Friday, April 28, 2006

Southern folks seem to have a monopoly on that good old time religion.

The South contains eight of the top 10 states with the most frequent churchgoers in the nation, according to a Gallup Poll analysis of more than 68,000 interviews conducted in the past two years.

“That’s no surprise,” said Southern historian Eugene Genovese. “Before the Civil War, it’d be hard to say the South was churchgoing, but certainly in the 20th century, churchgoing has remained much stronger here, as has Christian orthodoxy.”

It is a close race in the South.

With 58 percent saying they attend religious services once a week or almost every week, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina residents are tied in first place — followed by Mississippi at 57 percent, Arkansas and Utah tied at 55 percent, North Carolina and Nebraska tied at 53 percent and Tennessee and Georgia tied at 52 percent.

The national average is 42 percent. There is a wide range between the highest and lowest numbers, however — a difference of 34 percentage points between the top three and bottom two states.

“There’s a way in which churchgoing is woven into the fabric of life,” said Wilfred McClay, an evangelical Anglican and a humanities professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “When you move down here, one of the first things people ask is ‘Where do you go to church?’ In parts of the South, you still feel you’re in a kind of Christendom.

“Plus the red state/blue state divide is not as pronounced here. There are blue-state people here who are strong churchgoers. This is a world where the normative assumptions are Christian and evangelical.”

Of the Southern states, Virginia has the second lowest reported church attendance rate (44 percent), which is still above the national average, according to Gallup analyst Frank Newport.

Such findings are supported elsewhere. Church and churchgoing is at the very heart of the traditional South.

“Those visiting or moving to the South, especially the more traditional rural areas, would do well to respect the religious traditions of the area,” notes the text of “Southern Culture,”, which contains facts and history compiled by historians from the Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson, N.C.

“Sunday mornings are for going to church, not mowing the lawn, going shopping (the stores won’t be open anyway), or buying liquor or beer … If someone in the grocery line finds out you’re new in town and asks you to his/her church, go ahead and say yes, and enjoy the experience. Southern hospitality surely shows itself best in the willingness of the people to share what is most important to them: their faith,” the site notes.

Mr. Genovese, a Catholic living in Atlanta, noted Roman Catholicism “is growing by leaps and bounds in Georgia. That’s mostly immigration but that does include conversions. The Catholic Church in Georgia has quadrupled since we came to Atlanta 20 years ago.”

“Plus, the recruitment of priests in Georgia is very strong. The young priests here tend to be more traditional.”

Sunday morning may not be so popular up North, though.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the data makes it clear that reported church attendance is lowest in New England states — New Hampshire (24 percent), Vermont (24 percent), Rhode Island (28 percent), Massachusetts (31 percent) and Maine (31 percent.) The only slight exception is the New England state of Connecticut (37 percent),” Mr. Newport added.

Nebraska led the Midwestern states in weekly or almost weekly church attendance (53 percent). Among the most populous states, Texas led at 49 percent, followed by Illinois (42 percent), Florida (39 percent), New York (33 percent) and California (32 percent).

The District of Columbia stood at 33 percent.

A small minority of Americans simply don’t go to church. Overall, only 16 percent of the respondents nationwide said they “never” attend.

The analysis found that 31 percent said they went to church once a week, 11 percent almost every week, 13 percent once a month, 27 percent “seldom” and 2 percent did not answer the question.

The poll of 68,031 adults was conducted from January 2004 through March 2006 in the 48 contiguous states, with a margin of error of plus or minus one percentage point.

Recent academic research reveals some potential benefits of church.

In a wide ranging analysis of 1990 census data, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jon Gruber found last year that frequent churchgoers have an average 9 percent higher income than those who sit home on Sunday. He also found less chance of being on welfare and divorced among the group.

A University of Pittsburgh study of actuarial death rates released April 3 found that weekly church attendance can increase life expectancy up to three years.

• Julia Duin contributed to this report.

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