The South has risen again, at least in terms of belief in God.
Mississippi is the America's most religious state, according to a Pew Forum study on the levels of devotion in America, which asked respondents whether religion is important in their lives. Eighty-two percent of Mississipians said yes.
"That is not too surprising," said William F. Lawhead, chairman of the religion and philosophy department at the University of Mississippi. "This is the Bible Belt. We are primarily made up of small towns - not many urban areas like Dallas and so on, where there's a lot of people coming and going - so most of the people are homegrown."
The state is overwhelmingly Christian, he added, although an influx of Vietnamese immigrants who are involved in the state's coastal fishing industry has brought in Buddhist adherents.
Alabama and Arkansas (both at 74 percent), Louisiana (72 percent), Tennessee (71 percent) and South Carolina (70 percent) follow. The least-religious are New Hampshire and Vermont, each at 36 percent, Alaska (37 percent) and Massachusetts (40 percent), which confirms other recent surveys that say New England is the "new Northwest" in terms of unchurched multitudes.
The Pacific Northwest used to be the country's least-churched sector, but Oregon (seventh from the bottom at 46 percent) and Washington (11th from the bottom at 48 percent), have risen in the rankings.
The poll was released Monday with data drawn from the Forum's 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,556 U.S. residents. It has an error margin of 0.6 percent.
Respondents were asked four questions: about the importance of religion in their lives, their frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of daily prayer and absolute certainty of belief in God. Mississippi polled highest on all four questions.
On the attendance question, Mississippians polled at 60 percent, saying they go at least once a week. Heavily Mormon Utah (57 percent) is second, with South Carolina (54 percent) following.
Alaska is at the bottom of this list, with only 22 percent of respondents saying they attend weekly. New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine polled next highest at 23 percent.
The Rev. Ed Vatagliano, research director for the American Family Association in Tupelo, pointed out that Mississippi's 3 million residents are more likely to have been raised in church.
"Part of it is tradition," he said. "My kids and all their friends are in church on Sunday. That's the expectation. If you are a politician down here, you're expected to have a church track record."
The question about frequency of daily prayer, had Mississippi occupying the top spot at 77 percent, followed by Louisiana at 76 percent and Alabama at 73 percent. Maine, at 40 percent, occupied the lowest rung, followed by Massachusetts and Alaska, each at 41 percent.
The fourth question, measuring percentage of those who believe in God, had Mississipians at the top at 91 percent, followed by South Carolina and Alabama at 86 percent. States with the lowest belief in God are New Hampshire and Vermont at 54 percent and Connecticut and Rhode Island at 57 percent.