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RI remains most Catholic state in the country

Eyewitness News Investigates

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the U.S., while its second-largest faith group is individuals with no religious affiliation at all, according to a new study out Wednesday.

A total of 41% of Rhode Islanders identified as Roman Catholic in a survey about 101,000 Americans conducted from January 2016 to January 2017 by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

The results are about in line with other recent surveys conducted by the institute and the Pew Research Center, which pegged the self-identified Catholic share of Rhode Island’s population between 42% and 44%. A decade ago a Trinity College survey put the Catholic share at 46%, down from 62% in 1990.

It remains unclear whether Rhode Island has seen its population’s Catholic percentage shrink recently or if the dip is statistical noise. The latest institute survey polled 369 Rhode Islanders, a small sample size but significantly more than it did for previous surveys, which polled fewer than 200 residents.

The institute’s researchers found that while the Northeast is “no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism,” it is still home to the most heavily Catholic states – not only Rhode Island at 41%, but also Massachusetts (34%), New Jersey (34%), New York (31%), and Connecticut (31%).

The survey also showed the Catholic Church is undergoing what the researchers called “an ethnic transformation,” with more than half of under-30 Catholics nationwide now being Hispanic, versus only 36% who are white non-Hispanic. In Rhode Island, non-Hispanic whites still make up three-fourths of the Catholic population.

As previous surveys have indicated, the second-biggest religious tradition in Rhode Island today is no religion at all; 23% of Rhode Islanders surveyed described themselves as religiously unaffiliated. The state’s No. 3 religious tradition was white mainline Protestant, at 11%.

“The unprecedented growth of the religiously unaffiliated has made this group much more complex,” Dan Cox, the institute’s research director, said in a statement. “For example, atheists and agnostics, two of the most known subgroups among the unaffiliated, account for just a sliver of the entire group.” More than half of religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, while 16% say they still identify as a “religious person.”

Nationwide, the survey found a continuing decline in the share of Americans who are white Christians. In Rhode Island, their share of the population has fallen from 55% in 2007 to 50% in 2016. The change was even starker in Massachusetts, where the share of white Christians dropped from 62% to 42% in just nine years.

“This report provides solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade in the U.S.,” Robert P. Jones, the institute’s CEO, said in a statement.

Here is how Rhode Island’s religious landscape broke down in the new survey:

  • White Catholic: 32%
  • Unaffiliated: 23%
  • White mainline Protestant: 11%
  • Hispanic Catholic: 7%
  • White evangelical Protestant: 6%
  • Hispanic Protestant: 5%
  • Buddhist: 2%
  • Jewish: 2%
  • Other non-white Catholic: 2%
  • Black Protestant: 1%
  • Hindu: 1%
  • Jehovah’s Witness: 1%
  • Mormon: 1%
  • Other (various): 5%

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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