Skip to main content

Why Vermont is not Godless

By Jay Parini
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 2118 GMT (0518 HKT)
Only 22% of Vermonters polled called themselves
Only 22% of Vermonters polled called themselves "very religious." But Jay Parini says many in his state are still spiritual seekers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: Gallup poll finds Vermont least religious state. Mississippi is most religious
  • He says in South, religion all over radio, road signs, towns; in Vermont fewer go to church
  • But Vermont ranks high on environment, health care. Mississippi ranks at bottom
  • Parini: Vermonters spiritual seekers, God-hungry: neighbor-helpers more than churchgoers

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published "Jesus: the Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus.

(CNN) -- Once again a new Gallup Poll has reported that Vermont is the least religious state in the country, with only 22% of the people willing to call themselves "very religious." On the other side of the poll, there is Mississippi, where a whopping 61% of citizens lay claim to that self-description. But what does it really mean to be "very religious" and not just spiritual?

I've been living in Vermont for much of my adult life, adding up to nearly four decades. And I've been keenly interested in the question of religion, having written a biography of Jesus and practiced Christianity as best I can for much of my life. I've also traveled in the South quite often, and understand where that 61% comes from: Not long ago I drove across Mississippi, and I couldn't find a secular radio station on the dial. It was all preachers, all sounding alike. Repent, repent, repent. Billboards everywhere shouted religious slogans. It seemed there was a church on every street corner in every town I passed through.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

So what's going on here? Do Mississippians have a direct line to the divine? Don't the majority of people of Vermont also have an interest in religion or belief in God? Is this why Vermont was the first state in the union to allow for civil unions? And does secularism run rampant here?

On any given Sunday, while I'm sitting in church, many of my neighbors are out walking in the woods, skiing, or reading a book by the woodstove (it's what we do in Vermont). Indeed traditional churches in Vermont struggle to fill their pews, and one often sees churches being sold off to real estate developers, who convert them into apartments or places where secular business can take place under high ceilings that once filled with prayers.

But it would be a mistake to assume the absence of the usual trappings of religion means that people in Vermont -- or anywhere, really-- aren't pondering the big questions. Religious affiliation doesn't necessarily equate with spirituality in any deep way.

Indeed, when I step into my local co-operative food store in Vermont, the bulletin board is crammed with listings for local meditation groups or yoga classes or panel discussions on "spirit and nature." The community spirit is strong in this state, and the value of helping one's neighbor is cherished here as much as anywhere. And these values include things like spending money on education, on good health care for all, and making sure that the land itself is responsibly used, with a keen awareness of environmental consequences. Indeed, Vermont was chosen the No. 1 greenest state in a recent poll.

Catholic: Marriage is not about love
Fire from a faucet
Married lesbian faces deportation

I'm not sure that the religious fervor in Mississippi necessarily results in any of these things, For example, the state consistently ranks near the bottom in health care for low income people and environmental responsibility

For some years I've taught courses at Middlebury College on poetry and spirituality, and students often say to me: "I'm spiritual but not religious." They are, nevertheless, on a quest. They like to ask big questions about God, about human fulfillment, about spiritual practice in the widest possible terms. With them I explore major spiritual texts, including the Book of Psalms, ancient Taoist poems from China, Islamic poetry, and the work of such great Christian poets as John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot. My sense is that there is no end of genuine interest in spiritual matters among students in my neck of Vermont.

Yet many of the traditional churches -- in Vermont as elsewhere -- fail to address questions of spirituality in ways that interest those who might have a deep spiritual longing but can't profess a simple faith in God or subscribe to any dogma.

Jesus himself put forward the essential questions: What does it mean to live an ethical life? What is this mysterious thing called "spirit" and how does it relate to questions about God? How do we live, as people of faith, in communion with each other as well as God? In so many ways, Jesus was the ultimate seeker, hungry for the deepest kinds of experience. He looked for, and found, astonishing answers, inviting us to follow him in our quest.

From what I can tell, God-hunger is alive and well in Vermont. But it tends to thrive outside the walls of traditional churches (though it can be found there as well, as apparently 22% of Vermonters will say). I would refer the good pollsters at Gallup back to the story of Jesus, who when asked by pesky Pharisees where the Kingdom of God could be found, said: "Don't say, look, it's here or there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21)

That's a challenging response, but it might not register as an appropriate answer on any Gallup Poll.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Parini.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT