Dividing up California

If California were its own country, it would be the sixth largest economy in the world. With a population of 37.5 million, California would be the third most populous nation in North America, behind Mexico (117 million) and ahead of Canada (34 million). At 159,000 square miles, it is almost twice the size of the UK, and larger than Germany as well. To understand Southern California in a comparative context, I divided California into smaller geographical regions. A large literature exists on regional differences in religion (Hill 1985, Silk 2007, Kerstetter 2015) and the analysis presented here extends that perspective to more finegrained focus on sub-geographies within California itself.

Californians typically differentiate between “SoCal” and “NorCai” around issues such as water resources and the rival financial influence of San Francisco and Los Angeles. A 2016 ballot initiative sought to break California up into six different states, on the logic that diverse parts of the state have different interests and are sometimes in competition with each other. For this analysis I divided California into five sub-regions, using the county-level data graciously provided by the Religion and Public Life division of the Pew Research Center:

  • 1. Los Angeles County
  • 2. The SoCal Ring is made up of the counties surrounding Los Angeles: Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange County, Ventura, San Diego, and Santa Barbara counties. I made this differentiation because Los Angeles has always been more populous and more liberal than its neighboring counties. Orange County, for example, was home to the John Birch Society, and has long been solidly Republican. San Diego’s former mayor, Pete Wilson, became the Republican governor of California in 1990. A Riverside County supervisor recently proposed that Riverside County leave California, so it could be annexed to more conservative Arizona, with which it has more in common in terms of social attitudes.
  • 3. The Bay Area consists of 11 counties: Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa, and Solano.
  • 4. Other Northern California is made up of the counties north and northwest of the Bay Area: Chico, Calaveras, Colusa, Del Norte, El Dorado, Glen, Humboldt, Inyo, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Modoc, Mono, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Benito, San Joaquin, Shasta, Siskiyou, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo, Yuba. It is the most sparely settled rural area in California; 20% of the Pew respondents in these counties were classified by the census as living in a rural area. Mariposa County, which includes Yosemite National Park is one such sparsely settled county in this region.
  • 5. The Central Valley consists of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Merced, Tulare, San Luis Obispo, and Imperial counties. The first five are the agricultural heartland of California in the San Joaquin Valley. I added Imperial County (east of San Diego, bordering Mexico) to the Central Valley because it is heavily agricultural and had so few cases. San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County technically make up the “Central Coast” of California, but there were not enough cases for a meaningful analysis of this region so I combined Santa Barbara with the rest of Southern California and put San Luis Obispo with the Central Valley because much of it is agricultural (e.g. vineyards).


To test California I measured diversity in three ways. The first is simple and straightforward. Using the number of weighted interviews per geographic area I created a Religious Diversity Index that shows the number of different denominations per 1,000 respondents. The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey asked detailed questions about religion, producing 373 distinct religions and Protestant denominations. Thus, the highest score would be 373 (meaning that a particular region contained every possible religion and denomination). I could have just counted the simple number of distinct mentions, but this would mean that more populous areas would potentially have more mentions simply because there would be more people to mention them. To control for this bias, I standardized the measure by looking at the number of mentions per thousand respondents. The results are shown graphically in Chart 17.1. The South is the least religiously diverse region with only 23 discrete mentions of religions and/or denominations per thousand respondents because Southern Baptists dominate in this region. The Northeast and Midwest are only slightly more diverse with 36 and 30 discrete mentions of religions and denominations per thousand respondents respectively. This is consistent with Roofs argument that areas in which a particular religion has been historically dominant (e.g. Roman Catholics in the Northeast) will have less religious diversity. The West outside of California is more than twice as diverse as the Northeast and Midwest with 49 discrete mentions per thousand respondents, as compared with 30 per thousand and 36 per thousand, respectively. Every sub-region within California is far more religiously diverse than even the other Western states, varying between 93 and 262 discreet mentions per thousand respondents.

