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Keeping the faith in Florida

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): Also refuge for non-religious    Large Jewish influx    Greater political voice?   .

Keeping the faith in Florida

By Elizabeth Clarke, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 22, 2002

Which place in Florida is more religious than all the Panhandle counties nestled deep in the bosom of the ultra-religious, super-conservative Bible Belt?

Stop guessing and try Palm Beach County -- complete with its Worth Avenue wealth and retiree haven reputation and aided by a wave of Hispanic immigrants in the past decade.

A nationwide study, Religious Congregations & Membership: 2000, released last week by the Glenmary Research Center, the research arm of a Catholic missionary group, reveals a majority of the county's 1.1 million residents participate in religious life with a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship.

Together, the area's participating religious denominations claimed 559 of every 1,000 residents as "adherents" in 2000, meaning 56 percent of the county's residents belong to or participate in some religious congregation.

That number jumped from just 43 percent in 1990, buoyed by an increase of 191,000 Catholics and 55,000 Jewish believers during the 1990s.

"I am very surprised," said Ken Mahanes, dean of the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach. "It's good news, though. I'm glad to hear it."

Religious leaders and academics who heard the numbers echoed his surprise, particularly when learning Palm Beach County ranks second to only tiny Hardee County -- a landlocked, rural county northwest of Lake Okeechobee where denominations claim about 69 percent of its residents.

Other than Hardee, Palm Beach and Indian River (fifth in the state), the rest of the top 10 counties were all in North Florida: Holmes, Lafayette, Suwannee, Gulf, Nassau, Escambia and Taylor.

"That wouldn't surprise me because, candidly, I tend to think of the Panhandle as not really being Florida but being South Alabama," Mahanes said.

Martin County was 11th with 47 percent of its residents reported as members of some religious group, Broward 15th with 46 percent and St. Lucie 33rd with 39 percent.

Hulking Palm Beach County shares few similarities with the other top 10 counties. They're primarily small and rural, with large evangelical Protestant churches fueling their adherence rates. And few who live there would be fazed to learn their county ranks among the most religious in the state.

"I wouldn't doubt it," said Janet Hendry, executive director of the Hardee County Chamber of Commerce. "We are definitely a church-oriented community. We're small, but we have over 80 churches."

The study turned up just 50 congregations in Hardee County, probably a product of the 136 invited denominations nationwide -- including several black Baptist associations and the Jehovah's Witnesses -- that did not participate in the survey.

Also refuge for non-religious

But even as Palm Beach County grows in religiosity, it continues to provide refuge to the non-religious, too. More than 44 percent are "unclaimed" -- as in atheists, agnostics and those who don't visit places of worship regularly, but also those who attend places of worship that did not participate in the survey. In raw numbers, that's nearly 500,000 people, more than any single religious group within the county.

That helps explain why Dale Jones, chairman of the study's operations committee, isn't too surprised by Palm Beach County's numbers.

Nationally, only about 50 percent of the population is reported as being a member of a place of worship, according to the study.

"Fifty-five or 56 percent claimed in Palm Beach County is not an outrageously high number," Jones said. "That's not going to be No. 2 in most states."

For example, in heavily Catholic Massachusetts, where the most religious county had an 86 percent adherence rate, Palm Beach County's 56 percent would rank just 12th. And in mostly Christian Kansas, Palm Beach County's numbers would make it only the 66th most religious county.

Jones also said the difference between urban and rural areas is not so much in whether they are religious or not but in the mix of religious denominations. In major metro areas nationwide, Catholics claim 53 percent of adherents while Protestants and evangelical Protestants claim 34 percent. In non-metro areas, the reverse is true: Protestants and evangelical Protestants claim 71 percent of adherents and Catholics 25 percent.

Florida's overall adherence rate is about 41 percent, down from 44 percent in 1990.

The Catholic numbers, however, jumped dramatically: 62 percent statewide, largely attributable to a growth in the state's Hispanic population in the past 10 years. That includes a 176 percent jump in Catholics in Palm Beach County, 160 percent in Martin and 158 percent in St. Lucie, putting these three counties among the top six most-Catholic counties in Florida by rate of adherence.

