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Keeping the faith: ND ranks No. 2 in religious adherence

The steeples of First Lutheran Church, right, and the Cathedral of St. Mary are seen Thursday in Fargo.

FARGO -- North Dakota is one of the most religious states in the U.S., according to researchers who study congregation membership.

"The Bible Belt isn't just in the South," said the Rev. Paul Nynas, executive pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Fargo. "The Midwest, and North Dakota in particular, has strong churches and communities."

North Dakota has the second-highest rate of religious adherence in the United States, with 67.1 percent of North Dakotans claiming a religion, according to statistics from the 2010 Association of Religion Data Archives U.S. Congregational Membership report. The ARDA conducts membership surveys every 10 years.

Utah is No. 1, with 79.1 percent of its population claiming a religion. Maine ranked lowest at 27.6 percent.

Minnesotans also are faithful at a rate higher than the national average. The state's rate of adherence ranks ninth in the nation, with 56.3 percent of Minnesotans claiming religious adherence.

People who are not adherents of any of the 236 groups included in the ARDA study account for the largest group of people nationwide, with 51 percent of Americans listed as "unclaimed." In Minnesota, 44 percent consider themselves unclaimed, and 33 percent of North Dakotans are unclaimed.

Catholics are 19 percent of the U.S. population, 22 percent of Minnesota's population and 25 percent of North Dakota's population.

Sixteen percent of U.S. residents are evangelical Protestants, compared to 14 percent of Minnesotans and 12 percent of North Dakotans.

Seven percent of people in the U.S. are mainline Protestant, compared to 29 percent in North Dakota and 18 percent in Minnesota.

Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Judaism and more than a dozen other religions, plus black Protestants and Orthodox Christians, make up a smaller sliver of religious people in the U.S. Nationally, 7 percent observe one of those religions. It's only 1 percent in North Dakota and 2 percent in Minnesota.

Historian and Concordia College Professor Roy Hammerling attributes North Dakota's and Minnesota's high rates of religious adherence to strong immigrant traditions, the abundance of rural communities and each state's connection to agriculture.

"There's something about culture and religion that people in this area still find valuable to this day," he said.

Physical church buildings are plentiful locally too. West Fargo counts 28 properties with a religious exemption claim on file for 2012, Fargo has 142 and Moorhead 49, according to documents from each city.

The Rev. Luke Meyer of the Diocese of Fargo said there are a couple of explanations for the number of churches in the area. The denominational character of religious culture in America is one reason.

Close-knit communities, he said, can provide a sense of stability and belonging that keeps people connected to their churches.

The cultural and family emphasis of those communities makes them able to hold their church bodies together in a way that other, more suburban areas might not, Hammerling said.

"I think anything that promotes community is part of the reason why we see a high rate of adherence," he said.

North Dakota's adherence rate was at 67.1 percent in 2010, down from 73.2 percent in 2000. It was 75.9 percent in 1990 and 73.9 percent in 1980.

In Minnesota, the 2010 rate was 56.3 percent, a drop from 61.7 percent in 2000. It was 64.9 percent in 1990 and 65.1 percent in 1980.

Over the same time period the U.S. rate barely fell at all - from 50 percent in 1980 to 48.8 percent in 2010.

Nynas said that no matter the numbers, the future for religion in North Dakota appears bright.

"North Dakota has strong Midwestern values," he said. "Our churches really focus on core values and outreach, and I think people appreciate that."