This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.
Just how religious is Montana? Given the highly personal nature of faith, there may be few concepts harder to quantify. However, the U.S. Religion Census makes an effort once a decade regardless, tallying the number of congregations associated with different denominations and their self-reported membership county-by-county across the nation.
Notwithstanding the “God’s County” nickname regularly applied to Montana’s landscape by faithful and secular-minded residents alike, the state actually ranks near the bottom of the nation in terms of its overall religiosity — or, at least, in the fraction of its residents who can be counted as belonging to a religious organization. The 2020 religion census identified 1,766 distinct Montana congregations with an estimated 378,000 adherents, equivalent to 35% of the state’s population.
That percentage ranks Montana 47th-lowest in the nation for faith membership, above only Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire. In contrast, Utah, whose capital Salt Lake City is home to the headquarters of the Mormon church, tops the charts with an estimated 76% of its population belonging to a congregation. Neighboring Idaho is ranked the 12th-most-religious state in the nation, with an estimated 53% of its population reporting membership in a church or other organized congregation.
While Montana’s overall faith participation rate is low, both county-specific rates and the prevailing denominations vary wildly across the state.
The religion census indicates that a majority of residents belong to a church or other organized religious group in nine of the state’s 56 counties. That list, generally containing rural counties in north-central and eastern Montana, includes Glacier County (Browning and Cut Bank), as well as Dawson County around Glendive.
Additionally, while Catholicism is by far the state’s most common denomination, claiming about 10% of Montana residents, several other Christian traditions have a notable presence in different corners of the state. Christian churches classified by the census effort as non-denominational represent the most common faith tradition around Kalispell, Great Falls and Glendive. Lutheranism is the most popular denomination in portions of northern and eastern Montana.
In Beaverhead County, including Dillon, 20% of the population is counted as part of the Mormon Church. In some sparsely populated counties, such as Liberty and Wheatland, as many as one in five residents belong to Anabaptist Hutterite groups.
In addition to 113,000 Montana Catholics, the religion census estimates the state is home to 51,000 Mormons, 43,000 Lutherans, 32,000 Pentecostal Christians, 15,000 Baptists, 11,000 Methodists and 7,800 Anabaptists. The survey count also includes 949 Eastern Orthodox Christians, 380 Hindus and 273 Jews in four congregations.
The census doesn’t make an effort to count affiliation with traditional Native American religious practices. The authors acknowledge their count may not have captured every small congregation across the country.
The full 2020 religion census, including downloadable data and national maps produced by the researchers, is available at usreligioncensus.org.
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