Church, states in the NW: Things are different here

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

Throughout life I've been without anything I'd call religion, but have been fascinated by it and especially its cultural and communal traditions. For this reason, I guess, I've never been afraid to step into any church, either for work or curiosity or a girl - to learn something. I'll listen attentively, but not take communion.

A Jewish friend has a wonderful seder each Passover, and last year I flew across a couple of states to feast and spatter the wine with her and her Presbyterian husband. I went to church every other week for a time in my Alaskan youth because that qualified me for the church league basketball team and the bell choir. I don't go to church now because I think I have better uses for Sundays, and because I'm not a huge fan of excessive handshakes. And because, maybe more than any place on Earth, Juneau smells better on the outside.

Now comes a book that tells me I am not necessarily weird.

Theological and sociological researchers studying the Pacific Northwest have determined there's much truth to our region's reputation as an unchurched shrine to nature and individualism. The really interesting thing is that they don't seem to think that has to be so bad for our sense of community.

"Religion & Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone," printed this spring by Altamira Press and edited by Patricia O'Connell Killen of Pacific Lutheran University and Mark Silk of Trinity College in Connecticut, makes the case that Northwesterners are a more personally spiritual people than most Americans. The numbers are compelling. They show that 62.8 percent in the region comprising Alaska, Oregon and Washington are unclaimed as adherents to any religious group. That compares to 40.6 percent nationwide. When self-identifying their religion, 30.6 percent list no religion/humanist, compared to 19.6 percent nationwide.

Those here who lament Godlessness in America might view the numbers as evidence of moral bankruptcy, or a challenge to the region's civility. Those who don't want religion in their business, public or private, might view them as a badge of regional pride. Neither view seems quite right. This is not so much balkanization as an intersection of many traditions, viewpoints, communities and individuals, across which are unique opportunities for cooperation.

To start with, the various authors argue forcefully that the Northwest is not a spiritual wasteland. Rather, just as they disproportionately register to vote as independents, Northwesterners came here looking for their own way, with a wary eye on any potentially stifling institution.

While nearly two-thirds of people in the three states claim no religious affiliation, according to the authors, only 25 percent claim no religious identity.

"While many Northwesterners are institutionally unencumbered, there is no reason to believe they are a-spiritual," Southern Oregon University's Mark Shibley writes in his contribution. "Most people in the region who claim no religious preference (one-quarter of the region's residents) and who do not appear on church rolls (a majority of the population) are, it can be argued, secular but spiritual. They encounter the sacred and cultivate spiritual lives outside mainstream religious institutions."

It will surprise no one that environmentalism and nature adoration permeate the book. And the picture of such adherents is not simple, veering from one who consumes like an American but shifts the degradation elsewhere, to one who legitimately sees God or spirituality in nature. Shibley quotes Richard Nelson's "Patriots for American Land": "In Alaska we have the privilege of bearing witness to the world exactly as God (of the Great Raven of Native Alaskan creation stories) intended it to be, the world complete and intact, making Alaska the rarest of all American treasures and a brilliant source of hope for our future."

Perhaps the collection's most hopeful message is that, lacking a dominant religion, Northwesterners aren't afraid to reach out. While Lutherans nationwide see distinct social differences between the Missouri synod and the evangelical church, here they team up. Native Alaskans, according to "The None Zone," often pick among more than one denomination and tradition, what works for them. Cooperation among Protestants, Catholics and Jews happened here a century before in the Midwest, Killen writes. And we saw this week that the spirit continues, with eight Juneau churches forming a branch of Love INC, to more efficiently serve the homeless and working poor.

The regional statistics are no surpass to Tom Dahl, a United Methodist Church pastor in Juneau. He also views them as an opportunity, both for churches seeking open-minded participants and for groups looking for common ground.

"You're dealing with people with a blank tablet, sometimes," he says. The "sometimes" means hostility between groups exists here as anywhere, but that it's less a product of institutional bias. Many Northwestern churches are more accepting of homosexuals "as part of God's family," he says, than in Midwestern and Southern places he has worked. There, built-in traditions "can be very stultifying and limiting."

"Church is a part of the culture there, and it's not here," Dahl says.

He knows this because kids play soccer on Sunday.

•Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at

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