By Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.
You don’t have to drive too far into the South to understand why people call it the Bible Belt. Chris Queen makes that point well in his e-book “Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South.”
Written in the form of a travelogue, the author’s journey begins near Commerce, Georgia, with a tribute to the role of religion in the South. “Southerners may not always view every moment of every day through the lens of Christianity like we ought to,” Queen said, “but it looms large over everything in Dixie.”
Here are five signs of Southern faith that he highlights:
- A storied history of religion from colonial days to the present. Several strains of Christianity have taken root in the South. Anglicanism found favor first, followed by the evangelical Protestantism of the Great Awakening and a Second Great Awakening that gave rise to Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. Next came the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and churches of Christ in the American Restoration. Enslaved blacks also embraced the Bible message of liberation, with the first black congregation beginning in Silver Bluff, Georgia, in 1773.
- The presence of great religious leaders. Both televangelist Billy Graham and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., two of the most noteworthy Christians in recent U.S. history, came from the South. Queen also mentions a half-dozen others who were “driven to serve, minister and teach by the same God whose message permeates the South.”
- Religious terminology that saturates our language. The very nickname “Bible Belt” is but one example. Other evidences include: the popularity of Bible phrases (“the Lord is my shepherd,” Psalms 23) and passages (John 3:16) in American culture; Southern colloquial expressions like “bless his heart” and “I almost lost my religion”; and wise sayings with religious overtones, such as “God helps those who help themselves.”
- An abundance of church buildings to this day. The first road that Queen leads his readers down (U.S. Highway 441) features one memorable building, the Baptist Tabernacle in Jackson County, Georgia. Its green neon cross and the words “JESUS SAVES” serve as “an unwitting metaphor for Southern Christianity,” Queen said.
- Worship attendance and Bible readership. Both are higher in the South than anywhere else in the country. A 2015 Gallup survey revealed that 10 of the top 12 states in attendance are in the region, while another survey indicated that two-thirds of Southerners regularly read their Bibles.
Queen acknowledges that the Southern manifestation of Christianity is not perfect. It is “a sprawling, messy thing driven by imperfect people who love and serve a perfect God.” But he adds, “That’s what makes it so wonderful.”