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Saturday, September 13, 1997

Where's the Bible Belt? Colorado Springs to Grand Rapids? Buckled in Texas or Tennessee? Maybe it's just a state of mind

By Michael D. Goldhaber

The Dallas Morning News

Many Texans say they believe they live in the Bible Belt. But ask them about the size of the belt and the location of its buckle, and you'll get as many answers as there are generations in Genesis.

For instance, students at Dallas Theological Seminary, interviewed in the school's cafeteria, recently offered these suggestions to "you know you're in the Bible Belt when ..."

-"When you witness in the malls and even the people who reject you quote the Gospel back." -Derek Barber, from Chicago

-"When the first thing they ask after you move to a new town is, 'What church are you going to?' " -Vern Streeter, from Montana

-"When the first thing they do after the Federal Building blows up is call in the pastors. Where I live they would have brought in the social workers." -Jake Daily, from Washington

The theology students also showed imagination in describing places that aren't in the Bible Belt.

Dustin Wauer called Southern California the "snorkeling belt" and Santa Fe "the animistic belt - more of a sash, really."

Robert Garcia said San Antonio is "more like the Pope Rope."

The knottier problem is what to call a devout area located outside the southeastern United States. "Religious people in Montana think, 'So where are we? Are we the sock?' " Streeter said.

Donald Mathews, a professor at the University of North Carolina, suggested that strips of the Midwest form the belt's "suspenders."

So much for the Bible Belt's location. What of the term's origins?

Garcia ventured an engaging guess. He cited the command of St. Paul in Ephesians to "gird up your loins with the belt of truth."

Alas, Bible Belt has a less divine etymology. It was popularized by H.L. Mencken, who was among other things an anti-religious polemicist, shortly before the Scopes creationism trial.

The first use of "belt" to describe a region, identified by the Oxford English Dictionary, was by the poet Robert Southey in 1810: "A level belt of ice which bound ... the waters of the sleeping Ocean round." By Mencken's time, the phrases Cotton Belt and Corn Belt were so widely spoken on this side of the Atlantic that he thought the locution was American.

"I began experimenting with various Belts in 1924 or thereabout," Mencken later wrote, "the Hookworm Belt, the Hog-and-Hominy Belt, the Total Immersion Belt, and so on." Also the "Mail-order Belt." "Finally," Mencken continued, "I settled on the Bible Belt."

Mencken savaged it.

"In all those parts of the Republic where Beelzebub is still as real as Babe Ruth or Dr. Coolidge, and men drink raw fusel oil hot from the still - for example, in the rural sections of the Middle West and everywhere in the South save a few walled towns - the evangelical sects plunge into an abyss of malignant imbecility, and declare a holy war upon every decency that civilized men cherish."

In the tradition of Yankee Doodle, Southerners appropriated the phrase that mocked them. The irony was not lost on Mencken: "If they knew of its origin, they'd probably be shy of it."

Readers should take Mencken's vitriol with several grains of salt.

"H.L. Mencken perpetuated the myth that evangelicals are uneducated," said Randall Balmer, a religious studies professor at Columbia University. "Evangelical culture has become a lot less separatist and more worldly."

From the start, the phrase "Bible Belt" was defined in cultural rather than geographic terms. "Heave an egg out of a Pullman window," Mencken wrote, "and you will hit a fundamentalist almost everywhere in the United States today."

But over time the epithet acquired Southern connotations. The new Oxford Dictionary of World Religions defines Bible Belt thus: "The southern states of the United States of America, where the mainstream of Christianity is characteristically fundamentalist, stressing the literalism and inerrancy of the Bible." The dictionary then directs the reader to "See also BRANCH DAVIDIANS."

C. Dwight Dorough's 1974 book "The Bible Belt Mystique" offered a similar, geographic definition: "What ... (Mencken) meant was that rural section of the South whose populace was composed of pious folk who expressed their type of religiousness by earnest praying, hymn singing, Bible study and proselytizing."

Many modern scholars doubt the equation of culture and region. Mathews says of the Bible Belt: "I'm not even sure it exists. It sounds like the U.S. outside Pennsylvania and New England and absent the intermountain West. It's kind of an historical cliche that has even less poetry than truth. Evangelicals are just as active outside the South. The Moral Majority is pretty effective in Alaska of all places."

No map of the Bible Belt has been drawn, partly because the U.S. Census keeps no religious statistics and partly because the term is so nebulous. But, at least in the opinion of Dorough, "Its nebulous nature does not destroy its connotative power."

Experts have suggested a number of ways to measure regions of conservative or evangelical Protestant belief. They include: the location of dry counties, the location of Bible colleges, the areas of heaviest Bible distribution, the location of Southern Baptist Convention affiliates and the areas of deepest Bible knowledge as measured by surveys.

So how to go about finding the belt's buckle?

Balmer, who has traveled the country to study evangelical culture, nominates these candidates: Grand Rapids, Mich.; Wheaton, Ill.; Colorado Springs, and Orange County, Calif. They qualify, he said, mainly because they are the sites of major religious institutions. But Mark Noll of Wheaton College is quick to reject the honor; the county containing Wheaton, he noted, is not even majority Protestant.

By dint of history, geography and dominant culture, the leading contenders for the buckle of the Bible Belt seem to be in Texas and Tennessee.

Jason McFarland, who attended Rhodes College in Memphis before Dallas Theological Seminary, scoffs at the contest. "Before I came down here," he said, "I didn't know Dallas was even in the belt. I thought Arkansas was the edge."

Memphis does nose out Dallas for most mentions as the buckle in a survey of news citations. But Texas edges out Tennessee as a whole.

Tennessee did host the trial that inspired H.L. Mencken to coin the term.

But Texas contains 25 counties with more church members than inhabitants.

Top that.

(c) 1997, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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