According to the a Gallup poll released last week, Mississippi maintained its ranking as the most religious state in the country in 2012.
Of the residents polled, 58 percent of Mississippians claimed to be “very religious,” the most of any state. Thirty percent of Mississippians claimed to be “moderately religious,” while only 11 percent identified themselves as “nonreligious.”
Though proud of the ranking, some Tupelo pastors were skeptical of the survey.
“There’s a difference between religion and faith,” said the Rev. Meg Lindsay Dudley, associate pastor for youth at Tupelo’s First Presbyterian Church. “I can see how the practice of religion could be easier to track, but real faith is hard to measure.”
The Rev. Lynn Mote, associate pastor at Tupelo’s First United Methodist Church, said tradition plays a huge part in the religiosity of Mississippi.
“Mama taught you to go to church,” she said. “Many, many people around here grew up in the church. When you meet a new person, you don’t ask them ‘do you go to church?’ you ask ‘where do you go to church?’”
First Methodist youth minister Corey Truett cautioned that tradition is not the same as execution.
“Going to church can just be another item on a person’s spiritual check list. They go on Sunday and mark it off their list and move on to the next thing,” he said. “But there is a difference between going to church and living it.”
Dr. James Bowley, head of the religious studies department at Millsaps College in Jackson, said the homogenous population of the state has slowed social and religious shifts.
“The range of cultures in Mississippi is not as diverse as the rest of the country. A homogenous population is less apt to change itself,” he said. “Also, the South is very religiously conservative, which perpetuates active religious practices more than another location or another faith.”
The effect, Bowley said, is not that Mississippi will never change. It is merely behind the curve.
“I’ve lived here for 10 years and even in that short amount of time I have seen an influx of more cultures. I believe even up in Tupelo a strong Sikh population has made its way into the demographic,” he said. “This is a good thing, because Mississippi can look at other parts of the country and anticipate what’s going to happen.”
Mississippi, whose 58 percent was one percentage point down from the previous year, is followed by Utah and Alabama, which tied with 56 percent answering to “very religious.”
Vermont again came in as the least religious state, only 19 percent polling “very religious,” edging out New Hampshire at 23 percent, and Maine at 24 percent.
Nationwide, 40 percent of Americans were classified as “very religious,” claiming religion is part of their daily life and they attend services every week or almost every week.
Mississippians – 58% (1st)
Americans overall – 40%
Vermont residents – 19% (50th)
Source: 2012 Gallup Poll