Los Angeles is a more religious city than Madison. No, really, it's true; you can look it up.
As December arrives and the holiday season approaches, the subject of religion has somehow made its way into the latest edition of Men's Health, a national magazine typically focused on women, sex, fitness, grooming, and well, more sex.
The magazine's monthly "Metrogrades" feature ranks urban areas on some imaginative measures. Recent topics have been "splitsville" (on divorce rates), "cavity capitals" (on dental health), and "sex-happy cities," which is probably self-explanatory.
Its latest list, "Holy Hometowns," ranks the 100 most-to-least religious cities. Madison ranks 81st, one spot behind L.A.
How could this be?
The magazine uses five per-capita metrics: places of worship, total religious-oriented organizations, number of volunteers who support these groups, money donated to religious organizations, and money spent on religious books.
To get more Madison detail, I interviewed the magazine's deputy editor. Matt Marion says our city typically shows up prominently and favorably in his magazine's rankings.
But not this time. He says Madison was average or slightly above in measures of places of worship and donations, about in the middle on consuming books on religion, but below average in total number of religious organizations, including businesses associated with religion, and in our level of religion-connected volunteerism.
Whatever Madison's statistical shortcomings, the fact that the city has a remarkably broad religious landscape is beyond debate. Religious diversity was not measured by the magazine, Marion acknowledges. That omission also hurt New York City, which he says complained about its low ranking (84th) given that city's vast spiritual variety.
My scan of the Men's Health list of 100 suggests that the Bible Belt is aptly named, as southern cities dominate. The Greensboro, N.C., Convention and Visitors Bureau even issued a press release publicizing the city's No. 2 overall ranking and noting the millions of dollars that religious conferences attract. In case you're wondering, No. 1 was Colorado Springs, Colo., home to James Dobson's outfit, Focus on the Family, a major financial and political enterprise.
At rock bottom were five cities that coincidentally represent the nation's most northeastern states: Portland, Maine (96), Hartford, Conn. (97), Boston (98), Providence, R.I. (99) and Burlington, Vt. (100).
But back to us.
I sought expert reaction here in Madison, starting with Cap Times columnist Phil Haslanger, who was managing editor here before becoming pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. Haslanger says he's always fascinated by the breadth of religious activity in Madison.
To wit, here's an overview from Haslanger and others:
• We have a larger proportion of Unitarian Universalists than any city of our size in the nation, according to the Rev. Michael Schuler, parish minister of the First Unitarian Society. His church is among three closely bunched as the nation's largest. The other two are in Tulsa, Okla., and Portland, Ore.
• Bethel Lutheran, just off the Capitol Square, is one of the largest Lutheran congregations in the country. Its service is telecast statewide every Sunday.
• Numerically, Lutherans of three different types — Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Wisconsin Synod and Missouri Synod - and Catholics dominate the city.
• Blackhawk Church, which occupies a big new building in Middleton, is a rapidly growing evangelical church.
• We have three Islamic centers as well as three synagogues representing different strains of Judaism, plus the Hillel Center serving students and recognizing a variety of Jewish traditions on campus.
• There is a vibrant and growing network of churches tied to racial and ethnic groups — a proliferation of predominantly African-American churches, multiple venues for Catholic Mass in Spanish, mainline Protestants and Pentecostals, a weekly service in French for immigrants at the Evangel Life Center on the far east side, a Korean Presbyterian Church, a Chinese Christian Church and so on.
• We are also home to an unusual ecumenical order of nuns at Holy Wisdom Monastery, as well as to two brilliant UW-Madison professors doing groundbreaking work connected to spirituality — scientist Richard Davidson on meditation and the mind, and Cal DeWitt on creation-care theology among evangelicals.
• The Deer Park Buddhist Center, a regular stopping place for the Dalai Lama, is just south of us in rural Oregon.
• We are home to the national office for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical campus mission organization with more than 125 employees based in the Madison area.
• Steve Paulson of Wisconsin Public Radio has gained national attention for developing a specialty on debates surrounding religion and science.
• We have one of the major Wiccan centers in the nation in nearby Barneveld, and a Wiccan chaplain in the state prison system.
• We are home to the Lubar Institute for Study of the Abrahamic Religions, one of the nation's main centers dealing with Jewish, Christian and Muslim studies.
So the religious breadth here is undeniable. "Madison is unique from a religious standpoint," observes Gordon Govier of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. As to the rankings, he says: "Everything is arbitrary to some degree."
Scott Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, seconds the notion of diversity, but is not shocked by the ranking.
"To be honest, the ranking doesn't surprise me because we have the presence of a huge secular university," he says. "We have these huge swaths of the University of Wisconsin that simply reject the truth claims of religion."
Anderson says Wisconsin overall is one of the nation's most homogenous states. "Eighty percent of religious adherents are either Lutheran or Roman Catholic," he says. "Madison contradicts that for the reasons we just said."
He says Madison is a place that is home to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, yet can fill the Kohl Center for an appearance by the Dalai Lama. "It's just an odd mix," Anderson says. "There is some religious passion in Madison, but there are some countervailing forces that make us unique."
So maybe a lofty religion rating is not within Madison's reach, but if Men's Health ever rates "most eclectic" cities, you can count us near the top.