Are American Cities Really Godless?
A deep dive into the religion of the 25 largest counties in the United States
One of my favorite podcasts about religion is produced by Religion News Service called “Saved by the City.” It’s hosts, Roxanne Stone and Katelyn Beaty, grew up in a very similar way to my own upbringing. They were steeped in American evangelicalism and told all about the horrors of big city life.
If you think about the religious parts of America, I am going to bet that the first image you conjure won’t be the skyscrapers around Central Park or the clubs that surround the Sunset Strip. I would hazard a guess that many people would envision that new megachurch that looks like a shopping mall in a suburb of a major metropolitan area. Or even a small town in the South that literally has a church on every corner of the very tiny downtown corridor.
But here’s something that may be surprising - lots of the largest counties in the United States are fairly religious. In fact, some have a higher share of religious adherents than the country overall.
To illustrate that point, I used the 2020 Religion Census to do an in-depth statistical analysis of the twenty-five most populous counties in the United States. What emerges is a portrait that defies stereotypes. In fact, lots of metro areas are teeming with religious folks.
Let’s start at the top. What percentage of the population in those very large counties are adherents to a religious tradition? To give you a sense of baseline, the overall average in the sample was just under 49%. Which means that about half of Americans are on the membership roll of a house of worship.
Suffolk County, New York leads the list, with over two thirds of the population being attached to a religious tradition. For those trying to place Suffolk County, it’s the entire eastern side of Long Island. The western edge of Suffolk County borders the NYC Metro area. The eastern portion includes some of the most expensive real estate on the East Coast around the Hamptons. It’s home to 1.5 million people.
The three next most religious counties are all in Texas: Tarrant (Fort Worth), Dallas, and Harris (Houston). There’s one more Texas county that’s above average, too: Bexar (San Antonio). Sandwiched in there is Queens, NY, Cook (Chicago), and Middlesex (the county north of Boston).
Which ones are below average? Lots and lots in California. Santa Clara, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Alameda, and Sacramento. However, the least religious large county in the United States is King County, which encompasses Seattle and the surrounding area to the east of downtown. I think many of us remember Mark Driscoll saying that there were more dogs than Christians when he moved to Seattle to plant Mars Hill. He was exaggerating, but not by much.
What about the religious breakdown of these very large counties? That’s the graph below and it’s sorted in order of population so that the most populous counties are at the top and the least populous are at the bottom. For the record, the smallest county here has a population in excess of 1.5M.
The first thing that jumps out to me is how many Catholics there are in a lot of these counties. In many of the twenty-five, Catholics make up at least half of the total population. Look at Suffolk County - 82% of folks there are Catholic. Easily the highest Catholic concentration of any large county.
But other patterns emerge, too. For instance, look at the Texas counties. In each, the Protestants outnumber the Catholics by wide margins. That’s also the case in Wayne County (Detroit), Philadelphia, and King County.
There are a few counties where another religious group makes up a sizeable portion, though. For instance, Kings County (NY) is 23% Jewish and 12% Muslim. That’s more Jews and Muslims than Protestants. The other counties in the NYC metro area are also similar in that they have relatively high concentrations of Jews and Muslims. That’s not the case anywhere outside that part of the country. Note, however, a sizeable population of Muslims in Detroit and Chicago, too.
But which religious tradition is the largest in these twenty-five counties? First, I need to note that I had to exclude the Catholic Church here because it was the largest religious group in every single county. That’s because Protestants are so spread out over hundreds of denominations and the Catholic Church is basically unified. So, this is essentially the second largest religious tradition in each county.
There are some surprises here!
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