UPDATE (Nov. 4, 2011): I am much better at Excel formulas than statistics (which I have never studied formally), and I inadvertently transposed the populations of Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine while copying and pasting data. Now Wisconsin comes in first and Mississippi comes in last (whereas Maine was last and Massachusetts first in the erroneous original post). The blog post has been revised to reflect this change.
I was moderating FFRF’s Facebook page last Friday and saw a number of posts from opponents of FFRF’s actions trying to remove a Jesus statue from a national forest in Whitefish, Mont. (near Missoula). One comment in particular stuck out:
Just wanted to let you know, you guys are barking up the WRONG tree. We Montanans don't back down or walk away from a fight. So for future reference, you probably should try picking a fight with someone else and stay out of Montana!
I’m used to seeing this kind of post from Alabamans and Mississippians in responses to FFRF’s actions there, but it was the first time I’d seen such a thing from anyone outside the bible belt. I even noticed some FFRF supporters taking our opponent at her word and accusing all Montanans of being like her!
I’ve spent a good amount of time browsing the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life website, and knowing that the mountain west (except Utah) is less religious than the United States as a whole, I was skeptical of this “Montana is for Jesus” claim. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey; here we can see that 21% of Montanans identify as nonreligious or unaffiliated, tied with Colorado at eleventh least religious, as opposed to the national average of 15%.
I decided to look up the population of Montana (about 970,000) and FFRF’s membership there (98), and realized that over one in 10,000 Montanans belongs to FFRF! After a few more calculations, I determined that this is close to twice the likelihood nationwide that someone is an FFRF member. I’ve been interested for a while in figuring out which states have the most FFRF members per capita. For example, we have more members in Wisconsin (1,369) than any other state but California (2,565)—but considering California’s much greater population, you’re much more likely to run into an FFRF’er in Wisconsin than California.
Looking at the current (as of Oct. 28, 2011) totals for FFRF membership in the fifty states and the District of Columbia, California has the most members and North Dakota comes in last, with 33 FFRF’ers. Tied for second-to-last are Wyoming and Delaware, with 34 members each. However, combining these totals with the latest population statistics from the census bureau (found here), which are for July 2009, we can see that a Californian is only slightly more likely to be a member of FFRF than a Wyomingite. (0.0069% of Californians are members of FFRF, compared to 0.0061% of Wyomingites). And while Delawareans are not particularly likely to be members of FFRF in comparison with most other states, it does rank well above all of the Deep South.
The table below (click to enlarge) summarizes all this data for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The “FFRF %” column expresses the percentage of the population of a given state that belongs to FFRF. In the state with the largest percentage, Wisconsin, 2.4 out of 10,000 residents belong to FFRF! By contrast, in Mississippi less than two out of 100,000 residents are FFRF members. In the “total” row at the bottom, you can see the percentage (.0057%) of the U.S. population as a whole that belongs to FFRF. (Including non-US residents, overseas territories of the United States, and military and state department personnel overseas, FFRF’s total membership on Oct. 28 was 17,514—not 17,385).
The “multiple of national %” column was calculated by dividing the “FFRF %” of a state by the “Total FFRF %”. This number shows how much more likely a resident of a state is to be an FFRF member than a resident of the U.S. as whole. We can see that a Wisconsinite is 4.28 times more likely to be an FFRF member than other Americans, due to FFRF’s long history here. Indeed, in my life outside the office here in Madison, I often meet members of FFRF. Of note is the fact that the states that are closest to the overall nationwide percentage—New Hampshire and Connecticut—are often thought of as being much more godless than America as a whole by some “God and Country” propagandists.
Just glancing over this list, several trends emerge. The least religious areas of the country, west coast and mountain west, are up at the top of the list, while all of what’s usually considered the South (except North Carolina and Virginia) come in somewhere in the bottom eleven. FFRF acts on many complaints from states at the bottom of the list—for example Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Texas—and it’s very likely that we’ll generate a lot of controversy and a lot of pushback from the community, receiving antagonistic emails saying, for example, “I\’M OUTRAGED! LEAVE THE POOR FOLKS OF TENNESSEE ALONE!”
But Montana—with the sixth most FFRF members per capita!—is trying its hardest to generate controversy about the removal of “Whitefish Jesus.” But the West is still not the South, no matter how hard some rhetoricians try to pretend that Montana and Alaska (at number 9) have more in common with Kentucky (at number 47) than with Vermont (at number 9).
Eleanor Wroblewski is a student at the University of Wisconsin majoring in Textile and Apparel Design. She does many different things at FFRF, and wants to write for craft magazines when she’s done with school.