There is little debate that most Americans are faith-oriented people. Yet how does spirituality and religion differ from one city to the next? A Barna Group study of regional and city-level expressions of faith both confirms and rejects many popular stereotypes about faith and religion in America.
The findings—drawn from the Markets 2011 and States 2011 reports—are based on nearly 40,000 interviews conducted over the last seven years by Barna Group.
The cities (measured in the Barna research as media markets) with the highest proportion of residents who describe themselves as Christian are typically in the South, including: Shreveport (98%), Birmingham (96%), Charlotte (96%), Nashville (95%), Greenville, SC / Asheville, NC (94%), New Orleans (94%), Indianapolis (93%), Lexington (93%), Roanoke-Lynchburg (93%), Little Rock (92%), and Memphis (92%).
The lowest share of self-identified Christians inhabited the following markets: San Francisco (68%), Portland, Oregon (71%), Portland, Maine (72%), Seattle (73%), Sacramento (73%), New York (73%), San Diego (75%), Los Angeles (75%), Boston (76%), Phoenix (78%), Miami (78%), Las Vegas (78%), and Denver (78%). Even in these cities, however, roughly three out of every four residents align with Christianity.
An interesting difference is the markets that tend toward skepticism about religion in general – including Portland, Maine (19% of the population identify as being atheist or agnostic), Seattle (19%), Portland, Oregon (16%), Sacramento (16%), and Spokane (16%) – as compared to markets that have a high proportion of faiths other than Christianity represented – including New York (12%), San Francisco (11%), West Palm Beach (10%), Baltimore (8%), Denver (8%), Los Angeles (8%), Portland, Oregon (8%), and Miami (8%).
One area of interest to many cultural observers is regional churchgoing patterns. The Barna research shows that reported weekly church attendance was highest among residents of Birmingham (67%), followed by Baton Rouge (62%), Salt Lake City (62%), and Huntsville (60%).
The markets with the largest share of unchurched adults included San Francisco (44% of whom had not been to a religious worship service in the last six months), Portland, Maine (43%), Portland, Oregon (42%), Albany (42%), Boston (40%), Sacramento (40%), Seattle (40%), Spokane (39%), New York (38%), Phoenix (38%), Tucson (37%), and West Palm Beach (37%).The research also pointed out some other interesting church engagement patterns. For instance, the markets with the highest proportions of Christians who attend megachurches (1,000 or more adult attenders) included Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas, San Diego, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Houston. The markets most likely to contain Christians who participate in small churches (with 100 or fewer adults) were Charleston (W. Virginia), Lexington (Kentucky), Little Rock, Scranton, Shreveport, and Pittsburgh.
Church volunteers were most frequently reported in Charlotte and Salt Lake City, while the markets with the highest proportion of volunteers for non-profits, other than churches, were Tucson and Seattle. Beyond activity and affiliation, the Barna research delves into matters of belief, which often demonstrated even wider gaps across various regions of the country. For instance, when asked to either agree or disagree with the statement “the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches,” significant differences of opinion emerged. Nearly three-quarters of the populations of Charlotte (73%) and Shreveport (73%) held scripture in high regard. This compares with only one-quarter of the residents of Providence, Rhode Island (27%) and San Francisco (28%)
A similar pattern was discovered when it came to those who felt a “responsibility to tell others about their religious beliefs.” Evangelism was firmly endorsed by a majority of those residing in Birmingham (64% said they agreed strongly that a person has a responsibility to share their beliefs with others) and Charlotte (54%); residents of Providence (14%) and Boston (17%), among other cities, were generally least supportive of such faith-sharing activities. Regional Politics and Faith
Another significant gap related to the intersection of faith and politics. The markets with the highest proportion of practicing Christians who are registered Democrats were Shreveport (63% of practicing Christians in this city were affiliated with the Democratic Party), Harlingen, Texas (53%), Lexington, Kentucky (49%), Memphis (48%), and El Paso (47%). Democrats were scarce among Christians in Green Bay (11%), Austin (17%), Seattle (18%), and Grand Rapids (19%).
On the other side of the ledger, practicing Christians who are Republicans were most common among residents of Wichita, Kansas (54%), Springfield, Illinois (50%), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (49%), and Knoxville, Tennessee (49%). Christians affiliated with the Republican Party were most rare in Providence, Rhode Island (10%), Shreveport (14%), Detroit (15%), and Memphis (17%).
David Kinnaman, who directed the research project for Barna Group, mentioned that the study “confirmed many spiritual assumptions about various regions of the country. The South hosts many of the nation’s Christians, while the West and Northeast play to more secular stereotypes.
“However, one of the underlying stories is the remarkably resilient and mainstream nature of Christianity in America. Nearly three out of four people call themselves Christians, even among the least ‘Christianized’ cities. Furthermore, a majority of U.S. residents, regardless of location, engage in a church at some level in a typical six-month period. The real differences spiritually between various regions are not so much what they call themselves; the faith gaps are more likely to be issues of belief, practice, politics and spiritual emphasis – how people think about, prioritize and express their faith.”
Kinnaman also pointed out that the Barna study used the definitions of media markets, which look broadly at the households within the reach of the predominant media of the region. Sometimes localized community studies of specific areas (such as those defined by a zip code) can exhibit unique faith patterns among residents.
About the Research
This article is based upon a pair of new reports from Barna Group, titled Markets 2011 and States 2011. The research is based on 39,423 telephone interviews conducted over the last seven years by Barna Group. Each of these interviews were part of a random sample of adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older. Beginning in 2009, the interviews included people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±0.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
“Practicing Christians” are defined as those who identify as Christian; who have attended a religious worship service at least once in the past month; and who say their religious faith is very important in their life.
“Skeptics” refers to people who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic.
The Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through that website.
This article was originally published on Barna.org in October 2010.
© Barna Group 2010.