An overwhelming majority of South Dakotans say they believe in God, but only about half of the state's residents say religion is very important in their lives, and a smaller portion than that attend services each week, according to a new survey examining religion.
The degree to which South Dakotans are religious ranks the state firmly in the middle of the pack compared to other states, according to findings by the Pew Research Center.
Mississippi, followed by several other Southern states, was tops in religious fervor, according to the survey, which asked questions about worship attendance, frequency of prayer, belief in God and religion's importance in one's life.
Some clergy in Sioux Falls said they would have expected South Dakota's ranking to be higher.
"Particularly in terms of volunteerism," said Father James Mason, pastor at St. Lambert's Parish. "When I had a rural parish, if I thought out loud, it got done. There was no one on staff; everyone just did the work."
Pastor Paul Stjernholm, senior pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, said he thinks the actions of people in South Dakota demonstrate their faith.
"When I look at what I'll call the quality of life that we have here in South Dakota, that is possible because there are people who are, though they might not be going to church every week, they are choosing to live their faith."
The Pew study shows that no state has worship attendance higher than 60 percent.
In Catholicism, Mason said, there is a strong emphasis on practice and the communal aspect of religion, which is atrophying across the country, not just here.
"We live in an individualistic society," Mason said, "People can believe in God and never practice the faith. We have lost the importance of community and the communal aspect that is essential. Catholic means universal, the coming together to celebrate the Eucharist."
He added: "I would say the most popular religion is 'me-ism,' where you can take a little bit of everything."
The other states at the top of the list in terms of how important religion ranks in the lives of citizens are Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina, where at least seven in 10 people say religion is a big part of their lives.
At the other end of the spectrum, with populations professing the least importance of religion, are several Northeastern states - Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont - as well as Alaska. Fewer than four in 10 people in these states say religion is very important to them.
For South Dakotans, about 56 percent say religion is a big part of their lives, which also is the national average.
South Dakota's strongest showing in the survey results comes in the number of people who say they believe in God: 79 percent.
"That would be my observation," Stjernholm said. "Even people who haven't been in church five years or more, they still have a belief in God."
South Dakota falls slightly below the national average in fervor for prayer, with 58 percent of the population saying they pray at least once a day.
The portion of South Dakotans who attend weekly worship services is 42 percent, but the state with the highest attendance, Mississippi, has only 60 percent.
"This next generation of adults that is coming into its own, their entry place is not the worship services, the traditional entry point," Stjernholm said. "Their entry point is through being involved with the members of the church in activities outside of the church - service, or service projects or social activities."
That sort of religious participation was not addressed in this survey.
"Worship is the end of the process, not the beginning." Sioux Falls Argus Leader