How often does one read a survey and find Mississippi in first place for something positive? Well, that moment has arrived. Mississippi was rated the most religious state in America in a recent Gallup poll. South Carolina was fourth. In fact, the South as a whole was the most religious region; the lowest rated states were in the West and the upper Northeast.
Vermont received the lowest rating, by the way.
In the Gallup poll's daily tracking, 176,000 people were surveyed, at least 500 in each state. They defined someone as "a very religious person" if they said religion was a very important part of their life and if they attended worship services each week.
Why is the South more religious than any other region? The answer, according to Gallup, is that the South is overwhelmingly Protestant, and Protestants have "above average religiousness." The only state that far exceeds the South -- and the Protestants -- in terms of being very religious are the Mormons in Utah. They are the most religious people in America, according to the poll.
Wait a minute. What about the Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and everyone else? These groups should conduct their own polls. I bet we would get different results.
Can we judge someone's religiousness based on their attendance rate at their house of worship? Is this poll saying religiousness is more about where you go and not so much about what you are or how you live your life? Being truly religious is not only about consistently following ritual practices, but also about depth of commitment.
Let's face it, we know lots of people who attend Sabbath services regularly but who aren't necessarily the most religious. Isn't religiousness about worship and performing good deeds, giving to those in need and many other kinds of sacred acts? I am not saying that attendance at a house of worship is not an important criterion, but why is it the only one Gallup chose?
I also have a problem with Gallup using the term "very religious." People are hesitant to identify themselves as "religious" even if they are. The word has a pejorative connotation, and can be seen as a proclamation that they are putting themselves above others. Shouldn't we make a distinction between observance and religiosity? A person can be observant of all kinds of rituals, but does this automatically confer upon them the title of being "very religious?"
Being observant of one's faith tradition can lead to heightened religiosity and that includes regular attendance at congregational worship. On the other hand, religious people transcend rituals and customs because what makes them religious is interaction with others in the world. It is ultimately about how we treat people and use the time-honored practices of our respective faith traditions to connect ourselves every day to God.
Religions, in general, are about community and building a spiritual fabric that transcends the individual. Religious life includes communal worship, but the religious life is also about studying sacred texts, private prayer, reaching out to others in need, correcting the mistakes we make that hurt others and ourselves and somehow weaving it all together to become a person who humbly feels themselves in the presence of the divine every day.
America is a religious nation. We know how to blend the teachings of our faith to make a difference in the world. We follow the teachings and exhortations of biblical prophets to relieve the suffering of the poor, the widow and the orphan. We have ingrained in the American ethos the value of religious freedom, for which so many of our forefathers and mothers came here.
We are a religious nation when we recognize that our prejudices contradict the teachings of our faith traditions and we strive to correct those behaviors. We are a religious nation when we stand up for those who need help in a crisis.
Somehow attendance rates just don't cut it as the baseline for determining who is religious and who is not.
What ultimately makes America a religious or "very religious" nation is we have the capacity to respect faiths other than our own. I advise Gallup to take a second look and rethink its survey.
Let's focus on putting faith into action and finding common bonds as well as respecting our differences. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 19th century, "In the matter of religion, people eagerly fasten their eyes on the difference between their own creed and yours; whilst the charm of the study is in finding the agreements and identities in all the religions of humanity."
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.