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,
-"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,
Robert Garcia said San Antonio is "more like the Pope
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
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
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
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
"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
By dint of history, geography and dominant culture, the leading
contenders for the buckle of the Bible Belt seem to be in Texas
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
Tennessee did host the trial that inspired H.L. Mencken to
coin the term.
But Texas contains 25 counties with more church members than
(c) 1997, The Dallas Morning News.
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