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Originally published Tuesday, October 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

The unchurched Northwest

The Bush administration's dance with religion doesn't have much of a partner in the Pacific Northwest. This is the least-religious part...

The Bush administration's dance with religion doesn't have much of a partner in the Pacific Northwest. This is the least-religious part of the country.

Ask people here, "What's your religion?" and 25 percent say, "I don't have one." Almost 63 percent don't belong to a religious community. Nationally, only 14 percent claim no religion and 41 percent join no church.

The Supreme Court is now considering Oregon's right to apply its assisted-suicide law, and the religious "right-to-life" spokesmen are out in force. But most Oregonians think they can distinguish between right and wrong without guidance from the Bible Belt. Oregon is the least-churched state in the nation, and its murder rate is one-quarter that of Georgia's.

So it is with some concern that many individualistic inhabitants of this region regard a relatively new phenomenon: the rise of conservative evangelical churches in their midst. Who are these churchgoers, with their constraining ideology?

Many are recent arrivals from other parts of the country, according to Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Dislocated from family and old friends, the newcomers find community in the new mega-churches. These post-denominational, post-modern evangelical churches make savvy use of modern communications to attract and keep members. They can summon the troops to close down strip clubs or oppose gay rights. In Seattle, Earth Day is kind of a public holiday. But one conservative denomination put on a counter-Earth Day service, contending that the celebration is pagan.

A political tension seems to be developing, but it's a mistake to see the contest as between the believers and the heathens. While most people in the Northwest do without church, they are rarely atheists or agnostics. Even among those who said they have no religion, 67 percent believe that God exists, according to surveys.

The region's casual ties to organized religion are a product of its history, explains Professor Killen, who co-edited the book "Religion & Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone." As settlers arrived, no religion grew dominant, "so there was no religious group to be like or to work against being like."

This is also, of course, the American West, where people believe in the individual's power to design one's own world. As a result, there's a great deal of experimentation, including with the Eastern traditions. One of Killen's students refers to herself as a BuLu, a Lutheran who does Buddhist meditation.

The awe-inspiring scenery has also fostered a strong environment-based spirituality. For many, watching the sunlit clouds over the Olympic Mountains provides their connection to the divine.

If the Northwest is a spiritual marketplace, then Seattle's Roosevelt Way is its Wall Street. Stores here sell prayer beads, statues of saints, plant essences and every manner of spiritual aid. The East West Bookshop devotes shelves to, among other things, Qi Gong, Sufism, Vedic teachings, St. Francis, Jewish mysticism and several kinds of Buddhism.

Unlike the historical evangelical denominations, such as Southern Baptists, the new evangelicals are not much into this mixing and matching. "While American Baptist churches would also do Zen meditation," Killen says, "the post-denominational churches do not."

How this plays out politically remains an open question. Killen sees two growing centers of religious gravity: the new evangelical churches and the secular-but-spiritual groups with moderate Catholic, Protestant and Jewish allies.

So far, the liberal culture seems to be holding its own. Conservative churches actively campaigned for Bush in the last election, but Washington state still went solidly for John Kerry.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Pacific Northwesterners outside organized religion has stayed steady. The entrepreneurial evangelicals account for only 5 percent of the population. (Their increased numbers offset declines among mainstream Protestants.)

What should ultimately stymie a religious takeover is the region's mulish independent streak. People around here have always had real problems with authority, and religious authority would be no exception. Nor do they tiptoe around sensitivities of moralists who would give orders. Defenders of Oregon's assisted-suicide law, for example, named their group Don't Let Them Shove Their Religion Down Your Throat.

Politics in the Pacific Northwest may go left or right in the years to come. But don't expect preachers to be leading the way.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

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