How diverse are Alaska’s religious groups?

In July, Pew Research released a new analysis of data from their 2014 Religious Landscape study. Twenty-nine religious groups were categorized by racial diversity, including percent of adherents by race and Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, widely used by demographers to quantify diversity.

According to Pew data, the top four most racially diverse U.S. religious groups are as follows: Seventh-day Adventist with 37 percent white, 32 percent black, 8 percent Asian, 15 percent Latino, 8 percent “other,” and an H-H Index of 9.1; Muslims are 38 percent white, 28 percent black, 28 percent Asian, 4 percent Latino, and 3 percent other, with an H-H Index of 8.7; Jehovah’s Witnesses are 36 percent white, 27 percent black, 32 percent Latino, 6 percent other, and have an H-H Index of 8.6; and U.S. Buddhists are 44 percent white, 3 percent black, 33 percent Asian, 12 percent Latino, 8 percent other, with an H-H Index of 8.4.

By comparison, the average H-H Index for all U.S. religious groups is 6.6.

Other notable H-H Index rankings are as follows: Catholic-6.7; Assemblies of God-6.2; American Baptist Churches-5.5; Presbyterian (PCA)-4.4; Orthodox-4.2; Anglican-3.7; Southern Baptist-3.4; Mormon-3.4; Nazarene-2.8; Episcopal-2.3; United Methodist-1.4; Lutheran (LCMS)-1.2, and Lutheran (ELCA)-1.0.

Three major historically black denominations had relatively low H-H Indexes: Church of God in Christ-3.5; African Methodist Episcopal-1.4, and National Baptist Convention-0.2, the lowest index.

I’ve visited Seventh-day Adventist churches locally and have seen this diversity firsthand. SDA congregations are clearly multicultural, especially to an outsider such as me.

I asked Alaska SDA Conference president Ken Crawford for his comments about their local diversity.

“If you were to visit one of the 40 Seventh-day Adventist churches in Alaska on a Saturday morning, you would encounter amazing racial diversity,” he said. “Why? No one has been able to put a finger on it, but it is unique among Christian churches to see such diversity in both worship and fellowship. Two possible reasons for this unique diversity is (1) the rapid growth of the church worldwide, and subsequent immigration to America, and (2) the fact that the Adventist Church as a whole is very accepting of all people. Its message emphasizes commonalities such as a community in Christ and the hope in the Second Coming rather than differences.”

Last weekend, I made my first visit to a Jehovah’s Witness congregation — Sand Lake on Strawberry Road, curious to see if they mirrored the U.S. averages. By mistake, I wandered into the Spanish congregation first, and was redirected to the English service on the other side. It appeared the English service was attended by a blend of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including black, Hispanic, Alaska Native and white. Talking with several members afterward, I learned the congregation locally supports English, ASL, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Hmong, Tagalog, Samoan, Nuer and Yupik languages.

Dr. Youssef Barbour, a leader who fills some of the roles of an imam in Alaska’s Muslim community says, of diversity among Islam in Alaska,“I think this is very evident in our community. We have people from all backgrounds. In terms of numbers, I don’t think we have statistics, but there are approximately 3,000-4,000 Muslims living in Alaska. I would say the majority would be Muslims of African descent, and those can be African Americans or African migrants. The representation in our committee is diverse and reflects the different back grounds (sic) in the community.”

To date, I’ve not visited Alaska’s Buddhist community, but I plan to, and I’ll be keenly interested in diversity.

Catholics represent approximately one in four Anchorage churchgoers. I asked Mary Gore, executive director of the Alaska Catholic Conference, about diversity among local Catholics. “In our 10 year report to Rome, we noted that our Catholic population mirrors that of the state as far as ethnic composition: 66.7 percent Caucasian, 14 percent Alaska Native, 6.4 percent Asian or Pacific Islanders, 5.6 percent African American, and 5.5 percent Hispanic,” she said. “Those statistics are from 2010 are probably somewhat outdated. I think we’re closer to the Pew Study but we probably have more in the category of Asian/Pacific Islanders than indicated on a national level. Several of our parishes are probably 75 percent Filipino — St. Mary in Kodiak, and St. Christopher in Dutch Harbor for sure. We don’t keep ethnic statistics by parish. St. Anthony and Our Lady of Guadalupe have high proportions of Alaska Native, Filipino, Pacific Islander and Hispanic.” My visits to local Catholic parishes tend to suggest a better-than-average record of diversity.

The lack of diversity among mainline Protestant denominations, such as Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians is worrying. Two of the three local leaders of these denominations tell me it’s receiving attention from the highest levels nationally and locally. Bishop Shelley Wickstrom of the Alaska ELCA Synod said, “We have a saying in the ELCA that if you’ve seen one region of the church, you’ve seen just one region. Alaska is home to 24 percent of Alaska Native and American Indian members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America so Alaskan ELCA congregations don’t look like the rest of the churches in the Lower 48.”

Many local church organizations could do more in seeking greater diversity. Alaska is, and will continue to be, a melting pot of many different cultures.


2 thoughts on “How diverse are Alaska’s religious groups?

  1. Shuaib Jones

    I am a third generation African-American American Muslim, and my children and grandchildren are Muslim. I disagree with your statistics which classifies 38% of Muslims as White. If you are following the rule which classifies people of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe as White then I beg to differ. People are not Black or White. These are false labels and they distort people’s identities and cultures. Muslims are diverse whether they are Arabic speaking from North Africa or the Middle East.
    I am a member of the United Muslim Christian Forum (UMCF). For the past 8 years we have held multidenominational Muslim/Christian celebrations for birth of Jesus son Mary and we celebrate the birth of the Holy Last Messenger Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them both.


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