Religion Today

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Religious Landscape of Wyoming and Montana

Earlier this year, the prestigious Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. This massive survey interviewed over 35,000 different people and created an important portrait of religious adherence for the nation.

Unfortunately, this survey failed the states of Wyoming and Montana. Because it surveyed only 272 people from the two states, it had to analyze them together to create a statistically valid sample. Since the two states have quite different religious characters, both historically and presently, the survey reveals little useful information about the religious nature of these two states. This is clear both for Catholicism and Mormonism.

The Pew survey indicates that 23% of the two states are presently Catholic. The number not only hides the difference between the two states, but seems rather high in comparison to surveys taken during the last decade. While the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) puts Montana Catholic members at 22%, it numbers Wyoming’s Catholics at only 18%. The North American Religion Atlas (from the late 1990s) puts the numbers even lower: Montana at 19% and Wyoming at 16%.

The imbalance between the two states is historic, for immigrants from Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy came to work Montana’s mines or settle along its railroads. Although a similar trend occurred in Wyoming, it had fewer mines and miles of train lines. So not only is the Pew percentage somewhat high, but there should be at least a 3 or 4 percent difference between the two states.

Or perhaps not. According to the 2000 USA census, Wyoming has a Hispanic population of 6.5% (and growing), while Hispanics make up only 2% of Montana’s citizens. Given that Hispanics in general belong to the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps they account for an increase (previously unnoticed by the surveys) in Catholic adherence in Wyoming and hence raise the Catholic proportion of the population to the number indicated by the Pew Survey. It is a shame the survey cannot help us resolve this question.

With regard to adherents of the Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ, combining the two states also skews the data. Wyoming, particularly in the western regions, was closely aligned with Mormon growth. Part of the present-day state belonged to Utah Territory, and a larger part was encompassed by the State of Deseret envisioned by the Mormon leadership. More significantly, many Mormons migrated into Wyoming in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some encouraged by Wyoming governors and others by Wyoming leaders such as Buffalo Bill Cody. Montana had no significant Mormon population until after World War I, when families began to enter the state to clear new farms.

This difference in the two states’ histories with respect to Mormonism casts suspicion on the reliability of figures reported by the Pew survey. The survey indicated that just 5% of the population of the two states are Mormon, but this hides their differences. The 2001 ARIS survey put Wyoming’s population at 7% Mormon while Montana’s stood at only 3%. The Religion Atlas indicated an even larger difference: Wyoming rose to nearly 10%, while Montana remained at 3%. My own experience around the state suggests the percentage may be even higher, but I have no hard data to back that up.

In the end, the Pew Survey of America’s Religious Landscape has done a good job for the nation and for the more populous states, but it has failed to give a clear picture of the religious character of Wyoming and Montana. Since the three surveys cited have all been sponsored by institutions located in large cities of the eastern USA, maybe the solution is for western entities to sponsor their own survey. Perhaps the universities of Wyoming and Montana should take the lead. This would be just the kind of action that UW’s proposed Center for the Study and Teaching of Religion in the American West could carry out.

1) Religion and Public Life in the Mountain West: Sacred Landscapes in Transition, edited by Jan Shipps and mark Silk (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004). See especially the essay by Philip Deloria, pp. 115-138.
2) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life,
3) American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS),


  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints puts out an almanac each year through the Deseret News newspaper that lists church membership by state and country if that would be helpful to you.
    I believe the Catholic Church does also.

    Chet Cole Barrett
    San Diego CA

    By Blogger checolbar, at 5/13/2008  

  • Dear Chet,

    What you say is certainly true. Many religious organizations publish membership information. That information is useful in studying how many members different churches think they have.

    However, surveys like the one sponsored by the Pew Forum ask a different question: How do people identify themselves? That results in a different picture, and many would argue, a more accurate picture. This is because different churches use different criteria to determine membership, whereas the self-identification question provides a single criterion. In addition, many churches do not regularly purge their rolls of non-members. If someone moves out of the area, stops attending, dies, etc., they may remain on the books for years. After all, it is in each church's interest to have as members as it can.

    But thanks for the suggestion.

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 5/14/2008  

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