Dominant Religions in the Best and Worst States in the U.S.

I was interested in differences between the best and worst American states. This post reports on one dimension of those differences, having to do with religion. (A companion post reports on race and ethnicity.)

First, to identify the states in question, I ran searches for best-run states, best governed or administered states, and simply best states. For 2013, these and related searches led me toward two widely cited rankings. One was the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Its findings were based solely on self-reports by interviewed individuals. The other was the 24/7 Wall St. Index, which added survey and observational data going beyond the well-being focus of the Gallup-Healthways research.

The general drift of the Gallup-Healthways study is illustrated visually in this map, which depicts the results of another study, in which the Commonwealth Fund examined state healthcare systems:


Given the financial orientation of the 24/7 Wall St. Index, and divergent opinions on the importance of money, it seemed best to try to draw upon both the 24/7 Wall St. and the Gallup-Healthways state rankings. To do that, I listed the state-by-state rank numbers reported by each of these two sources, and then calculated the difference between them. Thus, as shown in the last column of the following table, 24/7 Wall St. and Gallup-Healthways did not differ at all regarding the relative rank of North Dakota, but they differed greatly in the case of California.

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Difference
ND 1 1 0
VT 6 6 0
NE 4 3 1
MI 35 37 2
MN 7 4 3
WA 12 9 3
NC 29 32 3
LA 44 41 3
NY 39 35 4
SC 42 38 4
MA 18 13 5
MD 24 18 6
IA 3 10 7
UT 5 12 7
SD 9 2 7
WI 21 14 7
GA 34 27 7
FL 37 30 7
AL 40 47 7
AK 8 16 8
OR 17 25 8
RI 47 39 8
KS 11 20 9
ID 20 29 9
PA 27 36 9
OK 33 42 9
VA 14 24 10
MT 15 5 10
CT 41 31 10
TX 10 21 11
KY 38 49 11
MS 36 48 12
AR 32 45 13
HI 22 8 14
NH 25 11 14
DE 13 28 15
MO 28 43 15
ME 30 15 15
NM 49 33 16
OH 26 46 20
NJ 43 23 20
NV 46 26 20
IN 19 40 21
CO 31 7 24
AZ 45 19 26
IL 48 22 26
WV 23 50 27
TN 16 44 28
WY 2 34 32
CA 50 17 33

That is, the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. research took very different views of the states at the bottom of that list. I was not going to research those states in detail, so as to arbitrate between these two sources. Instead, I decided to focus on the states where those two sources were in less extreme disagreement.

In the interests of getting a good representation of states that appeared at the high and low ends of both scales, and in various regions of the U.S., I went down the preceding list and drew the line at Nevada. That gave me a set of 42 states, rather than the original 50. For those 42 states, I calculated the average of the Gallup-Healthways and 24/7 Wall St. scores. Then I ranked those 42 states by that average score:

State 24/7 Wall St. Rank Gallup-Healthways Rank Average Rank
ND 1 1 1 1
NE 4 3 3.5 2
MN 7 4 5.5 3
SD 9 2 5.5 3
VT 6 6 6 5
IA 3 10 6.5 6
UT 5 12 8.5 7
MT 15 5 10 8
WA 12 9 10.5 9
AK 8 16 12 10
HI 22 8 15 11
MA 18 13 15.5 12
KS 11 20 15.5 12
TX 10 21 15.5 12
WI 21 14 17.5 15
NH 25 11 18 16
VA 14 24 19 17
DE 13 28 20.5 18
MD 24 18 21 19
OR 17 25 21 19
ME 30 15 22.5 21
ID 20 29 24.5 22
NC 29 32 30.5 23
GA 34 27 30.5 23
PA 27 36 31.5 25
NJ 43 23 33 26
FL 37 30 33.5 27
MO 28 43 35.5 28
MI 35 37 36 29
CT 41 31 36 29
OH 26 46 36 29
NV 46 26 36 29
NY 39 35 37 33
OK 33 42 37.5 34
AR 32 45 38.5 35
SC 42 38 40 36
NM 49 33 41 37
MS 36 48 42 38
LA 44 41 42.5 39
RI 47 39 43 40
AL 40 47 43.5 41
KY 38 49 43.5 41

Next, I compared this composite state ranking against dominant religion. From the immediately preceding table, I took the top 10 and the bottom 10 states and wrote their rank numbers onto this map from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census:

2010 U.S. Religion Census

For instance, there is a 41 on Alabama and a 41 on Kentucky because, of the 42 states shown on the immediately preceding table, they tied for last (i.e., 41st/42nd) place.

