The Bible Belt is an informal term for a region in the south-eastern and south-central United States in which socially conservative evangelical Protestantism plays a strong role in society and politics, and Christian church attendance across the denominations is generally higher than the nation's average. The Bible belt consists of much of the Southern United States. During the colonial period (1607–1776), the South was a stronghold of the Anglican church. Its transition to a stronghold of non-Anglican Protestantism occurred gradually over the next century as a series of religious revival movements, many associated with the Baptist denomination, gained great popularity in the region.
The region is usually contrasted with the mainline Protestantism and Catholicism of the Northeastern United States, the religiously diverse Midwest and Great Lakes, the Mormon Corridor in Utah and southern Idaho, and the relatively secular Western United States. Whereas the state with the highest percentage of residents identifying as non-religious is the New England state of Vermont at 34%, in the Bible Belt state of Alabama it is just 3%. Mississippi has the highest proportion of Baptists, at 75%. The earliest known usage of the term "Bible belt" was by American journalist and social commentator H. L. Mencken, who in 1924 wrote in the Chicago Daily Tribune: "The old game, I suspect, is beginning to play out in the Bible belt." Mencken claimed the term as his invention in 1927.
The name "Bible belt" has been applied historically to the South and parts of the Midwest, but is more commonly identified with the South. In a 1961 study, Wilbur Zelinsky delineated the region as the area in which Protestant denominations, especially Southern Baptist, Methodist, and evangelical, are the predominant religious affiliation. The region thus defined included most of the Southern United States, including most of Texas and Oklahoma in the southwest, and in the states south of the Ohio River, and extending east to include central West Virginia and Virginia south of Northern Virginia. In addition, the Bible belt covers most of Missouri and Kentucky and southern parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. On the other hand, areas in the South which are not considered part of the Bible belt include heavily Catholic Southern Louisiana, central and southern Florida, which have been settled mainly by immigrants and Americans from elsewhere in the country, and overwhelmingly Hispanic South Texas. A 1978 study by Charles Heatwole identified the Bible belt as the region dominated by 24 fundamentalist Protestant denominations, corresponding to essentially the same area mapped by Zielinski.
According to Stephen W. Tweedie, the Associate Professor Emeritus at the Department of Geography in the Oklahoma State University, the Bible belt is now viewed in terms of numerical concentration of the audience for religious television. He finds two belts: one more eastern that stretches from Florida, (excluding Miami, Tampa and South Florida), through Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and into Virginia (excluding Northern Virginia) ; and another that concentrated in Texas (excluding El Paso, and South Texas), Arkansas, Louisiana, (excluding New Orleans and Acadiana), Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Mississippi. "[H]is research also broke the Bible Belt into two core regions, a western region and an eastern region. Tweedie's western Bible Belt was focused on a core that extended from Little Rock, Arkansas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. His eastern Bible Belt was focused on a core that included the major population centers of Virginia and North Carolina.
A study was commissioned by the American Bible Society to survey the importance of the Bible in the metropolitan areas of the United States. The report was based on 42,855 interviews conducted between 2005 and 2012. It determined the 10 most "Bible-minded" cities were Knoxville, TN; Shreveport, LA; Chattanooga, TN; Birmingham, AL; Jackson, MS; Springfield, MO; Charlotte, NC;, Lynchburg, VA; Huntsville-Decatur, AL; and Charleston, WV.
In addition to the South, there is a smaller Bible belt in West Michigan, centered around the heavily Dutch-influenced Holland and Grand Rapids. Christian colleges in that region include Calvin College, Hope College, Cornerstone University, Grace Bible College, and Kuyper College. West Michigan is generally fiscally and socially conservative. Similarly conservative is the suburban Chicago area; Christian colleges in that region include Wheaton College, Judson University, North Central College, Elmhurst College, Trinity Christian College, and Trinity International University.
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Several locations are occasionally referred to as "the Buckle of the Bible belt":
- Abilene, Texas a city of 117,000 home to three Christian universities: the Baptist affiliated Hardin-Simmons University, the Church of Christ's Abilene Christian University, and Methodist founded McMurry University.
- Nashville, Tennessee, sometimes referred to as "the Protestant Vatican", has over 700 churches, several seminaries, and a number of Christian schools, colleges and universities, including Belmont University, Trevecca Nazarene University, Lipscomb University, Free Will Baptist Bible College and American Baptist College. Nashville is the seat of the National Baptist Convention, USA, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, the Gideons International, the Gospel Music Association, and Thomas Nelson, the world's largest producer of Bibles.
- Jacksonville, North Carolina and Camp Lejeune are in a largely Southern Baptist area also known for being very politically conservative due to its large military population.
