Religious identities geographically displayed

A colleague sent me this link. He knows I am deeply interested in denominations and in the concept “evangelical.” See:

(I tried both keyboarding it here and copying it here from the actual web site but in neither case would it display as a hyperlink.)

Here are some things that grab my attention (not that they all necessarily surprise me):

1) The states where the greatest portion of the population identifies as “evangelical” (mostly in the South) are also the states with the highest rates of illiteracy, infant mortality, poverty, etc. Now there are at least two possible interpretations of that: a) evangelicals are unconcerned about these matters or not sufficiently concerned to fix them, and/or b) poor people and people in distress are more likely to turn to God in an evangelical way (promise of heaven upon simple faith in Jesus, etc.).

2) Evangelicals supposedly make up the highest or second highest portion of the population (or the religious portion of the population) in many unexpected places (e.g., the Upper Northwest).

3) “Evangelical” must be a very broad category to include so many people in states like Iowa. (I’m from Iowa so I kind of know about it!)

I have to wonder what exact question was put to people that led to so many identifying as “evangelical?” If that many are really “evangelical” I worry about its meaning. The media uses the term as virtually synonymous with “politically and socially conservative.” Do some people think of themselves as evangelical simply because they oppose “gay marriage” and abortion on demand, etc.?

I prefer a map (and I’ve seen some) that breaks it down more (more religious categories such as “Pentecostal-Charismatic” and “Lutheran” and “Christian Science” and “Unitarian”) even by counties. I once saw such a map (I’m sure it’s available somewhere on the internet) and looked to see if there are any counties in the U.S. that are predominantly Pentecostal (as that’s the faith tradition in which I was raised an many of my relatives are still that). There were a couple counties in Missouri where that was the dominant religious identity (not majority but plurality).

In any case, I’m very suspicious of this particular graphic. I seriously doubt that many people are really evangelical in the spiritual-theological sense. I would ask “Which of these faith traditions do you primarily identify with?” and then have as the descriptor of “evangelical”: “Believing that authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience involving repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that involves striving to live a holy life, faith in the Bible as God’s inspired, written Word, that Christ’s death on the cross is the atonement for sins, and that communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to others and inviting them to ‘accept Christ as Savior’ is of paramount importance. It also involves believing in the basic doctrines of Protestant orthodoxy: supreme authority of the Bible for Christian faith and practice, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity and salvation by grace through faith alone.”

Somehow I suspect many fewer would identify as “evangelical” if this robust definition/description were used!


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim Reisdorf

    I was curious to find that the Jehovah’s Witnesses account for 2% of the populations of WY and NM – the 2 highest states on the map for them. Less than half a percent for WI, but I work with 4 of them in the IT department of my company.

    Roger, I would guess that 1b is the better explanation. The “Redneck culture” (as defined by Thomas Sowell) already existed in the South and that Evangelical Protestantism is a better fit with that culture than the other dominant religious strains in the survey. But many have “grown out” of that culture while keeping the Evangelical portions.

    I’d be interested in a map that referenced population density with things like religious affiliation and education (et al). It is there where you’d find some groups to fit your 1a idea of unconcerned about education.

    • rogereolson

      An excellent book on evangelicalism and southern culture is Southern Cross by Christine Heyerman. She argues that when evangelical (mostly Baptist and Methodist) missionaries flooded into the South in the late 1700s and early 1800s most of the South was non-religious and southern culture (an honor-driven culture in which dueling was common place) changed the evangelicalism as much as it changed southern culture.

  • Daniel W

    Dr. Olson,

    This is unrelated to this post, so I understand if you don’t post it. I was just wondering what your thoughts are on this recent post on Rachel Evan’s blog:

    Here two guest writers, Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders, briefly explain the reasoning behind Process Theology. They claim to be arguing against the doctrine that God is omnipotent, but they actually seem to be just arguing against Calvinism.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t have time to read everything suggested to me as I’m deep into research and writing a book right now. I will just say that, yes, it is my impression that most process theologians (and those enamored with it) are reacting against some version of divine determinism and not as much against relational theism.

  • Rob

    Here is a MUCH more fine grained survey that gives maps by major tradition or individual denomination. You can also choose between maps with rates of adherence and maps with total number of adherents.

    • rogereolson

      Very helpful!

  • Rob

    Why do people so often feel the need to mention that the states with the highest illiteracy rates or whatever (insert negative demographic statistic here) with rates of Evangelicalism? It feels sometimes like people are either trying to suggest that Evangelicalism causes/aids/promotes/encourages people to be dumb or Evangelicalism can only be embraced by dumb people. I cannot think of any other reason to mention the two together. But careful look at the data should reveal that there is no connection.

    The illiteracy rates range between 3% in the lowest states and 10% in the highest states. Evangelical affiliation varies wildly: Oklahoma is over 50% Evangelical while there are states in New England that are less than 5% by some metrics. If there truly was some connection, you would expect to see the connection in the rates. The states with the lowest literacy rates, Utah and Wyoming, have healthy Evangelical populations and Utah is almost 2/3 Mormons.

