Bahai News - Bible Belt Getting Stretched
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,
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
`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
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
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
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
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.`
NASHVILLE BECOMING RELIGIOUS MELTING POT
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
Seven Korean Protestant churches serving a community of about 4,000 area
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
Page last updated/revised 040601
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