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Anna G. Larson, Published December 01 2012

North Dakota ranks No. 2 in religious adherence; Minnesota is No. 9

Faith In Focus series

Today is the first of a four-part series titled “Faith in Focus,” which will be featured in The Forum every Sunday this month.

Today’s package looks at North Dakota and Minnesota’s high rate of religious adherence.

Next week, Bethel Evangelical Free Church and Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo have weekly attendance rates of 2,000 or more, qualifying them as “megachurches.” We’ll take a look at what it means to be a megachurch.

The third and fourth installments of the series will be about growing religions and what churches are doing to reach out to youth.

FARGO - North Dakota is one of the most religious states in the U.S., according to researchers who study congregation membership.

“The Bible Belt isn’t just in the South,” said the Rev. Paul Nynas, executive pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo. “The Midwest, and North Dakota in particular, has strong churches and communities.”

North Dakota has the second-highest rate of religious adherence in the United States, with 67.1 percent of North Dakotans claiming a religion, according to statistics from the 2010 Association of Religion Data Archives U.S. Congregational Membership report. The ARDA conducts membership surveys every 10 years.

Utah is No. 1, with 79.1 percent of its population claiming a religion. Maine ranked lowest at 27.6 percent.

Minnesotans also are faithful at a rate higher than the national average. The state’s rate of adherence ranks ninth in the nation, with 56.3 percent of Minnesotans claiming religious adherence.

People who are not adherents of any of the 236 groups included in the ARDA study account the largest group of people nationwide, with 51 percent of Americans listed as “unclaimed.” In Minnesota, 44 percent consider themselves unclaimed, and 33 percent of North Dakotans are unclaimed.

Catholics are 19 percent of the U.S. population, 22 percent of Minnesota’s population and 25 percent of North Dakota’s population.

Sixteen percent of U.S. residents are evangelical Protestants, compared to 14 percent of Minnesotans and 12 percent of North Dakotans.

Seven percent of the people in the U.S. are mainline Protestant, compared to 29 percent in North Dakota and 18 percent in Minnesota.

Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Judaism and more than a dozen other religions, plus black Protestants and Orthodox Christians, make up a smaller sliver of religious people in the region that in the U.S. Nationally, 7 percent observe one of those religions. It’s only 1 percent in North Dakota and 2 percent in Minnesota.

Historian and Concordia College professor Roy Hammerling attributes North Dakota’s and Minnesota’s high rates of religious adherence to strong immigrant traditions, the abundance of rural communities and each state’s connection to agriculture.

“There’s something about culture and religion that people in this area still find valuable to this day,” he says.

Physical church buildings are plentiful locally, too. West Fargo counts 28 properties with a religious exemption claim on file for 2012, Fargo has 142 and Moorhead 49, according to documents from each city.

The Rev. Luke Meyer of the Diocese of Fargo said there are a couple of explanations for the number of churches in the area. The denominational character of religious culture in America is one reason.

“More churches could just mean more denominations of ecclesial communities, rather than an increased level of faith in general,” Meyer said in an email. “However, in North Dakota, I think there is something about the rural culture that can provide a helpful environment in which the faith is received.”

Close-knit communities, he said, can provide a sense of stability and belonging that keeps people connected to their churches.

The cultural and family emphasis of those communities makes them able to hold their church bodies together in a way that other, more suburban areas might not, Hammerling said.

“I think anything that promotes community is part of the reason why we see a high rate of adherence,” he says.

While North Dakota and Minnesota ranked in the top 10 states in 2010, ARDA data shows the percentage of residents who identify with a religion has dropped on both sides of the Red River.

North Dakota’s adherence rate was at 67.1 percent in 2010, down from 73.2 percent in 2000. It was 75.9 percent in 1990 and 73.9 percent in 1980.

In Minnesota, the 2010 rate was 56.3 percent, a drop from 61.7 percent in 2000. It was 64.9 percent in 1990 and 65.1 percent in 1980.

Over the same time period the U.S. rate barely fell at all – from 50 percent in 1980 to 48.8 percent in 2010.

Nynas said that no matter the numbers, the future for religion in North Dakota appears bright.

“North Dakota has strong Midwestern values,” he said. “Our churches really focus on core values and outreach, and I think people appreciate that.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

Dakotas high in number of congregations

States with the most congregations per 10,000 people:

• West Virginia: 24 per 10,000 people.

• Arkansas and Mississippi: 23 per 10,000 people.

• North Dakota and South Dakota: 22 per 10,000 people.

Source: The Association of Religion Data Archives