Mapping America's souls

red blue countiesThe red-and-blue maps of how each county voted in the 2000 presidential election have acquired an iconic power that may last for decades. You'll see frequent references on GetReligion to red or blue states (or counties). Kedron Bardwell, who left an irenic comment on our recent Democrats & the God thing thread, makes good use of such a map on his blog, Flyover Nation. Now comes another map, in the September issue of The Atlantic, that probably will never catch on as widely but presents important data nevertheless. (The map does not yet appear on The Alantic's website, but it draws from Religious Congregations & Membership, a decennial study published by the Glenmary Research Center.

The Atlantic's map shows the percentage of county populations claimed by 149 participating denominations, ranging from a low of 0.1-34.9 percent (teal green) to a high of 75 or more (red clay). The resulting map is a mosaic that shows how nearly every state has pockets of nominalism or, further along the spectrum, what political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio call "anti-fundamentalists."

The Atlantic uses six markers to highlight patterns:

• The Godless Northwest: Props to Medford, Ore., as "the nation's most godless locale."

• Latter-day Republicans: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gained 680,000 converts in the 1990s. "This is good news for the Republican Party, since 88 percent of Mormons who voted in 2000 went for George W. Bush."

• Catholicism's Changing Face: The Catholic Church grew by 16 percent in the 1990s, and its heart is shifting to the South and the West.

• The Pious Dakotas: The Atlantic identifies Bismarck, N.D., as "the third most religious metropolitan area in the country, trailing only Provo, Utah, and Lafayette, Louisiana."

• The Baptist Belt: "The South is Baptist country: the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest denomination in eight of the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and also in Kentucky and Oklahoma." (Thank you, Atlantic, for sparing us any flip references to the buckle of the Bible belt, which is usually designated by a lonely progressive, whether in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Colorado Springs, who wants out.)

• Islam Rising?: Even by the estimate of 1.6 million Muslims in the United States, "Islam is on its way to outstripping the dwindling mainline Protestant denominations. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago already have more than twice as many Muslims as Episcopalians."

Ross Douthat provides reporting and analysis to make sense of the county-by-county map:

Although the Republicans retain a strong electoral advantage among the churchgoing, the persistence of a large and bipartisan religious center should provide comfort for Democrats worried that their party has become alienated from America's religious mainstream. Moreover, although it's true that a recent rise in the country's overall religious intensity has buttressed the huge majorities that believe in God, Judgment Day, and the power of prayer, this rise has coincided with the spread of laissez-faire attitudes on matters of personal morality.

In short, the data seem to support a theory put forth a few years ago by Alan Wolfe, a sociologist at Boston College: Americans are increasingly governed by a philosophy of "moral freedom," in which a general piety coexists with a distate for dogma and a willingness to accept a broad spectrum of viewpoints and lifestyles. In a country where moral freedom predominates, the long-term electoral advantage will probably go to the party that avoids the appearance of extremism, be it secular or religious.

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