April 13, 2021

Observations From the Bible Belt: A Church on Every Corner

Baptist church

I ran across a few questions posted on Twitter recently about regional differences in religiosity here in the United States, and I thought I'd address one of them for this post. The question I've selected has to do with differences in the number of churches per capita, not so much from a numbers perspective but more from one's subjective experience. The questioner had commented about how it seems to her that there is a church on practically every corner here in the bible belt. She was curious about whether this is true in other parts of the U.S. or is yet another way that things are different here. Having grown up in one of the least religious regions and moved to one of the most religious regions (and lived in a few that split the difference in between), I figured I'd share a few observations.

The first thing I'd note is that while there are major regional differences when it comes to religion and religiosity, it is important to recognize that there are also big urban-rural differences within regions. A big city located in the bible belt may have more in common with cities in other regions than it does with small towns in the bible belt. Thus, there are going to be exceptions to almost anything we'd say abotu regional differences.

When it comes to the number of churches - or at least one's perception of the number of churches - I would say that there is a difference but that it may not as be as large as one might guess. If I were to compare the number of churches within walking distance from my current home in Mississippi to the number of churches within walking distance of the home where I spent my high school years in the Pacific Northwest, there would be a difference in favor of Mississippi but only by 1-2 churches. In thinking about a few other places I've lived that were far less religious than Mississippi, the numbers seem comparable. It does seem like there are more churches in Mississippi, but the difference isn't huge.

Where I do see a more pronounced difference is in the size of the churches. There are mega-churches here, and that isn't something I've seen much of outside the bible belt. Not surprisingly, it is not difficult to find larger churches in larger cities. This makes sense because they have the population to support them. Even if a relatively small percentage of the population attends any particular church, a larger city can often support larger churches based on their population. The difference is that one can find churches here in the bible belt that seem far larger than the small town in which they are located could possibly support (we have 2-3 of them here). At least, it seems that way until one considers that the percentage of the local population attending church is much higher than it in other regions.

When I drive through towns in the South, it does often seem like I see churches on every corner. I think this is attrbutable not only to their numbers and their size but also to the more aggressive manner in which they advertise. Where I grew up, church reader boards were rare and the ones that existed did little more than share the times of the next service. That is very different here. But it isn't just the churches doing more aggressive advertising; it is also nonsense like this which can be found all over the place. This sort of thing makes it difficult to forget that one is in the bible belt, and I wouldn't be surprised if it makes it seem like there are even more churches.