- Springfield, Missouri is the international headquarters of the evangelical Pentecostal Protestant denomination Assemblies of God and home to their school, Evangel University.
Political and cultural context
The term Bible belt is used informally by journalists and by its detractors, who suggest that religious conservatives allow their religion to influence politics, science, and education. There has been research that links evangelical Protestantism with social conservatism. In 1950, President Harry Truman told Catholic leaders he wanted to send an ambassador to the Vatican. Truman said the leading Democrats in Congress approved, but they warned him, "it would defeat Democratic Senators and Congressmen in the Bible belt."
In presidential elections, the Bible belt states of Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas have voted for the Republican candidate in all elections since 1980; Oklahoma has supported the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1968. Other Bible belt states have voted for the Republican presidential candidate in the majority of elections since 1980, but have gone to the Democratic candidate either once or twice since then. However, with the exception of Mississippi, historical geographer Barry Vann shows that counties in the upland areas of the Appalachians and the Ozarks have a more conservative voting pattern than the counties located in the coastal plains (Vann, 2008; 2014).
Outside the United States
In Australia, the term usually refers to tracts within individual cities, for example the Hills District (including ) in the north-western suburbs of Sydney or in Melbourne the eastern suburbs between Box Hill and the Dandenongs. Also included are the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide such as Paradise, Modbury and Golden Grove. There is a section of south-eastern Queensland comprising the towns of Laidley, Gatton and Toowoomba which is referred to as the Bible belt. In Tasmania, the North-Western portion of the state is regarded in this context.
In Canada, the term is also sometimes used to describe several disparate regions which have a higher than average level of church attendance. These include some rural areas of the Prairies, the rural and more traditional parts of the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia and the Saint John River Valley of New Brunswick.
In Denmark, the area of northwestern Jutland is often mentioned as a Bible belt. The region has a large number of members of the Lutheran movement called "Indre Mission" (English: "Inner Mission").
In Finland, the Ostrobothnia region has the highest birth rate and the lowest number of abortions in the country. Many Christian revival movements are present there. The largest revival movement in the area is Laestadianism. The other ones are The Awakening and Evankelinen herätysliike.
In India, the north eastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and the hill districts of Manipur form a continuous Bible belt. In fact in Nagaland, Christians constitute 90.02% (2001 census) of the population, with 80% professing the Baptist faith and thereby earning the sobriquet of The most Baptist state in the world.
Kerala is also sometimes referred as the Bible belt of India. Kerala's Christian population is concentrated in the districts of Kottayam, Idukki, Ernakulam, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha and Thrissur which are historically dominated by Saint Thomas Christians.
North-eastern Italian regions, such as Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia used to be considered the Italian Bible belt or "Sacrestia d'Italia", which means "Italy's sacristy", for the high average level of church attendance and the general devotion towards the Catholic religion.
In the Netherlands, De Bijbelgordel stretches from the provinces of Zeeland to Overijssel. It was essentially the border between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the Netherlands after the Protestant Reformation (around 1560). The Dutch Bible belt developed more explicitly in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Bijbelgordel, the popular SGP favored a theocracy, and women were, until recently, denied full party membership and the ability to be political representatives, although this was changed in respectively 1996 and 2012 when women were allowed to be members of the SGP and the party granted passive suffrage to its female members. Many people in the Dutch Bible belt oppose vaccinations. In 1971 this led to an outbreak of polio at Staphorst#Society. Immigrants from this area to the U.S., settling predominantly in West Michigan, formed the Christian Reformed Church in North America (headquartered in Grand Rapids).[clarification needed]
In New Zealand, Mount Roskill, Auckland, contains the highest number of churches per capita in the country, and is the home of several Christian political candidates.
At the 2013 New Zealand Census, the Mangere–Otahuhu local board area of Auckland had the highest concentration of Christians in New Zealand, with 67.7 percent of the local board's 71,000 residents identifying as so.
In Northern Ireland, the County Antrim area stretching from roughly Portrush to Larne and centered in the area of Ballymena is often referred to as a Bible belt. This is because the area is heavily Protestant with a large evangelical community. From 1970 to 2010, the MP for North Antrim was Ian Paisley, a Free Presbyterian minister well known for his theological fundamentalism. The town of Ballymena, the largest town in the constituency, is often referred to as the "buckle" of the Bible belt.
In Sweden, there is a Bible belt covering the area between the cities of Jönköping and Gothenburg, with a particularly high concentration of non-conformists (Protestant congregations not affiliated with the Church of Sweden), especially Pentecostals and Congregationalists – and strong support for the Christian Democrats. In the 19th century, Jönköping became known as "Smålands Jerusalem" ("Jerusalem of Småland"), because of the high Christian activity in town. Even the Örebro districts are well known for free church activity.
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