A Trifling Place
5:19 pm
Fri July 12, 2013

Episode 11: Is Charlotte In The Bible Belt?

Welcome to A Trifling Place, a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.

When I accepted this job, I knew I was choosing to live in the so-called "Bible Belt". I didn't think much of it at the time, but my travel guidebook on Charlotte warned me to get used to the question, "Which Church Do You Go To?" Or in my case, "Which Mosque Do You Go To?" And it was right.

I noticed that people talked more openly -- and more often -- about God.

The 'City of Churches'

Charlotte definitely has a high concentration of churches. It may be a banking town, but with more than 700 houses of worship, it's no wonder some call it the City of Churches.

Credit Tasnim Shamma

At Ebenezer Baptist Church in north Charlotte, more than 1,000 people pack the pews on a recent Sunday morning. After the hour-long sermon, everyone prays for the people in their pew to be saved.

It's a beautiful and spacious church with large video screens for close-ups of the singers and the preacher. They even flash license plate numbers to ask that you please move your car. The men are sharply dressed in suits and women wear elaborate and colorful wide-brimmed hats. This is the kind of church that comes to mind when I think of the Bible Belt.

I asked Senior Pastor Leonzo Lynch what the Bible Belt means to him.  

"I think it means that people in general express their faith not just on the day of worship, on Sunday, but they talk and they express faith throughout their lives even though they may be at work, they may not be in a position to speak or preach a message, but they do display the fact that they are part of faith community in how they act and what they do and say," Lynch says. 

He says the church has always been the center of community and family life in the South.  

Ebenezer Baptist Church member Warren Turner says being in the Bible Belt shaped his beliefs, values and morals. Turner is also a former City Council member. He says he thinks Charlotte is moving away from its Bible Belt history.

Senior pastor Leonzo Lynch at Ebenezer Baptist Church in North Charlotte.
Credit Parth Shah

"When I was growing up in the public school system, prayer – that was a ritual," Turner says. "When you got off that bus in the morning, and when the first bell rung and you had pledge of allegiance, you had prayer then you went to class, those things are no longer, because of growth and people that don't believe that is right because it infringes on their rights, so they challenge it and we give in."

Turner says growing up in Charlotte in the 1970s and 80s, people were proud to be in the Bible Belt. 

"At that time, religion was very focused, and it was focused along the Bible Belt. I think that is something that still, a lot of people in North Carolina take a lot of pride in. But again, things are changing, people's views are changing, religious views are changing," Turner says. "People are becoming what I would say less, I would use the term they're getting away from what was generally considered to be the norm. When I was growing up as a child, there was nothing, if it was not right and God spoke against it in the Bible, it was not unheard for your minister to say and teach you that, the difference, right and wrong. There are certain things now I think, certain ministers avoid because of the controversy, stepping on toes of some of their congregation members."

I asked him to give me an example.

"Same sex marriages, things we're dealing with in our government today," Turner says. "You know, a lot of people don't want to have that as an issue. You know, they're afraid to be criticized, afraid to be ostracized … afraid to be attacked by your members, non-members and just general social media."

Origins of the 'Bible Belt'

Journalist H.L. Mencken coined the phrase "Bible Belt" in 1925 while covering the Scopes "monkey" trial in Tennessee.

But what exactly is the Bible Belt? Where are its boundaries? Queens University religion professor Suzanne Henderson says it's the pretty much the entire Southeast.

"Stretching from Texas up pretty much through Virginia including Arkansas and Kentucky across that way is considered Bible Belt," Henderson says. "As the term was coined originally it was to distinguish this sort of Evangelical strain of Protestant Christianity, often associated with the Southern Baptist tradition."

Charlotte's roots are actually Presbyterian. Scotch-Irish Presbyterians settled here and built the city's first churches, but Baptists took the lead in the 20th century. At about 19 percent, Baptists make up the largest Christian denomination in Charlotte according to research from bestplaces.net.

Evangelicalism 

Of course, there are different types of Baptists, but Professor Henderson says its Evangelicals who lead the way.  

"The strain of evangelical Christianity places a strong emphasis on converting people," Henderson says. "Whereas main line Christians are not as interested in saying, 'Are you saved?,' 'Where are you going to go when you die?' … There's a certain urgency within Evangelicalism and its world view and a certain commitment to the conversion of others and that's kind of where it gains its steam and energy."

Today, the largest Evangelical church is also the largest church in Charlotte. It's the Southern Baptist-affiliated Elevation Church. It boasts a weekly attendance of about 12,000 people.

Charlotte native Billy Graham in 1966.
Credit Library of Congress

Charlotte, of course, is also the birthplace of Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham and is still the headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Here's an excerpt of a sermon from 1958 in what is now Bojangles Coliseum. 

"And you at home right where you are can receive Christ right in your living room … as hundreds of people are going to come here to give their lives to Christ as they have every night this week, here in Charlotte," Graham says in his sermon. "Now you come, quickly. All of the building … just get up right now, hundreds of you … that's it. God Bless You."  

There was also the very dramatic rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker and the PTL Club, first broadcast from Charlotte before it moved to nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina. PTL stands for "Praise The Lord".

Professor Henderson says it took her some time to adjust to Charlotte when she moved here with her family from Greensboro in 2008.

"We noticed that people ask here a lot more often – Where Do You Go To Church? – on the assumption that you do go to church," she says. "And I can remember our kids, who were young teenagers at the time being shocked, even though we happen to be Christian, we happen to attend a congregation. They were shocked that people at school would just assume that they went to church."

The 'God Belt'

But she also thinks that's changing. Rather than the Bible Belt, she says a better term in Charlotte might be the "God Belt."

"I think that's partly because of our financial services industry bringing in a lot of new folks to the area and people who come from different traditions within Christianity and beyond," she says. "So I would say Charlotte is increasingly pluralistic and more, I would say more tolerant in embracing different faith traditions than a setting that you would typically associate with the Bible Belt."

Reverend Glencie Rhedrick is associate minister at First Baptist Church West and president of the interfaith group, Mecklenburg Ministries.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

Reverend Glencie Rhedrick isn't ready to go that far. She's a minister at First Baptist Church West and president of the interfaith group Mecklenburg Ministries. She says the city still has a long way to go in embracing other faiths.

"Are we trying to get there? Some of us are. But within even the Baptist faith, you have several different strands of Baptists," Rhedrick says. "You have some Baptists that, if you're Muslim, their ears are shut. If you're Jewish, they don't want to embrace. Then on the other hand you have a Baptist church that understands that you're still my brother and my sister because you were created by the Father that created me."

The Unaffiliated 

Charlotte has been growing rapidly and with that the religious landscape is also changing. In just the last decade, Evangelical Protestants in Mecklenburg County saw a 60 percent increase and the Catholic population grew by more 32 percent.

Charlotte's religious landscape, along with the county, is changing. Here, a pie chart shows the percentage of people in Mecklenburg County in 2012 who chose not to identify with any one religion or regularly attend religious services was almost half the population. Data source: Association of Religion Data Archives, Pennsylvania State University.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

But at the same time, there was a 22 percent increase in the number of people who are atheists, agnostic or don’t strongly identify themselves with any religion at all in Mecklenburg County. That's all according to the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State.

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found the trend is growing – and not only in Charlotte – a fifth of the U.S. population and a third of adults under 30 – say they are religiously unaffiliated.

But Reverend Rhedrick believes Charlotte will likely be a part of the Bible Belt – or as Professor Henderson suggests – the God Belt – for a long time to come.

"I think people in the South understand that there is an entity and spirit larger than they," Rhedrick says. "And how they call on their God to answer them is the fabric that keeps them going."