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Pope’s not Catholic: What a county-level survey of religious affiliation tells us about faith in Minnesota

Across Minnesota, even at the county level, patterns of migration are evident in residents’ religions.

Oak Grove Lutheran Church
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Worshippers at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield.
Minnesota may have a reputation for lutefisk, awkward social interactions and all the other trappings of a Scandinavian Lutheran society, but the state is a lot more religiously diverse than the stereotypes make it out to be.

The breadth of Minnesota’s religious diversity is captured in the 2020 Census of American Religion, a recent report based on a survey conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

The survey, which involved more than 50,000 phone interviews over the course of 2020, looked at the religious affiliations of people across U.S. states and counties, which gives a detailed look at Minnesotans’ religions at both the state and local level.

The research is important, said Natalie Jackson, the director of research at PRRI, because religion remains a cornerstone of life in the U.S.

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“Religion is one of the most critical forces that shapes people’s day to day lives, as well as how they live, how they interact with each other,” she said — even non-religious U.S. residents might go to a Catholic-affiliated hospital or a Presbyterian-afflilated university.  “It’s just a really core part of the country that is as deep, if not deeper, than political divides, and of course, aligns with a lot of political divides in a lot of different ways as well.”

Minnesota’s religious breakdown

The most dominant religious affiliation in Minnesota is white mainline Protestantism, which includes the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ.

White mainline Protestants make up 25 percent of Minnesota’s population — a bigger share than the 16 percent of Americans they comprise nationwide, per the survey. The concentration is similar in Minnesota’s neighboring states, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas.

Religious affiliation by share of population in Minnesota
Note: The research found less than 0.5 percent of Minnesotans identified as Mormon, Orthodox Christian, Hindu, Unitarian/Universalist and New Age Religions.
Source: PRRI 2020 Census of American Religion

Minnesota also has a sizable share of religiously unaffiliated residents, who make up just over a fifth — 21 percent — of Minnesotans, according of the PRRI survey — roughly on par with their share of the U.S. population. This group includes atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious people and those who do not claim any particular religion. White Catholics, meanwhile, make up an estimated 17 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent of Americans, while white evangelicals — which the survey defines as people who refer to themselves as “born again” or “evangelical” — make up 17 percent of Minnesotans, compared to 14 percent of U.S. residents overall.

Roughly 3 percent of Minnesotans identify as Black Protestant, other non-white Protestant, while 2 percent of Minnesotans identify as Hispanic Catholic, Hispanic Protestant and other non-white Catholic, which includes Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, multiracial and other races and ethnicities.

Roughly 1 percent of Minnesotans identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish.

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Minnesota’s religious breakdown follows patterns visible across the U.S.

“There’s a lot of diversity in Minnesota but it is part of that big, kind of mainline burst up in the upper Midwest,” Jackson said.

Look in the South and throughout Appalachia, and you’ll find higher shares of Black and white Protestants, where those religions have long been concentrated due to the patterns of where different populations live.

“We see a lot of diversity in the Northeast and throughout the West, but also a lot more Catholic concentration in the Northeast,” Jackson said.

Religion by county

Across Minnesota, even at the county level, patterns of migration are evident in residents’ religions. (Because estimates are less reliable for smaller counties, the comparisons here generally include only counties with 10,000 or more residents.)

There are factors having to do with immigration to certain parts of the state — some recent, some not — that make some religions more dominant in a particular county. The effects of German Catholic immigration to Stearns County generations ago is still evident in its religious makeup: it remains the most Catholic county in Minnesota, with 38 percent of the population identifying as white Catholic, and 2 percent identifying as Hispanic Catholic. Stearns County is among the counties in the U.S. with the highest shares of white Catholics.

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Though its name might indicate otherwise, Pope County, east of Morris in West Central Minnesota, has the highest concentration of white mainline Protestants, at 37 percent, the survey found. The county was created in the 1860s and its first county seat was called Stockholm, which may have referenced the capital city of many of its new resident’s homeland.

The state’s largest county, Hennepin, is also its most religiously-diverse — no surprise given that it’s also one of the state’s most racially and ethnically diverse. PRRI used an index of religious diversity where a score of 0 would be religiously homogeneous and a 1 would mean each religious group is equal in size. Hennepin scored a 0.8.

Runners-up were Washington, Ramsey, Olmsted (all 0.784), and Scott (0.775). The most religiously diverse county in the U.S. is Kings County, New York, also known as Brooklyn, with a score of 0.897.

Jackson said if anything surprised her in the results of the survey it was just how religiously diverse much of the U.S. is.

“On the whole, the diversity scores across the nation were higher than I expected. The general pattern of the lowest diversity scores being in the South and Appalachia, that was what I expected. But the West is pretty diverse, the North Midwest, and the Northeast are pretty diverse, so I think there’s a lot more diversity happening than maybe we tend to think on an everyday basis,” she said.