Oregonians tend to be an independent lot. Some years back a tourism campaign reflected that with a “things look different here” theme that focused on the state’s geographic diversity and natural beauty, but also implied that Oregonians pride themselves on thinking outside the box. That wasn’t mere boasting. In 1902, Oregon became the second state, behind South Dakota, to install an initiative and referendum system that allows citizens to make laws and undo laws passed by the Legislature.
In more modern times the state’s residents have declared the ocean beaches public property, approved some of the nation’s toughest anti-sprawl and pro-environment laws, authorized doctor-assisted suicide, required all voting be done by mail and experimented with universal health care through the Oregon Health Plan. The late Wayne Morse served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, first as a Republican, then as an independent, then as a Democrat. The streak of independence Morse personified is reflected in Oregon’s official state motto — “She Flies With Her Own Wings” — adopted by territorial officials five years before statehood.
Now there’s further evidence of Oregon’s maverick character — a pair of surveys conducted in 2013 by Gallup. One found Oregon tied with Hawaii as the fifth most liberal state, with 28 percent of those surveyed identifying themselves as liberals. The second determined that Oregon was the fifth least religious state, with only 31 percent identifying themselves as “very religious.” Vermont topped both lists.
The Gallup interviews were spread over the entire year and included more than 170,000 adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In most categories Oregonians were smack in the middle, close to the national average in approval or disapproval of President Obama; in listing themselves as conservatives, moderates or liberals; in “leaning” Republican or Democrat and in regarding themselves as “moderately religious.”
But Oregonians departed from the national norm in two interesting ways. One was on religious beliefs: There was an 11-point gap between the percentage of Oregonians who consider themselves “very religious” — 30 percent — and the national average of more than 41 percent. And there was a 14-point difference between those who said they were “non-religious” — 43 percent, to 29 percent nationally.
Religious belief is an individual and private matter, but numerous studies suggest a strong link between religious and political beliefs. If more than four in 10 Oregonians say they have no religious beliefs, that likely influences how they view hot-button issues such as abortion, gay rights and capital punishment.
The other split came in what Gallup calls the “conservative advantage” — the difference between the percentage of respondents identifying themselves as conservatives vs. those identifying themselves as liberals. Nationwide, the gap was nearly 15 percent in conservatives’ favor. In Oregon it was less than 6 percent, one of the smallest gaps in the country. That close divide gives added political weight to Oregonians who consider themselves moderates (more than a third in the survey) and likely ensures that neither political extreme will dominate in Oregon anytime soon.
The message may be that Oregonians, more than most, prefer to think for themselves instead of letting any authority, spiritual or secular, do their thinking for them.