If you watch any of the endless reality shows set in Alaska, you might notice something strange — for a heavily Republican state, religion doesn't appear to play much of a role in their lives. No crosses or other iconography around the house, no prayers, no attending group services, no usage of Biblical examples in their everyday speech (whether to make a serious point or just joking around).
That impression is backed up by Pew Forum research on religiosity across the nation. Here is a review on Alaska's empty pews from the late 2000s. And here is an interactive map that allows you to study religious beliefs and practices state by state. Alaska is near the bottom for believing in God, having any religious affiliation whatsoever, and attending religious services regularly.
The picture doesn't look much better in other red states out West, such as Arizona, Nevada, or Montana. Of course Colorado is near the bottom too, along with the Pacific coast. The only outlier is Utah, a colony of settled-down Midwestern types within the otherwise wild West (until it gets overrun by Californian transplants).
On the whole, Alaska looks like a state colonized by Republican-voting refugees from the Pacific Northwest. Hardly anybody has roots there, typical of the Mountain and Pac NW regions, which have attracted mainly rambling transients since the frontier days.
But nomadic peoples around the world practice religion, so why is it so thin throughout most of the frontier? Religion bonds a group together and allows for the enforcement of norms in a way that doesn't seem biased in favor of any particular group of people — the moral source is supernatural, something that every mortal human being is being held to equally. The main function of religion is maintaining social cohesion.
But if the frontiersman dreams of a place of his own, with no one else to tell him what to do, and no one else he'll have to keep in regular touch with, what need does he have for religion? The individualist impulse that led the original frontiersmen out West gave rise to the libertarian streak of the western half of the country.
And from "liberty from government" there arose "liberty from God." Any higher power, whether mundane or sacred, that could hold sway over an individual's affairs, in the service of appeasing some other individual, could not be tolerated. I don't need the gubmint bossing me around, and I sure don't need no God bossing me around.
It's no wonder that amoral hedonism took root right away in the original frontier days. It's not just that the West was "wild" — the Bible Belt isn't exactly peopled with tame, no-sex-having geeks, but they didn't have saloons and red light districts all over the place.
And the Deep South still doesn't today. Even today it's the West that is home to the pornography industry, the epicenter of gambling, flamboyant Pride Parades, and the highest levels of alcohol consumption.
Religion cannot be expected to play a large role in a region where the guiding moral principles seem to be "Leave me alone to indulge my vices" and "How dare you want to curb the commercialization of vice?"
New England shows that you don't need to be on the frontier to have low levels of religious behavior and high levels of booze drinking, but it does suggest a link to "don't tread on me" individualism and libertarianism, even if its origins are different in the founding region of the country compared to the frontier.
Someone who doesn't want to be duty-bound to others is not going to discriminate too much between a mundane and a supernatural law-giver. And the tenaciously combative stance toward the gubmint on just about all issues goes against Jesus' saying to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.
Conservatives who were raised back East may be curious about the potential for the old frontier states to serve as a bulwark against liberal degradation — some of those states are pretty red, and Arizona sure doesn't welcome the spic invasion like California does. But the more you scratch beneath the surface, the more you discover its quicksand foundation.