Friday, April 13, 2012

Religious States Bring Up the Rear

Mississippi finally has something to thank God about.  The Deep South state ranks last nationally in median family income, last in savings, last in personal income, last in oral health, last in spending on public transportation.  The Magnolia State ranks almost last in such areas as labor supply, economic climate and quality of life.

However, Mississippi is first in the nation in one thing:  it is the most religious state in the United States, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  The study found that 59 percent of residents there are very religious.

Mississippians may live in a state of grace, but apparently that’s about all they have going for them.

There’s really nothing new in the findings.  After all, as any Republican knows, there’s a good reason why the South is known as the Bible Belt (right).  Residents in such economically and socially depressed areas invariably turn to religion for succor.  What other choice do they have? The situation is obviously far bigger than something their officials can deal with.

That’s why, in the Gallup research, other economically depressed Southern states such as Alabama, George, Arkansas and South Carolina also showed up on the most religious side of the ledger.  If politicians seem ill-equipped to handle the problems, then maybe God will.

That’s been a common thread through Western history.  Confronted with the unknown and the overwhelming, people looked toward empty heavens and prayed for help.  Those how we ended up with the messiah idea.  Downtrodden Jews, aware they could not overcome the massive and successive Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires, manufactured an image of an all-powerful hero would rid them of them of their oppressors and rule over a religious state.

When some of them decided that no warrior could handle the task, even with God’s assistance, they amended the idea to a prayerful being whose piety would induce God to act.   Messiahs have come and gone since then without any success for more than 2,000 years, but the concept lives on.  It was definitely no help to the people who originated this idea.  The Essenes (left) were wiped out by the Romans around 70 C.E.

In the South, enslaved Africans adopted Christianity with enormous fervor, knowing they had to turn skyward for help.  It definitely wasn’t going to come from their overseers or deeply racist Southern whites.  Not surprisingly then, African-Americans remain “the most religious of any major race or ethnic group,” Gallup said.  It’s not a coincidence that Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents compared with any state in the union.

Other statistics in the poll were even more intriguing.  New England dominated the least religious state: Vermont and New Hampshire led that list, followed by Maine.  

Less than 30 percent of people in those states classify themselves as religious.  

Overall, only 40 percent of Americans said that “religion is an important part of their daily life and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week.”  That’s almost balanced by the 32 percent who said they were nonreligious.  The remainder – 28 percent – say “religion is important but that they do not attend services regularly or religion is not important but they still attend services.”

The findings carry a political connotation.  Alaska was among the top five least religious, despite the presence of Sarah Palin.  She is definitely not preaching to the choir.  Massachusetts was the other state in the top five, and it’s the home of Mitt Romney, the sometimes-conservative likely Republican presidential candidate.

In fact, non-religious states tend to be Democratic, while religious states are overwhelmingly Republican.  

The country is fairly split on religious grounds.  However, it’s important to note that the most successful states economically, the states where residents are the happiest, have the best quality of life and economies belong in the non-religious category.

For example, the top four states in personal income are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, all classified as nonreligious.  Religious states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi head the list of states with percentage of the population below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
As for safety, there’s a lot of reason for prayer:  Religious states dominate the annual CQ Press State Crime Rankings: the Louisiana was the murder capital of the country; Alabama was fifth; South Carolina was No. 1 in assaults; Arkansas was second in burglaries and fourth in rapes. 

All the top healthiest states, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Minnesota, fall into the nonreligious category.  Guess which states are on the bottom of that list? Louisiana and Mississippi.
Overall, the best states to live were all nonreligious, such as New Hampshire, Minnesota and Vermont.  The worst: Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Religion definitely has its limitations.  It’s nice for a weekend get-together and to redirect down-to-earth concerns, but obviously not for much else.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 


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