Although every region within California is more religiously diverse than even the most diverse region in the United States, Chart 17.1 seems to partially undercut Roofs thesis that Southern California has been the locus of religious diversity within California because the two most religiously diverse regions within California are largely rural: the Central Valley with a score of 262 and “other NorCal” with a score of 153. Los Angeles, by comparison has a score of 109. A closer analysis using a second measure of diversity (Chart 17.2) reveals that the large Religious Diversity Index scores for “Other NorCal” and the Central Valley are an artifact of rural geography. These two regions are geographically large and sparsely settled relative to Los Angeles County. The heavily agricultural Central Valley counties, for example, cover a combined 30,471 square miles. Because they are so spread out, a higher proportion of respondents in the Central Valley belong to small congregations: 26.2% of Central Valley respondents reported belonging to a congregation with fewer than 100 members as opposed to 17.6% in Los Angeles

CHART 17.1 Religious Diversity Index #1 (number of religions or denominations/ 1,000 persons).

County and 13.6% in Other Southern California (data not shown). Persons in the Central Valley will probably prefer a local church to driving long distances to attend a church of their preferred denomination. Chart 17.2 controls for the spatial dimension by showing the number of different denominations per thousand respondents per thousand square miles. Using this second measure of religious diversity, Los Angeles County is by far the most religiously diverse area in California with 22.9 discrete mentions per thousand respondents per thousand square miles. Even taking geography into account, the Central Valley remained relatively diverse religiously with 8.6 mentions per thousand respondents per thousand square miles as compared with just 2.4 in the “other SoCal” ring around Los Angeles.

Although much of the Anglo population in the Central Valley are the descendants of Southern Migrants and they are more religiously conservative than primarily urban counties such as Los Angeles, they still differ religiously from those southern communities their parents and grandparents left behind. Comparing the Central Valley with the South reveals a distinct “California effect.” Respondents in the Central Valley and Southern respondents were almost equally likely to adhere to an Evangelical denomination (40 and 45%, respectively), but within the Evangelical tradition, 38.6% of Southern respondents identified themselves with the Southern Baptist Convention as compared with only 13.7% of Central Valley respondents. Conversely, fully 26% of Central Valley Evangelicals identified as non-denominational as compared with only 10% of Southern respondents. Thus, Evangelicals in California are more diverse than in the Evangelical heartland.

CHART 17.2 Religious Diversity Index #2 (number of religions or denominations per 1,000 persons per 1,000 square miles).

A second way to measure diversity is to look at religious groups that fall outside ofWill Herberg’s classic 1955 formulation of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” (Herberg 1955). Here I specifically look at the percentage of White, non-Hispanic (“Anglo”) respondents who described themselves an adherent of an Eastern or New Age religion (Chart 17.3) or as atheist, agnostic, no religion (Chart 17.4). I limit the analysis to Anglo respondents to eliminate the influence of race and ethnicity. For example, the majority of Hispanic respondents (59%) were foreign born as compared with only 3.5% of Anglo respondents. Immigrants are less influenced by local culture because of language barriers, geographic isolation in immigrant enclaves, and socialization in the country of origin. Asians were excluded because 65% of Asian respondents were foreign born, and it means something entirely different for an Asian immigrant to identify as Hindu or Buddhist than for a native-born Anglo. A third of Asian respondents were raised in an Eastern religion as compared with only one-tenth of 1% of Anglo respondents. An Asian Buddhist has retained the religion of origin while the Anglo Buddhist is a religious switcher.

The percentage of Anglo respondents who identify with an Eastern or New Age religion (Chart 17.3) is highest in the Bay Area (4.4%), followed by Los Angeles (3.9%) and the rest of the West (2.1%). The high percentage in the Bay Area is no doubt a reflection of its counter-culture heritage. When Dr. Richard Alpert left Harvard to become Baba Ram Das he headed straight to Berkeley. The Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County is an important landmark in the ecology of American spirituality and had an important role in making meditation mainstream. Between 1970 and 1981, Baba Muktananda went on three world tours, establishing Siddha Yoga ashrams and meditation centers in many countries. In 1975, he founded the first American Ashram in Oakland.

CHART 17.3 Percent of White, non-Hispanic (Anglo) respondents that identify with an Eastern or New Age Religion.

