Sometimes No. 10 is a good ranking.
National survey data show that Nebraska has a higher percentage of residents (55 percent) affiliated with a local religious congregation than all but nine states.
The data is compiled once a decade by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and was recently featured in the Washington Post in a series of maps. The maps are timely, since the holiday season is an appropriate time to note the continuing significance of religion in American life.
The survey results found that Iowa ranked No. 18 in terms of affiliation to a local congregation. The top three states were Utah, North Dakota and Alabama. The bottom three: Vermont, Oregon and Maine.
When the county-level results for affiliation with a congregation were plotted on the national map, it was possible to see the varying shades of religious intensity across the country. In the Great Plains region, there was a band of strong church connection in central Texas and western Oklahoma. Then the pattern started up again in northeastern Nebraska and spread across the entirety of northern Iowa, then up through nearly all of the Dakotas and into southwestern Minnesota.
In Nebraska, the areas with the highest affiliation with a religious congregation were in the southeast (Nemaha County, 94 percent, for example), along the state's southern tier of counties (one example: Red Willow County, 77 percent), parts of west central Nebraska (Grant County, 70 percent) and the northeast (including Cuming County, 89 percent, and Cedar County, 84 percent).
The number for Douglas County was 53 percent.
Another set of data showed the predominant religious affiliation (not always a majority, but still the largest single religious group) in individual counties.
Consider Catholics, for example. When Pope Leon XIII created the Archdiocese of Omaha in 1885, the archdiocese covered all of Nebraska and Wyoming and included a Catholic population of around 62,000.
These days, the Catholic population in the archdiocese exceeds 200,000. And the latest survey results show that Catholics make up the largest religious group in 47 of Nebraska's 93 counties.
Or consider Methodists. When the 1860 census was conducted in Nebraska Territory, a full half of the 63 church congregations were Methodist. These days, the survey shows that the United Methodist Church predominates in 20 Nebraska counties.
Other main groups in Nebraska: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, predominant in 11 counties; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, six; “other” (indicating smaller or independent religious groups), eight; and the American Baptist Church, one (Arthur County).
We can be thankful that we live in a nation where people are free under our Constitution to follow their consciences on matters of religion, adhering to a particular faith group or choosing no religious connection at all.
This remains a key dimension of American life, with deep roots in our history. Understanding the survey data helps us understand who are.