state, even in the secular New England region, with 21 percent of the population choosing the “very religious” label.
“You can see the ‘R&R’ connection, which means that — among white Americans — the more actively people practice their religion, the more likely they are to vote Republican,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief at Gallup.
After Mississippi, the rest of the Top 10 “most religious” states were Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia. After Vermont, the next nine least religious states were Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Hampshire.
“Religion isn’t always a perfect guide to politics at the state level,” said Newport. “After all, New Hampshire is a swing state and Alaska is just its own thing.”
Nevertheless, a reporter with decades of religion-beat experience took these Gallup numbers to the next level, overlapping them with state results in the hard-fought 2016 campaign. In terms of the “pew gap” phenomenon, there are few surprises.
“President Trump won 23 of the 25 most religious states, the exceptions being No. 19 Virginia, whose pious Senator Tim Kaine was on the Democratic ticket, and heavily Hispanic New Mexico at No. 21,” noted Richard Ostling, best known for his work with Time and the Associated Press. (He is also one of my GetReligion.org colleagues).
“Hillary Clinton carried nine of the 10 most ‘nonreligious’ states. Tops was Bernie Sanders’ Vermont,” he noted. Meanwhile, Trump did take Alaska, while New Hampshire was “closely fought.” Two other highly secular states, New York and California, “accounted for Clinton’s popular vote margin.”
All of this, Ostling explained, leads to an obvious Electoral College question: “Where and how might the troubled Democrats improve their prospects?”
Any search for answers starts with Catholics in pivotal Rust Belt states. Take Wisconsin, where the “citizenry identifies as 25 percent Catholic (and 22 percent evangelical Protestant) but is a modest No. 27 on Gallup’s state religiosity ranking, which by conventional rule of thumb should help Democrats,” noted Ostling.
Similar trends exist in Pennsylvania, where the “population identifies as 24 percent Catholic (and only 19 percent evangelical), with a middling No. 25 on religiosity” and Michigan, where the “population is only 18 percent Catholic but 25 percent evangelical, with a rather weak No. 29 on religiosity.”
Newport stressed that researchers are very familiar with all of these religiosity patterns, in part because they have changed so little in recent decades. While media coverage in recent years has stressed the rapidly rising number of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans — the so-called “nones” — it is also important, especially at the state level, to note how little has changed on the other side of the faith spectrum.
The history and culture of these highly religious states will not change quickly or easily.
“In Mississippi, everybody goes to church more often than in Vermont,” said Newport. “It’s not just that there are more Baptists there or more African-American churchgoers there. More people go to church because there are more churches and more people there go to church. …
“You go to Vermont and it’s hard to find churches and hard to find people who go to church. We are talking about very different kinds of cultures.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.