Dr. Thomas Russell and Dr. Lawrence Snyder became Pluralism Project affiliates in 1999 while both were teaching in the religion department at Western Kentucky University. Their project, “Bible Belt Religion,” mapped the religious communities of recent immigrants settling along the I-65 corridor (henceforth “The Corridor”) from Nashville, TN to Louisville, KY. This research included mapping religious diversity in Nashville and Bowling Green (2000-2001) and north of Bowling Green through Louisville (2001-2002), both via student seminars.
Drs. Russell and Snyder write:
‘The Corridor’ is a particularly interesting locale for mapping the religious communities of recent immigrants. Typically what the rest of the world knows about this region has involved the famed Kentucky Derby, Fort Knox gold, Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Country Music, the Grand Old Opry, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and the Tennessee Titans of recent Superbowl fame.
Religious observers see ‘The Corridor’ as the bastion of Fundamentalist/Evangelical Protestantism with Nashville often portrayed as the ‘Buckle of the Bible Belt.’ At one end of ‘The Corridor,’ the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, has a seminary and at the other, several large denominational offices. Nashville is home to the Christian Music business and counts luminaries like Amy Grant, Michael Card and Michael Smith among its residents. There is also a large Christian publishing business. More Bibles are published in Nashville than anywhere else in the world. The region has many church-run colleges and universities with a Fundamentalist/Evangelical orientation.
However, a slow, steady and almost unperceptible transformation is occurring along ‘The Corridor,’ and this change has been previously overlooked. Since 1965, and especially since 1990, immigrants have begun to settle in this region, bringing their culture and their religion with them. In 1990, there were approximately 2700 Hispanics in Nashville and now there are approximately 26,000. The Asian population, while small, has at least doubled.
Immigrants have joined existing spiritual communities or have founded their own along ‘The Corridor.’ Their presence is so pronounced that many have begun to ask if the region can still be labelled the Bible Belt. If yes, are the traits normally ascribed to the image still the same or has the components of the image shifted? If the image has become obsolete, what new symbol can be used?
Drs. Russell and Snyder hope that this research contributed to a better understanding of the new residents of “The Corridor” by long-time residents and were excited to contribute to the ongoing discussion of the nature of the Bible Belt and the changing religious configurations of Southern religion.
An article in The Tennessean from April 1, 2001 included a list of the religions mapped by this project to date and the researchers expanded on that list, adding the presence of a thriving Jain community with over 200 members, but with no local temple, the only Romanian Orthodox Church in Tennessee and the only Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Tennessee.
Selected Publications and Links
- Faculty webpage: Dr. Lawrence Snyder
- Article: “Research Group Documents Religious Diversity in the Bible Belt,” The Tennessean (April 1, 2001)
- Article: “Jains tread gentle path to peace,” The Tennessean (April 7, 2001)
- Related Research Report: Bowling Green, Kentucky and the Nascent Stages of Religious Diversity (2013), Terry Shoemaker