Protestantism/U.S. Christian Geography
I do have a question, and I picked you because of your perfect 10 point rating and the fact you have only answered 3 questions. My question centers around the type of Christianity in different parts of the country. I live in the Bible Belt, so we think we have the "best" Protestants. What are the differences,really, say the Bible Belt compared to your area?
Thanks for your question. I apologize for the delay in responding. It's been a hectic few days at the church catching up after the Thanksgiving weekend and preparing to begin Advent.
This is a great question, and concerns an area where I focus a great deal of my studies.
While most of the denominations of Christianity in the U.S. are represented throughout the nation, it is appropriate to note that certain regions tend more toward particular types of churches and that particular churches tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the country. A lot of this has to do with immigration patterns during the colonial era and the first century after our nation's birth.
For example, Many of the New England states were founded as a refuge for religious minorities from England who were seeking the freedom to believe and practice according to their own conscience. So, groups like the Congregationalists (now part of the United Church of Christ), Episcopalians, and Presbyterians have very high numbers in the New England states and the rest of the northern East Coast.
Because German and Scandinavian immigrants arrived later, while the Mid-west was being settled, most of the nation's Lutherans can be found in the Great Lakes region and westward into the northern Plains States.
Roman Catholic churches are visibly present throughout the nation, but are especially prominent in pockets where later waves of Irish, Polish, and Eastern European immigrants settled.
Because Baptist and Methodist varieties of Christianity gained their prominence in the United States, and had a highly missionary impulse and flexible structure, they expanded among the American population more broadly and evenly, having congregations, even if very small ones, in almost every area, and growing primarily by gaining converts from people who formerly had backgrounds in other, more established forms of Christianity. Pentecostalism is a segment of protestantism completely native to the United States, and so they seem to exist wherever the movement found traction, and are well-represented in the southern half of the nation.
As a resident of the Bible Belt, you probably most frequently encounter these newer, native-born denominations. Baptists, I'm sure you are well-aware are highly dominant in the Bible Belt, along with many other less well-known groups from the Baptist, Wesleyan, and Restorationist traditions.
To be very general, I would summarize the sort of protestantism by region as follows: The Northeast region of the country leans toward liberal, traditional (by traditional I mean sacramental or baby-baptizing) protestants from the older traditions (Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.). The Mid-west and great plains tend more toward conservative traditional protestants (Lutheran, Reformed, etc.) The South tends toward conservative, non-traditional, sometimes revivalistic, protestants (Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc.) The West and Southwest are among the least-religious areas of the nation and because they were settled primarily by second-generation Americans, they do not exhibit the same sort of well-defined tendencies as the other regions.
To illustrate this, I will use a few examples most familiar to my own experience. My denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is headquartered in St. Louis, and our congregations are located primarily in the Mid-west and great plains, although we are represented throughout the nation, to the point where we have a congregation within about 40 minutes of nearly anywhere. People seeking out one of our congregations in the South will very likely find themselves driving in that 40 minute range to attend church unless they live in a large city. On the other hand, someone seeking one of our congregations in the rural Great Lakes states may be able to choose from 4-5 congregations in a single zip code even in very rural areas.
To illustrate further, the typical Bible Belt town might offer one traditional protestant congregation, two or more Baptist congregations, and a variety of non-denominational, Pentecostal, or other less-traditional protestant congregations. In contrast, a typical town in the area of Michigan where I grew up would have very large Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist congregations, typically one small Baptist congregation, an additional Wesleyan congregation, such as Nazarene, while Presbyterian, Episcopal, and the non-traditional congregations were less common. The typical town in the area of Iowa where I now live typically offers two Lutheran, one Roman Catholic, and one other traditional protestant, with the remaining traditional and the non-traditional protestants being only sporadically represented and typically found in larger towns.
The tendencies I describe above were actually much easier to delineate a few decades ago, when denominational loyalty was higher and several generations of a family continued to settle in the same area. Because families today tend to be more highly mobile and because denominational loyalty has declined so dramatically, the denominational map is becoming less segregated than it once was. Once-dominant denominations in a region may find their congregations largely empty while recently-planted churches in areas new to the denomination may be growing rapidly. As people switch denominations due to dissatisfaction or relocation, the patterns are becoming less reliable and it seems to be the local congregation rather than the national or international denominational identity that is the deciding factor, and it seems that economic and ideological currents in the U.S. will continue to drive this trend in the coming decades.
I hope this contains some of the information you were seeking. If you desire clarification or a more in-depth focus on a particular point, feel free to post a follow-up question.