Catholics comprise 16.2 percent of the state population, making them the single largest denomination.

Evangelical Protestants are next with 14 percent of the population, but they dominate in places such as Hardee County and the Panhandle. Though their numbers have grown in South Florida in the last decade, those numbers remain small here. Martin County is last in the state with about 7 percent. St. Lucie ranks 61st with 8 percent, and Palm Beach County is 59th with 9 percent.

"I am surprised that evangelicals rank as low as we do," Mahanes said. "We've got a heck of a job ahead of us."

Mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians and Methodists, represent 6.2 percent of the population in Florida. Indian River County had the highest rate, with 11 percent. Martin was third with 10 percent, St. Lucie County 42nd with 5.1 percent and Palm Beach County 45th with 4.9 percent.

Large Jewish influx

Palm Beach County's Jewish community started the 1990s as the largest single denomination in the county, according to the survey, with 112,000 estimated adherents.

That ranked ahead of the Catholics by about 3,000 people. Ten years later, the Jewish community had grown by about 55,000 but dropped to second in size behind the Catholics -- who now outnumber Jews by 300,456 to 167,000. In the whole state, the Jewish community grew by just 61,540, meaning just a few thousand settled anywhere outside Palm Beach County.

And Palm Beach County does have the highest rate of Jewish believers of any county in the state, with nearly 15 percent. Broward was next with 13.1 percent and Miami-Dade third with 5.5 percent. Martin's rate is 1.7 percent and St. Lucie's 1.6 percent. The rate statewide is less than 4 percent.

Lesley Northup, professor of religion and culture at Florida International University in Miami-Dade County, credits Palm Beach County's growth to a "little baby boom," particularly within the Jewish fundamental groups, and to migration patterns that also affect other religious groups.

She believes many Hispanics and Jews coming to Florida might first arrive in Miami-Dade or Broward but decide quickly that the urban, expensive, diverse lifestyles there will prevent them from raising their families with their own values, culture and faith. Many head north to Palm Beach County -- with its slower lifestyle and suburban communities.

Others, especially retirees, don't even bother starting in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, going directly to West Palm Beach or Boca Raton, she says.

"Palm Beach, I think, is becoming the destination county for a lot of people who have found Miami difficult to navigate for one reason or another," she says. "It's a migration pattern of people who wish to retain their culture and fear it would be diluted here in super-pluralistic Miami."

Greater political voice?

But what does all this mean -- this Palm Beach County that is one of the most religious places in the state, with an overwhelmingly Catholic population, more Jews than most parts of the nation and a small but vocal evangelical Protestant community?

"This information is very hopeful in that it gives us a sense that we should be having a much greater influence on public discourse and on social programs in society," said the Rev. Alfredo Hernandez, pastor of St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach. "If we're closer to 20-30 percent of the county, rather than 10-15 percent, we have a much greater responsibility to take a role in public conversations."

Hernandez said the numbers confirm his suspicions that many more than a quarter-million Catholics (the diocese's official estimate) live in the five-county Diocese of Palm Beach. The study puts the number at about 414,000.

Northup wouldn't be surprised to see religious groups get more involved in social debates, and as they do, to see politicians take more notice.

Believers who might not have given themselves a shot at a school board seat might reconsider. Legislative candidates with strong views on abortion, for example, or other hot-button religious issues might do the same. An increase in children attending religious schools could increase the call for school vouchers in Palm Beach County.

"It will be interesting to see if (Gov.) Jeb (Bush) picks up on that and focuses more on Palm Beach County in the voucher battle," Northup said. "This might be a fertile ground for fighting that battle."

Family values issues might see more conversation here, particularly if national and state leaders regard the increased religiosity as an indication that conservative values and perhaps Republican sentiment might also grow.

"Politicians might focus there in an effort to convert religious values to political values," Northup said.

Staff database editor Christine Stapleton contributed to this story.

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