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State of religion: How religiosity varies by region in the U.S.

Survey shows US religiosity from least religious states to most

In Burlington, Vt., Reverend David C. O'Brien leads a congregation of 300 followers at the First Baptist Church. Established in 1834, the church has almost two centuries of history.

Growing up in Old Mystic, Conn., and serving his call to the ministry in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and now Vermont, O'Brien has grown to love the rich history of religion in New England.

"There is a sense of community, a sense of support and love," O'Brien says. "My mom died when I was young and the churches in this area provided a network of support for me."

But despite New England's religious history, it seems as though religion may become just that in the area — history. According to a recent Gallup poll, the state of Vermont is tied with its neighbor New Hampshire as the least religious states in the nation, with only 23 percent of their respective populations describing themselves as "very religious."

On the flip side, states in the south forming the "Bible Belt" still lead America in religious fervor, with Mississippi classified as the most religious state in the nation. Fifty-nine percent of its residents proclaim themselves "very religious," maintaining the top spot in religiosity snagged in a 2009 Gallup Poll.

One of the most interesting aspects of the varying degrees of religiosity within different states across the nation is the fact that underlying demographics have little to do with determining religious practice. For example, African-Americans, who are known as one of the most religious ethnic groups in America, make up 39 percent of Mississippi's population. But Caucasian residents of Mississippi are also highly religious, at least when compared with Caucasians in other states like Vermont. Gallup representatives summarize this as a "state culture" phenomenon, indicating that there is something about "the culture and normative structure of a state, no doubt based partly on that state's history, that affects its residents' propensity to attend religious services and to declare that religion is important in their daily lives."

Randy Sparks, a history professor who specializes in studying the Southern United States, says the state cultures of Southern states were not historically a place where religion was common.

"The early South was not particularly religious, in fact it was the least religious part of the entire country," Sparks says. "Ironically, if you wanted to talk about the most religious part of the country, until about the early 1800s, you would have looked to Puritan New England."

Mark Silk of Trinity College in Connecticut has helped edit and assemble a series of books called "Religion by Region," which looks at the differences in religious practice across the United States. Silk agrees with Sparks that the South was not the most fertile place for religion initially, but says that faith and religion eventually made its way into the broader culture as a means of civilizing people.

"Historically the South has been a place where you have a kind of culture war between males shooting, fighting, etc., and women trying to civilize them with the help of preachers," Silk says. "Eventually the latter has ended up winning."

As churches began to take root in Southern states like Mississippi, starting in the early 1800s, social life began revolving around these institutions, Sparks said. That socialization is something that has remained at the center of Southern culture and has helped establish religion as a staple of the Mississippi social scene.

"Churches were the only major institutions in Mississippi towns," Sparks says. "There weren't many other social institutions — the church was the focus of social life. For blacks it was also the focus of political life. These patterns solidified, and now religious institutions provide a cultural identification for blacks and whites across Mississippi."

While this cultural identification has helped preserve religious life in states like Mississippi in the South, the distinct social make-up of New England towns have made religion more expendable. Silk points out that because of the early roots of direct democracy in New England that have stuck until today, social life doesn't have to revolve around religious institutions.

"In a state like Vermont, there remains — to a greater degree — a civic culture," Silk says. "New England towns still govern themselves by town meetings, where they'll meet once a year and talk about the critical issues facing their town. This allows people in the community to know each other and provides a means of sociality. Down in a place like Atlanta, you don't really have something like that."

Silk and Sparks also point out that white Southerners eventually lost out on the race issue in the South. In order to maintain identity, they decided to draw the boundary in terms of traditional moral values and gender roles, which kept them in the churches. In New England, however, Roman Catholicism was the most dominant religion and congregations were loosely tied around ethnic groups that didn't need religious affiliation for cultural recognition.

"There's a strong sense of French heritage in this area and Catholicism is pretty dominant, but congregations aren't exactly ethnic," says Erica Andrus, a lecturer on religion from the University of Vermont. "Religion is also not something people wear on their sleeves and it is a larger trend in the area to be more private about religion."

Silk says the recent sexual scandals of the Catholic Church have added to an overall distrust of organized religion in the New England area. Because there was need for cultural recognition or social stability through religion, many left churches in droves. In Massachusetts alone, Catholic membership went from 54 percent in 1990 to 39 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, those claiming to be "unaffiliated" rose from 8 to 22 percent.

Despite the numbers, Reverend O'Brien contends religion is still a major part of life in the New England area. He points out that while people are more private about their religious lives, the way they live shows an acceptance for others around them in the community. Although the residents of Vermont may not classify themselves as "very religious" for fear of being so defined, the culture is still one of moral principles.

"I find over the years religious life is quite strong in New England," O'Brien says. "We're open to diversity and to ministering to a wide spectrum of people. We support and love someone as a family, and when someone is in need we try to respond."