Los Angeles, of course, has its own history' of spiritual innovation such as the Vedanta Society and Self-Realization Fellowship. Roof and Miller’s argument about religious diversity in Los Angeles was empirically validated, and it is partially validated when Eastern and New Age religions are examined. I say partially validated because Los Angeles is not unique: New Age and Eastern religions were also more prevalent in the Bay Area and the rest of the West.

Respondents who claim no religion are also highly prevalent in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Chart 17.4 shows the percentage of White, nonHispanic (“Anglo”) respondents that identified as atheist, agnostic, or as having no religion. The percentage of respondents without a religion was highest by far in the Bay Area where almost one out of three respondents (32%) so identified. This is keeping with the counter cultural history associated with political radicalism in Berkeley, hippies and flower power in San Francisco, spiritual seekers in Marin (Tobin et al. 2002), and secular-leaning high-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. The percentage of Anglo respondents in California who identified with no religion was lowest in the more conservative Central Valley, but even here it was still higher than in the South, Midwest, and Northeast. Considering “religious nones” as religious diversity goes beyond Roof and Miller but is theoretically consistent with it. Identification with a non-Western religion and no religion is easier when there is no predominant religion. They are not associated with other areas besides Los Angeles and the Bay Area for historical and cultural reasons. The New Age religions in the Bay Area (e.g. Baba Ram Das, Spirit Rock) emerged from the counter-culture that found fertile soil in the Bay Area whereas Southern California spirituality (Theosophy, Vendata Society, Self-Realization Fellowship) have older roots that predate the rise of the counter-culture. Atheists, Agnostics,

CHART 17.4 Percent of White, non-Hispanic (Anglo) respondents that identify as atheist, agnostic, or no religion.

and religious nones are more numerous in California and the rest of the West than in the Northeast, Midwest, and South by ten percentage points or more. This is consistent with Roofs observation (Roof 1985) that the West so much less religious that the rest of country that it could be characterized as the “unchurched belt.”

Religious intermarriage is a third way to measure religious diversity because it combines two faiths into a religiously diverse household. In a cultural milieu where individual autonomy is at least as important as institutions as the source of religious authority, institutional resistance to marrying outside the faith should be weaker, resulting in higher marriage rates outside the faith. Religious intermarriage was defined using nine categories: Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Atheist-Agnostic-Unitarian-Nothing, New Age-Eastern, Orthodox Catholic, other Christian, and Muslim. A religious intermarriage is between any two of these categories. I would have liked to break out Protestants into Evangelicals and Mainlines, but this was not possible because of the response categories for the religion of the spouse were less detailed. I limited the analysis to white, nonHispanic respondents because so many Asian and Hispanic respondents were immigrants who may well have been married prior to arriving in the United States. The practice in demographic research on intermarriage is to exclude immigrants from the analysis for this reason (Qian and Lichter 2001). Chart 17.5 shows the percent of all white, non-Hispanic respondents that were married to a spouse of a different religion. Religious intermarriage is higher in California than elsewhere, and it is highest in the Southern California Ring (42%), followed by Los Angeles (39%) and Other NorCai (37%).

Wade Clark Roof and Donald Miller have argued that religious diversity typifies California/Southern California/Los Angeles because historically no single religion or denomination has been dominant. Their argument, largely based on qualitative and historical evidence, is validated by the Pew Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 using three measures of religious diversity: the number of discrete denominations per capita, the percentage of Anglos who are outside the religious mainstream of Protestant/Catholic/Jew (i.e. have no religion or adhere to an Eastern or New Age Religion), and inter-religious marriage. The two Religious Diversity Indexes confirm Roof s and Millers hypothesis of the uniqueness of Los Angeles. Considering religious identification outside the mainstream (i.e. New Age religions, Eastern religions, and religious nones) added the Bay Area and the rest of the West to a geographically centered regional religious culture. Finally, inter-faith marriage was also associated with four regions in California: Los Angeles, the SoCal Ring, the Bay Area, and Other NorCai.

The results of this analysis were so dramatic that they beg the question, does residence in California, Southern California, or Los Angeles County exert other influences on religious belief and/or behavior? Does geography influence religion? To examine this question, I focus here on Anglo Evangelicals because they are the most religiously conservative and thus should be the least influenced by living in California, Southern California, or Los Angeles.

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