Douglas Todd: Can we tolerate Bible Belts?

September 16, 2017

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – “You have a blessed day.”

That’s how the African-American cleaning woman took her leave in the vast hotel complex where I was staying in the heart of America’s Bible Belt.

In the South — where evangelical Christians handed Donald Trump the keys to the White House ­­— the guitarist in the lobby of the 2,800-room Gaylord Opryland Hotel sang “God Bless the U.S.A.”

Tennessee, in the rolling green hills of the Appalachian Mountains, is often referred to as the “buckle” of America’s famous, or infamous, evangelical Bible Belt. Things are different here. They’re also complicated.

The whites, blacks and Hispanics that I interacted with tended to the cheerful side of things, including the few who wore “Trump” T-shirts. Many had a soft-spoken charm, despite the region being branded a land of hate — especially in the aftermath of the violent “Unite the Right“ rally last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the northeastern tip of the Bible Belt.

Although nowhere else quite compares to this vast U.S. Bible Belt, it should not be forgotten that Canada has its own Bible Belts — in B.C.’s Fraser Valley and the Okanagan, in parts of Alberta, southern Manitoba, southwestern Ontario and parts of the Maritimes.

Evangelicals make up a formidable 25 to 30 per cent of Americans, but evangelicals are also culturally and politically significant in Canada, at roughly 10 per cent of the population. So it’s valuable to understand them, especially if we think we stand for religious tolerance.

Hundreds of millions of evangelical Protestants in Canada, Africa and Asia take their cues from what goes on in the U.S. Bible Belt.

This Tennessee city, for instance, made international headlines in August when an evangelical coalition released the “Nashville Statement.” The “Christian manifesto” condemned “homosexual immorality and trans-genderism.”

Even though the Christian mayor of Nashville said the statement was poorly named and didn’t reflect the city’s inclusive values, she felt the pressure to sign onto it.

“It’s impossible to get elected in the state of Tennessee and identify as non-religious,” said Pastor Frank Stevenson, who leads the predominantly black City of Grace Church and is a dean at Tennessee State University.

“People are judged on how often they attend church,” Stevenson said on a panel organized by the Religion News Association.

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