Southern Cultures 8.2 (2002) 72-93
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Our Lady of Guadeloupe Visits the Confederate Memorial
Thomas A. Tweed
Truisms are sometimes true. And if anything has seemed self-evident to interpreters of the South, it's the religious homogeneity of the Bible Belt. With the exception of the Mormon cultural area in Utah and adjoining states, no U.S. region seems less diverse. Fervent revivalism, civil war, and minimal immigration allowed a southern evangelical Protestant establishment—mostly Baptist and Methodist—to form by the nineteenth century. Free of challenges from immigrants, that evangelical alliance has shaped the religious landscape. Some observers have trumpeted the South as the last stronghold of faithful Christian witness; others, like the Baltimore-born iconoclast H. L. Mencken, have dismissed it as "the bunghole of the United States, a cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodism, snake-charmers, phony real-estate operators, and syphilitic evangelists." However the assessments diverge—and they still do—almost all interpreters have agreed on one point: the South looks more homogenous than the rest of the nation. 1
There is much truth to the still standard interpretation: the South seems more uniformly Protestant and more institutionally pious. Surveys indicate that southerners join churches and attend services more than Americans do in other regions. Even the unchurched in the South admit to a lingering piety: in one 1978 poll nearly three-fourths believed that Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead, and another survey a decade later found that almost two-thirds of the unaffiliated believed in life after death. Recent surveys reveal the same pattern of attendance, membership, and belief. For example, the spring 2000 Southern Focus Poll found that nearly a quarter of southerners (23 percent) attend services more than once a week, as compared to about 15 percent of nonsoutherners, and significantly more southerners than nonsoutherners (40 percent compared to 29 percent) say that religion is "extremely important" in their lives. According to the fall 1999 Southern Focus Poll, more southerners than nonsoutherners claim the Bible is their authority for daily life (31 percent compared with 19 percent), and more than six out of ten say they prefer the biblical creation account to Darwinian [End Page 72] evolutionary theory to explain the universe's origins. And some geographers and sociologists have argued that this regional pattern of piety shows few signs of changing. 2
The South is not just more pious, either; it is also still predominantly Protestant. The 2000 Southern Focus Poll found that 65 percent of southerners claim Protestant affiliation, while the rest of the nation was only 43 percent Protestant. Two sociologists who have conducted the most comprehensive telephone survey of the last decade came to similar conclusions. Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman have found that Baptists, both black and white, are concentrated south of the Mason-Dixon Line. They are the largest religious group in fourteen states, nearly all of which are in the South, and Baptists comprise more than half the residents [End Page 73] of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Furthermore, Kosmin and Lachman suggest, a "relatively stable" southern Protestantism, evangelical and Pentecostal, persisted into the 1990s. 3
Truisms, however, need nuancing. We need to qualify the claims about the continuing evangelical Protestant dominance in several ways. First of all, diversity has a long history in the South. Among the earliest settlers, West African religious practices mixed with Christian piety to produce new creole spiritual forms, and even the Christian faiths Europeans transplanted bore varied fruits. Roman Catholics built the first permanent settlement in the South (and in North America) at St. Augustine in 1565. They have a long history in Texas and Louisiana, and Catholics built churches in small towns and larger cities. Jews also found a place in some southern cities—Charleston, Wilmington, Savannah, and Miami Beach, for instance. Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Quakers, Lutherans, Adventists, Disciples, Unitarians, Universalists, and other Protestants also competed with Baptists and Methodists for the allegiance of the region's faithful. And long before the Europeans and Africans arrived, the South had...