Stability and Change on the American Religious Landscape: A Centrographic Analysis of Major U.S. Religious Groups

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Religion is a major culture trait that is imprinted unevenly across the American religious landscape. Research utilizing church membership and adherent count data has described spatial patterns of group affiliation since the 1950s and identified distinct regional patterns that have remained fairly stable over time. The population of religious adherents is a subset of the general population. High levels of population mobility in recent decades, particularly Sunbelt and Latin American in-migration, suggest the potential for shifts in geographic patterns of religious adherents. This paper uses recently released data and centrographic methods to analyze patterns of stability and change for a set of major U.S. Christian groups for 1980-2000. Quantitative analyses of enumeration counts, weighted mean centers, and standard deviational ellipses reveal different patterns of change among groups. Relative levels of change vary depending on the use of raw or normalized measures. Catholics, Mormons, and Seventh-Day Adventists were among the most dynamic groups with Southern Baptists being the most stable. Continuation of recent trends can potentially impact established culture regions and issues of regional identity and perceptions.


Spatial characterization of cultural traits is a core tradition within cultural geography that resonates with geographers due to our desire to describe and understand how culture varies over space and time. Religion is an immensely important aspect of culture that has received considerable attention in the geographical literature in spite of the fact that it is a relatively small specialization within cultural geography (Levine 1986; Park 1994; Kong 1990; Kong 2001). This paper adds to cultural geography's spatial tradition concerning religion by addressing some fundamental questions regarding spatial patterns and shifts of aggregate descriptors of religious adherent populations for a set of large, U.S. Christian religious groups during the period from 1980 to 2000. While more specific research questions are laid out below, the general goals of this paper are to use centrographic measures of centrality and dispersion to describe in explicitly spatial terms how different groups have shifted and expanded or contracted over time compared to ambient national population patterns.

Previous research on the U.S. religious landscape has treated the themes of regionalization, single-denomination patterns and dynamics, and multiple-denomination patterns and dynamics. Zelinsky's (1961) hallmark paper on American religious geography is one of the earliest to describe historical evolution of religious patterns and to derive a national-scale regionalization of religion for the early 1950s. Subsequent work by Gastil (1975) revealed a regional scheme similar to that of Zelinsky. Shortridge (1976; 1977) developed different regional schemes by focusing on ideological attributes of different denominations (i.e., liberal versus conservative). The South's religious expression, where Southern Baptists and Methodists predominate, demarcates it as one of the nation's most identifiable regions prompting Heatwole's regional analysis of the "Bible Belt" (1978). Other research has pursued single- or multi-year case studies for individual denominations at both national and subnational scales (Dann 1976; Shortridge 1978; Newman and Halvorson 1979; Sheskin 2000). Studies have also described national spatial distributions and change for multiple denominations over time, using historical and contemporary data (Halvorson and Newman 1978, 1987, 1994; Newman and Halvorson 2000). Webster (2000) examined relationships between denominational affiliation and population growth and change in Georgia for 1970-1990, finding a slight decline of traditional groups (Baptists and Methodists) and high growth of non-traditional groups (Catholics and Mormons).

Collectively this research has established what are now well-known patterns of denominational affiliation--for example, the high concentration of Southern Baptists in the Southeast, Lutherans in the Upper Midwest, and the Mormon region in the Mountain West. …