Area's religious diversity increasing
Publication date: 2001-03-18
Arrival time: 2001-03-22
People who move to East Tennessee thinking it is mostly a Baptist region have another think coming, said Dr. Stan Lusby, professor emeritus in the department of religious studies at the University of Tennessee.
There is a rich religious diversity in East Tennessee communities, said Lusby, who has taught courses on religion in America, Buddhism and Asian cultures. He also participated in the development of UT's Asian studies program.
"Nashville is very cosmopolitan, and Knoxville is increasingly so," said Lusby, who has been an emeritus professor since retiring in 1993. "If you drive down Kingston Pike from Cumberland Avenue, you can see the emergence of religions in East Tennessee.
"You see the presence of denominations such as Baptists and Presbyterians, who were influenced by the Great Awakening -- the revival period in colonial America where denominations gained more and more followers. And you also have two Jewish congregations, Unitarian Universalists and Greek Orthodox.
"This is sort of a good laboratory for the study of religion in Knoxville. But then you have the very important religious emphasis in the African-American communities."
Lusby noted that the diversity of East Tennessee religious communities has increased partly as a result of immigration. East Tennessee is solidly in the Bible Belt, but its religious denominations include the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, multiple close-knit Baha'i, and Muslim communities, Wiccans and Conservative and Reform Jewish congregations.
Although Catholics account for just slightly more than 2 percent of the region's population, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville has seen a 50 percent increase since it was formed in 1988. Out of an estimated 2 million East Tennessee residents, 47,232 are Catholic, according to data parish priests collect annually for reports.
A growing presence of Ruthenian and Byzantine Catholics sparked the formation of Tennessee's first Byzantine Catholic community in 1999. Families gather for divine liturgy at Seymour's Holy Family Catholic Church.
Small independent churches that include serpent handling as part of the services still exist, along with charismatic and evangelical congregations.
Local alternative publications advertise the activities of a growing Tibetan Buddhist community, and about 300 families -- some from as far away as the Tri-Cities -- worship at the Hindu Community Center and Temple in Lenoir City.
"That shows that the religious demography is changing, as it is across the United States," Lusby said. "For example, there are now more Muslims than Episcopalians in the United States. Part of that is the increase in other people from other cultural contexts -- from Asia, the Middle East, Africa -- and these changes influence the religious scene in America. ... When you invigorate a community with those people from diverse communities, the strength of those communities becomes evident."
Lusby said he knows of no breakdown on the number of people who belong to various denominations in the area.
"Numbers are so fluid," he said. "I don't know of a demographic study of religious communities in East Tennessee.... My impressions are you still have the dominant groups of Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. But you have increasing numbers of charismatic Christian groups that are growing ... (and) we have always had a significant number of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses.
"In the United States it's not a major matter to change from one religious community to another, without apology, which is part of the freedoms we cherish."
Lusby said the religious presence in East Tennessee is increasingly becoming a rich gumbo in which distinct faith traditions commingle.
"It makes it an interesting place for the study of religion," he said. "Plus you have the traditional Appalachian framework of small, independent religious communities that pride themselves on honoring independence and difference, a feeling of not suppressing varied religious expressions.
"The Native American culture is an important dimension. One of the laments is they have not received the notice or the respect they truly deserve."
Jeannine Hunter may be reached at 865-342-6324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Copyright 2001, News Sentinel