The Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon and Alaska have been known as the "None Zone" for the high percentage of residents who have no religious preference. Church worship is very low here when contrasted with other parts of the country, especially the South and Midwest. But our reputation for ranking religion low on the totem poll has slid just a bit according to a new Gallup survey.
The Washington Post reports that the survey of 350,000 Americans concluded that Mississippi is the most religious state, with 85% of respondents saying "yes" when asked if religion is an important part of their daily life. Other Southern states showed similar levels of enthusiasm.
In contrast, the least religious state is Vermont, where only 42% said it was. Vermont was followed by New Hampshire (46%) and Maine (48%) and Massachusetts (48%) in the least religious category. Apparently, New England, settled by Puritans, is now the breadbasket of secularism, followed on its heels by Alaska (51%) and Washington (52%).
According to the story:
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.
One reason for a downtick in religious practice in New England: the population of Catholics there is shrinking. One reason for a possible uptick here: the success of evangelical churches in the Northwest.
Silk also has contributed to a new book about the spiritual practices of the Northwest, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, edited by Vancouver Sun writer and religion blogger Douglas Todd. Silk's chapter is titled "Cascadian Civil Religion from a North American Perspective." Silk believes that the main regional differences left in the U.S. and Canada today are religious differences that inform our local cultures and politics. We all may shop at Wal-Mart or buy on Amazon, but our cultures of faith remain distinct. That's certainly true in the Northwest where secular nature worship and business boosterism tend to trump old-time religion when it comes to values.
Which brings me to a follow-up on President Barack Obama's shout out to America's "unbelievers," a misnomer since most "unbelievers" actually believe in things. While "unbelievers" have celebrated the recognition, some religious traditionalists are alarmed, and in typical Obama style, the new prez is reaching out to both groups. Take the recent announcement regarding the faith-based initiative started by George W. Bush. Obama announced that he's going to keep the controversial White House program going, which has upset secularists because it blurs of the lines between church and state by providing federal funding to religious organizations. And a major area of disagreement is over whether federally-funded faith-based groups can discriminate in their hiring.
Obama is overhauling and broadening the program. You'd think religious groups would be happy, but Obama's simultaneous moves to make the tent big enough to include seculars is worrying some.
Agence France Press has a story on the conflict called "Atheists welcome in Obama's big church." It turns out that Obama has not only spoken sympathetically about unbelievers, but his people have actually met with them, specifically a group called the Secular Coalition for America. They want the faith-based program shut down and were included in meetings with Obama's transition team at least three times prior to the inauguration.
Some religious groups are shocked at the news:
In response to news of those meetings, the Anglican group In God We Trust said Thursday it was launching a one-million-dollar campaign to oppose Obama's attempts to "whitewash America's religious heritage."
"I doubt that any newly elected president has ever sat down with lobbyists for the American atheist movement to plot legislative strategy," the group's chairman Bishop Council Nedd said in a statement.
"Clearly the administration is planning to push the radical left's vision of a completely secular United States down the throats of ordinary Americans."
For an unbeliever, the idea that secularism is being rammed down anyone's throat is absurd, though the In God We Trust group gives out a Cup of Wrath Award to folks deemed anti-religious. Even in the Obama era, politicians must make regular displays of religious (mostly Christian) piety in order to maintain political credibility. With rare exception, America's atheists, agnostics, secularists, pagans, and freethinkers are a small minority that have had mainstream religion jammed down their throats and few are given to evangelism. Many others, religious people included, believe in what the Constitution says about the separation of church and state.
Obama has received a great deal of press for his attempts, largely unsuccessful so far, to bring about a new bipartisan spirit in Washington, DC. But this Christian president is also trying to achieve a more problematic meeting of the minds. Believers and unbelievers can, by definition, never be reconciled, but should be able to live and work together, and in unity, there is strength. That thought is also suggested on our coins, along with "In God We Trust," which is why Obama is reaching out for help from all quarters.
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