by Jay Parini
Once again a new Gallup Poll has reported that Vermont is the least religious state in the country, with only 22% of the people willing to call themselves “very religious.” On the other side of the poll, there is Mississippi, where a whopping 61% of citizens lay claim to that self-description. But what does it really mean to be “very religious” and not just spiritual?
I’ve been living in Vermont for much of my adult life, adding up to nearly four decades. And I’ve been keenly interested in the question of religion, having written a biography of Jesus and practiced Christianity as best I can for much of my life. I’ve also traveled in the South quite often, and understand where that 61% comes from: Not long ago I drove across Mississippi, and I couldn’t find a secular radio station on the dial. It was all preachers, all sounding alike. Repent, repent, repent. Billboards everywhere shouted religious slogans. It seemed there was a church on every street corner in every town I passed through.
So what’s going on here? Do Mississippians have a direct line to the divine? Don’t the majority of people of Vermont also have an interest in religion or belief in God? Is this why Vermont was the first state in the union to allow for civil unions? And does secularism run rampant here?
On any given Sunday, while I’m sitting in church, many of my neighbors are out walking in the woods, skiing, or reading a book by the woodstove (it’s what we do in Vermont). Indeed traditional churches in Vermont struggle to fill their pews, and one often sees churches being sold off to real estate developers, who convert them into apartments or places where secular business can take place under high ceilings that once filled with prayers.
But it would be a mistake to assume the absence of the usual trappings of religion means that people in Vermont — or anywhere, really– aren’t pondering the big questions. Religious affiliation doesn’t necessarily equate with spirituality in any deep way.
Indeed, when I step into my local co-operative food store in Vermont, the bulletin board is crammed with listings for local meditation groups or yoga classes or panel discussions on “spirit and nature.” The community spirit is strong in this state, and the value of helping one’s neighbor is cherished here as much as anywhere. And these values include things like spending money on education, on good health care for all, and making sure that the land itself is responsibly used, with a keen awareness of environmental consequences. Indeed, Vermont was chosen the No. 1 greenest state in a recent poll.
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Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published “Jesus: the Human Face of God,” a biography of Jesus.