The Real Boundaries of the Bible Belt

Perhaps its time to start referring to a 'religiosity belt,' instead.

Religion in America has an unmistakable geographic dimension. Just released survey data from the Gallup Organization documents the country’s well-defined "religiosity belt" which stretches across its southern tier.

(Click the map for a larger image)

The map charts state-by-state differences in Gallup's Religiosity Index, which is based on respondents’ answers to questions about the importance of religion to their everyday lives, and how often they attend religious services. The study notes that:

Residents of Southern states are generally the most religious, underscoring the validity of the "Bible Belt" sobriquet often used to describe this region. Coupled with the Southern states in the high-religiosity category is Utah, the majority of whose residents are Mormon -- the most religious group in America today. On the other hand, residents of New England and a number of far Western states tend to be the least religious.

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I took a look at some of the key economic, cultural, and demographic factors that might be correlated with religiosity on a state-by-state basis. Our analysis focuses on the percent of state residents Gallup classifies as "very religious." As usual, I note that correlation only suggests associations between variables; it does not imply what causes what. An additional caveat should be kept in mind: Gallup notes that its research suggests that religiosity is only loosely related to demographic factors and is more closely tied to specific state subcultures.

That said, religion remains a key fault line in American life.

Gallup notes the relationship between religious intensity and American voting patterns, with the most religious states generally skewing Republican and the least religious trending Democrat. Our own analysis bears this out. We found a substantial positive correlation between religiosity and the percent of state residents that voted for McCain (.67) and consider themselves conservative (.78), and a substantial negative one between religiosity and the percent of residents who voted for Obama (-.64) and consider themselves liberal (-.75).

Religion also conforms to the faultiness of socio-economic class across U.S. states, hewing closely to its three key dimensions - income, education and occupation.

Religiosity is higher in lower income states where poverty is prevalent. The share of state residents who say religion is very important to their daily lives is correlated with the poverty rate (.60) and negatively associated with state income levels (-.56).

Education plays a role. Religiosity is higher in less educated states, and negatively associated with the share of state residents that are college grads (-.55).

Religion is also associated with the types of work people do. Religiosity is positively associated with the share of working class jobs (.61) and negatively associated with the share of workers doing knowledge, profession and creative work (-.38). 

These findings are in line with those of political scientist Ronald Inglehart, whose detailed World Values Surveys identify the shift from religious to secular values as one part of the transition to more economically advanced societies.

Politicos on the left and right like to explain religious voters' proclivity purely in terms of values. But this misses a central point - that religion is inextricably bound up with the nation's underlying economic and geographic class divide.

Image: Tami Chappell/Reuters

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here