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Chris Thompson: Religious pluralism in Alaska here to stay

This week a letter to the editor was published regarding a previous letter concerned that the Daily News showed anti-Christian bias by not doing more reporting on the recent Luis Palau extravaganza at Cuddy Family Park. Without my weighing in on the merits of the letter writer's concerns, I will say it's time to recognize that Alaska is becoming a pluralistic religion state. We'll see more of this in the future. Let's take a look at how pluralistic Alaska's religious scene has become and where it may be headed.

According to the Pew Forum's Religious Landscape Survey, published in 2008, the religious breakdown for Alaska shows some interesting data. Forty-seven percent of Alaskans are Protestant, 14 percent are Catholic, 4 percent are Mormon, 3 percent are Orthodox Christian and fewer than 2 percent represent other Christian faiths. Thus more than two-thirds (69 percent) of Alaskans identify with the Christian faith. Other faiths represent minor fractions. Muslims are 1 percent, while Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and other world religions show less than a half percent each. The "Other Faiths" category showed 2 percent. Finally, the 27 percent of Alaskans were classified as "unaffiliated."

As a religion writer, I try to cover the major issues represented by all faiths. With more than two-thirds of faiths in Alaska being Christian-based, my coverage is identified immediately with this large cluster. The unaffiliated group is already covered by the rest of the media without requiring my involvement. This group is composed of atheists, agnostics or the uninterested. The other 4 percent of faiths combined are beginning to see increased coverage from me, but the facts betray that any one of these groups, at most, exceeds 1 percent of Alaska's population.

Living here in the last frontier, are we more religious than other Americans? No, the Pew Forum Survey Summary says. "When it comes to religious beliefs and practices, the Landscape Survey finds that Alaskans tend to be less religious on a variety of measures as compared with the overall U.S. population. For instance, whereas a majority of American adults (56 percent) say that religion is very important in their lives, only 37 percent of Alaskans place great importance on religion. Nearly one-third of Alaskans (31 percent) say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives, compared with only 16 percent among the public overall."

But do we Alaskans, even though our religious numbers are smaller, make up for it by going to services more often? Once again, the Pew Forum says no. "Americans as a whole are nearly twice as likely as Alaskans to say that they attend religious services on a weekly basis (39 percent versus 22 percent). And nearly half of Alaskans (47 percent) say they seldom or never attend worship services, compared with only 27 percent among the public overall."

Some churches are making gains here in Alaska. That's according to an Association of Religion Data Archives 2010 report, which compared changes for Alaska congregations between 2000 and 2010 using data collected by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The highest growth rate was in the Mormon faith, which added 13,151 adherents, a factor of 69 percent. Episcopalians grew by 541, Seventh-day Adventists by 520, Evangelical Covenant by 499 and United Methodist by 452.

The report also showed many churches experienced huge losses of adherents. These included Orthodox, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutheran, Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God, to name the top loss groups.

The Luis Palau event, while questionable on several fronts, had serious backing by a significant number of local congregations. I believe the local media gave it fair coverage during prime time. During a recent visit with a local pastor, he pulled out a stack of individual responses from the Luis Palau organization which came back to him as a byproduct of the event.

Ours is a land of religious freedom and tolerance. The roots of Christ's ministry were based on love and respect. In Matthew 22:36, Jesus was asked, by a lawyer of the Pharisees, "Which is the great commandment in the Law?" Jesus responded, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV). This is the great "love to God" and "love to man" commandment.

Due to population growth here in Alaska, with significant numbers of people coming from areas of the world where Christianity may not be the dominant religion, it's going to be increasingly important to honor the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and the Christian ethic of love to God and love to man. Attacking another's religion is not the answer. There's more than enough blame to go around. Our great challenge, as Alaskans, is reverse the trends of loss of faith and religiosity. Successfully doing this will stabilize our culture, strengthen our families and grow our state. Religious pluralism appears to be here to stay. We all can be more tolerant of others, regardless of religious biases.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.