That enumerated map provoked several thoughts. First, it appeared that Mormonism had been good for Utah. This was not entirely clear: there was great disagreement, between those two data sources, as to the desirability of Wyoming, another heavily Mormon state, and the sources agreed that Idaho was in the middle of the pack. It was difficult to say more, because my sources were also in great disagreement as to California, Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona.

It also appeared that Catholicism was not necessarily a good predictor, given the good showings of Montana and Washington and the bad showings of much of the Northeast. Location may have been a confounding factor there: except for three small states in New England, no state on the East Coast achieved the top 40% of the composite ranking.

Probably the most visible aspect of the religion map (above) is the contrast between the Lutheran states of the upper Midwest and the Southern Baptist states. Every state in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church maintains a substantial presence falls into the top ten in the composite ranking, whereas not one of the states in which the Southern Baptist Convention maintains a substantial presence made it into the top ten. Indeed, except for Texas and Virginia — both of which display substantial non-Baptist influence — every Southern Baptist state landed in the bottom half of the list.

But perhaps that is merely coincidental. How important is religion, for inhabitants of these various states: what kind of influence do these denominations exert? A PewResearch study in 2008 indicated that, except for Utah, Southern Baptist states accounted for every state in which at least 50% of residents said they attended church at least once a week. By contrast, in the top-ranked north-central states, claimed attendance rates ranged from 47% in Nebraska down to 38% in Minnesota. The Pew study further found that, in most Southern Baptist states, between 66% and 82% of residents said that religion was very important in their lives, and that they prayed every day, whereas in the Lutheran states the percentages saying similar things ranged between 51% and 58%.

These findings suggested that the two different denominations might play different roles in believers’ lives. For one thing, there is the contradiction between New Testament passages emphasizing the continued importance of the Mosaic law and those indicating that believers are freed from that law. On that issue, Southern Baptists come down in favor of the law. Thus the South seems to be forever generating controversies involving the erection of Ten Commandment sculptures in public places. In other ways as well, Southern Baptist beliefs seem to emphasize control over individuals by authority figures: women are subordinate to men, and may not be ministers; God prohibits abortion, some forms of birth control, and many forms of sexual behavior; there is a need for an infallible written guidebook to life, and the Bible is it. By contrast, Evangelical Lutherans, like most mainstream Protestant denominations, take less simplistic and generally less condemnatory stances on a variety of issues.

There is also a potential difference between the Evangelical Lutherans and the Southern Baptists on the nature of piety. As suggested by personal experience and by the foregoing PewResearch findings, Southern Baptist belief tends to emphasize the constant immediacy of God’s presence and activity in the believer’s life. Given life’s persistent and recurrent reminders that, in fact, God does not seem to be doing very much along these lines, either for the individual believer or for the state in which s/he resides, this tends to be magical thinking. As an occasional lottery player, I sympathize with the never-say-die, hope-springs-eternal mindset in which God is always just around the corner, almost ready to play his hand. But the net result is debilitating. It substitutes a massive, unknowable divine plan for the personal believer’s disciplined focus and persistent effort to achieve desired outcomes. Leaving it in God’s hands, as Baptist-style fundamentalists often proclaim they are doing, can amount to mere laziness or defeatism. In other words, a claimed devotion to God in one’s daily life may not be that at all.

Those remarks raise, in turn, the problem of accountability. Magical thinking seems to entail the endless generation of excuses for the palpable contrast between a religion’s claims and its realities. In particular, as a search readily indicates, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been plagued by hypocritical contrasts between the denomination’s rule-oriented claims and its rule-breaking behaviors. It is not just the high-profile cases, such as the supposedly taboo divorces among leading SBC preachers and the alleged frequency of sex abuse by SBC clergy; it is also the fact of bad behaviors among SBC believers — worse, sometimes, than among the supposedly ungodly general public — in such areas as divorce and premarital sex. It would be an understatement to observe that this denomination has been more driven by wishful thinking than by data — except in one area: membership. Confronted by the reality of a shrinking membership, in 1995 the SBC finally decided it was time to admit its historical role as a supporter of slavery, and to welcome blacks into the church.

This brief look suggests, in short, that perhaps it is not so much the fact of religion, as it is the form of religion, that influences whether a particular state will be among those going forward or backward. Some might suggest that this look at the matter is flawed by its reliance upon secular values prioritized by researchers, but it is not clear that the views of believers and researchers are terribly different, in such matters as life expectancy and criminal behavior; nor can one easily discount research based on participants’ own assessments of their personal well-being.

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