On August 18, 2017 the National Center for Veteran Analysis and Statistics released a dataset outlining the religious affiliation of all 21 million living veterans of the United States. “Veterans Religious Affiliation by State,” downloadable as an Excel file here, provides details not only on all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but veterans living in all US territories and the United Kingdom as well.
The Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70.6% of Americans still identify as Christian. For many, that number may seem high because there is a widely reported decline in formal membership in and weekly attendance to institutional church settings.
In the past, I have used the 70% rate to try to estimate the concentration of Christian adherents within the military community. The extent to which that rate was reflected within the veteran population was a guessing game, until now. Unfortunately, the VA data does not track all the 221 faith traditions that the Department of Defense now recognizes. The spreadsheet is not the most precise or clear, either. There is no explanation why the VA felt it necessary to split “Lutheran” and “Protestant,” for example. Nor does the data include any reference to the growing number of Nones, people with no religious affiliation. But it does give the casual observer a lot of very interesting information nonetheless.
Despite headlines featuring the important call, by humanists and other under-represented traditions, for formal recognition and spiritual support, the rate of Christian identification in the military is greater than that of the civilian population. According to the VA dataset, Christians make up over 90 percent of the veteran population.
You can see how I drilled down into Christian veterans on a Google spreadsheet here;
Christian Veterans by the Numbers
Overall, of the nearly 21 million living veterans, 18.3 million of them identify as either Catholic, Orthodox (Eastern, Ethiopian, or Greek), Lutheran or Protestant. That leaves about 1.7 million “unknown,” which is terribly nonspecific. Finally, there are just under 200,000 veterans living outside the US who are more religiously diverse than those living stateside.
The data also breaks down religious affiliation by state, so you can see precisely how many Christian veterans your ministry or church might reach. The three states with the highest raw number of Christian veterans are California with 1.7M, Texas with 1.5M, and Florida with 1.4M. The three states with the lowest numbers of Christian veterans are Vermont with just 40k, Wyoming with 45k, and North Dakota with 53k.
Alabama has the highest concentration of Christian veterans at 95.5%, followed closely by Mississippi at 95.24% and Georgia at 94.79%. Hawaii, the most religiously diverse state veteran population, is still ‘more Christian’ than the national civilian average, at 74.72%. South Dakota follows at 88.05% and Idaho at 88.11% Christian.
The first thing that jumps to many civilians’ minds when talk of veterans comes up is “suicide,” and rightly so. Every day, an average of 20 veterans will take their own life; once every 72 minutes. Not long ago, I tried to estimate how many veterans live with come form of combat stress, based on conservative estimates based on conflict specific data. The no-lower-than number I cam up with was 3,878,250 across all living combat veterans. Then I applied the 70.6% cited above, without any reason to think the military was any more or less Christian than the civilian populace. I estimated that 2.7M veterans living with PTS were Christian.
But the VA data set shows that even that was a conservative estimate. Rather than apply the Pew research, I can now apply data straight from the VA, of 91.51%. That means that there are at least 3,548,986 Christian veterans living with combat stress of some kind. Apply the data another way and you realize that it isn’t 14 of the 20 suicides that are committed by Christian veterans, but that a full 19 suicides every day are by a self-identified Christian veteran.