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Bible Belt Getting Stretched City Known As 'Protestant Vatican' Now Includes Variety Of Religions, Study Shows

Six Buddhist communities. Five Jewish congregations. Five Islamic mosques. A Baha'i center. A Hindu temple and a Hindu ashram, or teaching abode. Plus assorted Sikhs and Jains.

All are world religions that call the Bible Belt home in Nashville.

Others exist, too, immigrant Christians bringing something new to Tennessee Protestantism -- Sudanese, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Armenians, Mexicans, Koreans.

That's the latest roll call of local religious pluralism according to a group of students who have been poking around town, counting heads, interviewing gurus and otherwise testing the strength of Nashville's Bible Belt identity.

Their conclusion:

`The Bible Belt image is getting so stretched that, maybe in 10 or 20 years, you can't use it anymore,` said Tom Russell, a Western Kentucky University professor of religion.

America's Bible Belt traditionally refers to the Protestant South, where born-again Christianity still flourishes and Scripture is revered as the ultimate authority for daily life and faith. Nashville's heavy concentration of church life and Christian publishing, music and schools gives it a reputation as a Bible Belt capital.

Russell is leading a study of Nashville's interfaith scene for a national survey on religious pluralism.

`The major issue facing Nashville is making people realize this is happening. Go to Farmers Market. You'll see the world,` he said. Russell and 15 students from Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, are doing local research for the Pluralism Project, a Harvard University initiative to document the growing religious diversity in the nation, especially focusing on immigrant religions.

Much of that spiritual change is occurring in the Protestant South, religiously isolated in the past but now the home of immigrant populations who bring along their faiths.

`Nashville's a good laboratory for the changing scene in the South,` Russell said.

Loosening Protestantism's hold on Music City would be symbolic: Nashville, home to various Baptist agencies and headquarters, as well as Protestant denominational publishers and Bible publishers and church-run colleges, has been known as the `Protestant Vatican` since the mid-20th century.

That Protestant identity is still solid in Nashville, as churchgoing patterns and other studies show. The number of people practicing nontraditional, alternative religions is growing but remains relatively small. But the number of identifiable groups with non-Christian worship communities in Nashville is larger than ever.

`The Bible-Belt idea is still the cultural-theological mainstay,` Russell said. `But others are knocking at the door.`

His students said they found two categories of new religious expression in Nashville: the Christian and the non-Christian variety, both likely to influence religious life in subtle or overt ways.

`It catches people off guard to know there are Buddhist monks living the monastic life right off Thompson Lane,` said Thomas Holt, 29, a student researcher.

Conducting interviews last semester, they found enclaves of Laotian Buddhists, Kurdish Muslims and a scattering of Jains, practitioners of an ancient Indian philosophic tradition. They also found 4,000 Korean Protestants, Armenian Christians and an Eastern Orthodox coffeehouse/chapel.

They still seek practitioners of other religious traditions, including Taoism, but have found none yet.

This semester, the student research project is setting its sights north toward Louisville, taking a measure of religious pluralism in Kentucky. A finding: About 4,000 Muslims are in Bowling Green, which has a population of 50,000.

Russell will speak about the pluralism research at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Franklin at the 10 a.m. Sunday school class -- the theme is `So You Think There is a Bible Belt?` -- on April 22, April 29 and May 6. He attends the church.

`In the 1980s, we probably wouldn't have asked such a question about the future of the Bible Belt,` he said. `The future meaning of the term will depend on how much the new religions move into the fabric of Nashville socially and politically.`

One local minister said Middle Tennessee's growing pluralism is no reason for Christians to shy from Bible-based convictions.

`I believe the Lord would want us to open our arms to them as people and at the same time share the Lord's Word and be sure we get the truth of the Word of God out so they hear it,` said the Rev. Ken Sharp, a staffer at Bible Pathway Ministries in Murfreesboro, a publishing organization that promotes Bible reading.

But Sharp laments a trend of laxity in Bible reading, despite the region's evangelical Protestant credentials. He and others are working to maintain the Bible's high profile by promoting a round-the-clock Bible Reading Marathon, April 29-May 3 in Murfreesboro.

`Our Bible Belt has became a Bible-carrying group and not a Bible-reading group,` he said.

One Korean minister said his congregation, Korean Presbyterian Church, fits the Bible Belt image, believing the traditional doctrines of Christian faith. But his church is a meeting site for Korean culture.

`It's a very welcoming place, a cultural place for sharing food we knew in Korea,` he said. The congregation also has imported Korean spirituality, including a strong sense of the power of prayer. Dozens of people pray at the church at 6 a.m. each Saturday.

A church staffer who works with Sudanese immigrants said her congregation has been stretched by the presence of Sudanese Christians and the spirituality they bring to suburban Nashville Christianity. About 50 Sudanese worship at St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church.

`They bring a different language, different dress -- they dance when they worship,` said Joyce Shepard of St. Bartholomew's. `The congregation loves it. We realize our boundaries as Christians are broader than we thought. It takes us outside our little world and brings the mission field to us.` ----------


A tally of religious diversity in Nashville, based on research by students at Western Kentucky University, includes the following:

Six Buddhist groups. Some have turned a house into a worship center or temple. Others are small communities that meet in local churches. Local Buddhist groups include the Theravada Dhamma Society of Nashville, the Nashville Zen Center, the Vietnamese Buddhist Association, a Laotian temple, a Cambodian temple and a Tibetan meditation group.

Five Islamic mosques. About 5,000 Muslims regularly attend the Islamic community's annual holiday prayer events at Gentry Center at Tennessee State University, but Islamic leaders think about 15,000 Muslims reside here. Mosques include the Islamic Center of Nashville, Masjid of Islam, Salahadin Center, Masjid Al-Farooq and Muslim American Society of Nashville.

Five Jewish congregations representing 6,500 Jews in Nashville: West End Synagogue, Sherith Israel Congregation, The Temple, Congregation Micah and Congregation Beit Tefilah. The Jewish presence in Nashville goes back 150 years or more.

The Baha'i community, with about 300 active members in Middle Tennessee, has a worship center on Clifton Avenue but is building a new center in Antioch to replace it. There are also Baha'i communities in Hendersonville, Wilson County, Murfreesboro, Brentwood and Franklin.

The Sikh faith has about 40 Midstate families, but no temple.

Hindus have the Sri Ganesha Temple in Bellevue, serving about 1,000 India-oriented families and drawing worshippers from throughout the region. A second Hindu center, the Sadhana Ashram, houses a handful of residents and offers instruction in meditation and other spiritual disciplines.

Immigrant newcomers to Nashville include Christian groups such as:

A Catholic Hispanic community center in Mt. Juliet to help the Diocese of Nashville serve 50,000-55,000 Spanish-speaking Catholics in Middle Tennessee. They also attend Mass at more than a dozen regular parishes that offer Spanish-language Masses. There are at least two Hispanic-oriented Protestant congregations, too.

Seven Korean Protestant churches serving a community of about 4,000 area Koreans.

Four Laotian Protestant congregations.

Two Ethiopian congregations.

Enclaves of Sudanese Christians at six local congregations.

An Armenian Orthodox congregation and an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox church.

©Copyright 2001, The Tennessean

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