    The two states with the highest rates of illiteracy are California and Texas. The best explanation is that these two states have high rates of Spanish-speaking immigrants who are not yet literate in English. Southern states have high rates of illiteracy also. Southern states also have the highest percentage of African-Americans and a long history of their social and economic oppression. It is pointless to compare Mississippi to Vermont when Mississippi has a long history of state-imposed inequality between whites and blacks and Vermont has no such history; it is comparing apples to oranges.

    If we want to see the difference between liberal/conservative or evangelical/secular by comparing the literacy rates of different states, we should compare states that are otherwise similar. Maybe Wyoming would be a good state to compare to Vermont, but South Carolina is too different to show anything.

    • rogereolson

      But my point was that IF true evangelicalism were really that important in a state social and economic oppression would not be as prevalent.

  • Scott Gay

    Evangelical to you has its roots to the Reformation and, in fact, to the Pentecost of the Acts of the Apostles. In the United States it is essentially a post WWII reality that was the antidote to what Tillich called “The Protestant Era”(which
    should have been called the end of the Protestant Era). I can relate to the late internet monk about an Evangelical wilderness, because of its mile wide and inch deep aspects. I have no publishing or employment ties to the “institutioal” aspects, so therefore could really care less if it survives. And the push by the so-called neo-reformed for some kind of bounded set that they influence leaves me wondering about their psychological make-up. Your descriptor of “evangelical” defines me, but I don’t care for a continuation of the term. There is probably some negative descriptor out there that is going to be placed on me by outsiders as mockery, but turned into a badge of honor.

  • drwayman

    Dr. Olson – You said, “I prefer a map (and I’ve seen some) that breaks it down more (more religious categories such as “Pentecostal-Charismatic” and “Lutheran” and “Christian Science” and “Unitarian”) even by counties.”

    If you go to the site breaks down many definers with one being church affiliate and pentecostal is one of the categories. However, Christian Science is lacking. It’s a start but still not quite what you want…

    • rogereolson


  • SilenceDoGood

    Thanks Roger for this blog. I am a Christian but of a denomination that has been “targeted” by most mainstream Christianity (or what I consider to be evangelicals) as non Christian. I believe what primarily sets us apart is that, like some other devoted Christian denominations, we do not follow the Nicene Creed who established that Jesus is God as well as few other biblical differences. But as a birth doula, I have become increasingly interested in why the “bible belt” areas have more states where midwifery is illegal, more doctor birth interventions and infant mortality rates are excessively high compared to the rest of the U.S. In fact, in general, the U.S. is second among First World countries, in infant mortality rates where other countries who rate in the least infant mortality rates have fewer doctor inventions and more midwife attended and/or natural childbirth. It’s a fascinating study and one that I hope will receive more attention in coming years so I thank you for bringing this topic up. Faith and spiritual mindedness should never outweigh intelligence nor should intellectualism exclude the things of faith and spirituality. There is a healthy balance to be found between them all.

    • Because the US has highly advanced medicine that can keep children alive when born prematurely so they count as live births, but being born prematurely they also have a predisposition to dying regardless later.

      Other countries without those medical resources don’t even try to save children born that prematurely and they die without being counted as a live birth.

      Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

      Peter fell on his knees before Jesus and called him, “my Lord and my God.” Pliny the Younger records that first century Christians prayed to Jesus, “as to a god.” Worshiping the Son along with the Father long predated Nicaea.

  • Mormonism is not a Christian denomenation or faction – strange that it would be considered to be so.

  • AmyK

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    This isn’t really the point of your post, but I’m just curious about how much you agree or not with the beliefs that make up your definition of evangelical. I guess I’m especially interested in your thoughts on the utmost importance of communicating the gospel to others and inviting them into a relationship with Jesus. I’m a relatively new reader of your blog, so I apologize if you’ve been over this in the past. Feel free to point me to other resources instead of answering here.

    • rogereolson

      Mark Noll and David Bebbington (evangelical historians) have helpfully surveyed “Evangelicalism” especially in Great Britain and America and have discovered that the four universal beliefs are: biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. “Activism” includes evangelism. I do think that evangelism is a necessary aspect of evangelical faith and its form of life. I would question the evangelical identity of anyone who does not believe in and support evangelism.

  • Chase A

    Dr. Olson,

    I’m curious what your thoughts are about the relationship between Episcopalianism and Evangelicalism. I know this can vary on a case-to-case basis (i.e., high vs. low ritual) and regionally; however, in general, could one consider an Episcopal to be Evangelical? Your linked map separates these two by categorizing “Evangelical Protestant” and “Mainline Protestant.” (I have a personal interest in this question. Although I was raised Baptist and attended a Baptist university, I have recently become Episcopal for a number of reasons).

    • rogereolson

      By all means an Episcopalian/Anglican can be evangelical. Many are. Think of John Stott and N. T. Wright and J. I. Packer. I could go on and on. However, I think an evangelical Episcopalian will have to disagree with the high church/sacramentalists in his or her communion insofar as they believe saving grace is imparted sacramentally without the necessity of a personal decision for Christ at the age of accountability.