LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Beliefs Run Deep: Mississippi tops several categories on national religion survey

LaReeca Rucker
The Clarion-Ledger

The location of the Bible Belt's "buckle" is a subject of debate, but a new report suggests it may be Mississippi.

After analyzing data collected from 35,000 American adults who participated in the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, researchers ranked Mississippi first in four categories that measure religious commitment.

They found Mississippians have the highest percentage of people who believe religion is important. They pray the most. They attend church the most. And more of them are certain God exists.

"Mississippi really does look to be No. 1 with respect to the importance of religion," said Greg Smith, a Pew Forum senior researcher. "Eighty-two percent of people in Mississippi say religion is important in their lives."

Why does Mississippi top the list? Current and former Mississippians shared their thoughts about the ranking.

Eric Pratt, vice president for Christian Development at Mississippi College, said he thinks Mississippi is at the top of the list because many remain here throughout their lives, retaining their traditional values and heritage.

"We haven't been transplanted from other places," he said. "Our movement is still within the state, so there is a lot of family, church and community connection."

James Bowley, a religious studies professor at Millsaps College, agrees.

"We don't have as much outside influence," he said. "We tend to conserve some older religious practices. But if you compare us to ourselves 20 years ago, we change. We just might change a little slower in some categories."

Bowley said the new findings are even more interesting in light of the state's frequent high rank in teen pregnancy statistics and low rank in education.

"People would say religious people value education and certain ideas of morality, so how is our religion affecting those categories?" he asked.

He also wonders if we are as religious as we claim to be. "Mississippians hold certain religious ideas as icons," he said. "For example, the Bible is considered a very important authority, ideal and standard. However, I think the Bible is really just an icon for a lot of people. They've never really read it.

"It's not really the content that matters so much (to some). What matters is that the Bible is preserved as a symbol, and the traditional things they've heard that are in the Bible maintain the culture. In some ways, this isn't a new problem. Back in the 17th century, the philosopher Voltaire said the Bible is more celebrated than known."

Kay Maghan, a Mississippi native who now lives in Hershey, Pa., said she's noticed Mississippians are more outspoken about their religious beliefs than others.

"In Mississippi, it's perfectly acceptable - and many times expected - to have invocations before business or school functions or to pray before meals," she said. "The prevalent approach up here seems to be that religious beliefs, prayer and faith are private matters - most definitely not something to be discussed in the workplace."

Maghan said Mississippians should be proud of the ranking. "While some people outside the state may look at this ranking as a bad thing or 'typical' for their skewed stereotypical perception of the state and the people who call it home ... it makes me proud that people in the state are upholding that foundation," she said.

Unlike Maghan, Clinton resident John R. Nielsen isn't sure the ranking is positive. "This is the only state where I've had many strangers ask me where I go to church after a few minutes of conversation in a checkout line," he said. "The Christian religion is woven into Mississippi's cultural tapestry."

Nielsen said political advertisements rarely fail to mention a candidate's faith, despite the Constitution forbidding a religious test to hold public office. And while we're often known as the friendliest and most giving state in the nation, he believes some of our problems are due to religious roadblocks, such as opposition to sex education in a state with the highest teen birth rate.

"We are now in the year 2010, and there are still more people fighting against the teaching of evolutionary biology than accepting the theory, which is better established scientifically than Einstein's theory of gravitation," he said. "Without evolutionary knowledge discovered through a sort of reverse engineering, we would not have gene therapy, organ transplants or a climbing rate of cancer cures."

Mississippi native Dawn Macke now lives in Las Vegas. "Growing up in Mississippi, I tried all religions before deciding to be agnostic - Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Nazarene, even a touch of nondenominational charismatic religion," she said. "I saw someone speak in tongues when I was 12 and knew a primitive Baptist snake-handler or two in Northeast Mississippi.

"I just thought that's the way things were - people were religious and crazy-spiritual everywhere, and the church was an integral part of everyone's lives."

Macke thinks the state's socioeconomic status has been a driving factor in Mississippi's devotion.

"Like blues evolved from the hardship of the slaves and fieldworkers, our religion has thrived in the same vein," she said. "We've endured racial tensions, social inequality and an economy based on the hard-scrabble trade of farming.

"So many people were poor that needed hope, inspiration and something to believe in. On the flip side, those better off felt it only Christian and right to provide charity to those less fortunate.

"We're one of the nation's poorest states, but relatively speaking, we give more. Is it because of religious values and fervor or just tender hearts?"

By the numbers

The four categories in which Mississippi ranked

No. 1: - More than 8 in 10 people in Mississippi, or 82 percent, say religion is very important in their lives. Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina also topped the list, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Alaska ranked at the bottom.

No 2 - In most Southern states, frequency of worship attendance meets or exceeds the national average. By contrast, in all Northeastern states, frequency of attendance meets or falls below the national average.

No. 3 - More than 75 percent of people in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina pray at least once a day. By contrast, roughly 4 in 10 people living in Maine, Massachusetts, Alaska, New Hampshire and Vermont say they pray daily.

Certainty of Belief in God - More than 9 in 10 Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 71 percent nationally say they are absolutely certain of this belief. At least 85 percent of people living in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama say they are certain God exists. By contrast, in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont, fewer than 6 in 10 express an absolute certain belief in God.


The Journalism Portfolio of LaReeca Rucker