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Religiosity Compass Points South

by Linda Lyons

First in a series on the demographics of Gallup's Index of Leading Religious Indicators.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of people living in the South consider themselves members of the religious right. This percentage is significantly higher than in any other region of the country -- just 13% in the East, 14% in the West, and 16% in the Midwest identify themselves this way. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Southerners receive the highest religiosity rating, 695, in this year's Index of Leading Religious Indicators.

Based on eight questions (some that have been remarkably constant over the years, others that change quickly in reaction to events in both the religious and secular worlds), the 2002 Index shows that the South (695) and the Midwest (678) are both well above the national average of 641. The rating in the East (601) is substantially lower than the national average, but the West has the lowest score at 565.

Not only do Southerners have the highest levels of religiosity overall, they also give the highest ratings on every item in the Index, with one exception. Midwesterners rate the honesty and ethics of clergy members somewhat higher (59% rate these "high" or "very high") than residents of the other regions of the country, all of whose ratings are around 50%. Church membership is the highest among Southerners (73%) and lowest among Westerners, 54% of whom claim membership in a church or synagogue.

Americans in the West rank lowest on the overall Index, as well as lowest on all eight individual measurements. Westerners have the least amount of confidence in organized religion -- 33% say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the church or organized religion.

"Belief in God or a universal spirit" is the only measurement that is statistically identical across all four regions. This measure averages 95% throughout the entire nation, with a slightly lower percentage in the East and the West (92%).

Key Points

The Gallup Index of Leading Religious Indicators may appear to reflect familiar stereotypes: the Bible Belt sensibilities of the South and Midwest, and more secular attitudes and behaviors of those predominantly city-dwellers on the East and West Coasts. But Gallup survey data do produce remarkably consistent findings going back into the 1950s, indicating there is a scientific basis for such perceptions.

The 2002 Index was compiled from surveys of national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted throughout the year.

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